RNZ boss: We ‘want and expect’ Morning Report’s ratings to grow again; ASB move falls flat with Kiwi agencies; ‘Thomas Cranmer’ unmasked; Roles gone as Warner Bros. Discovery overhauls marketing team; TVNZ’s CEO hunt.
On the face of it, RNZ is in the most privileged position of all New Zealand media businesses. Unencumbered by the whims of the commercial market, the publicly-owned broadcaster is funded entirely by taxpayers and has just received a huge boost to its coffers – a $25.7 million increase to its annual budget.
It comes at a time when every other major media business – NZME, Stuff, MediaWorks, Warner Bros. Discovery, Sky and TVNZ – is in careful cost management mode, including, for some, job cuts, sinking-lid policies and tight restraints on the likes of travel, entertainment and other spending.
But as RNZ CEO Paul Thompson and his team consider their strategic audience initiatives with a new RNZ budget, there’s another set of figures they’ll also want to see super-charged.
RNZ’s latest radio ratings do not make for particularly happy reading for the state broadcaster. Its total radio audience is at its lowest number in more than three and a half years.
While RNZ’s ratings are reported separately from the commercial stations, the public entity has gone from essentially number one in the overall New Zealand market in 2020 to number five today, based on total cumulative audience.
At the start of 2020, RNZ had a healthy overall national audience of 654,306. If those RNZ numbers were to be compared alongside the commercial market, RNZ would be a clear number one, followed by three music stations (The Breeze, More FM and The Edge), with ZB in fifth spot, with 536,499 listeners.
Fast forward three and a half years and positions have been reversed. Using the same comparison, ZB now claims the top spot with 677,643 listeners and RNZ has 532,351. The same three music stations sit between them.
RNZ’s change of fortune is reflected in the performance of its flagship Morning Report breakfast show.
At the start of 2020, Morning Report enjoyed an audience of just over half a million listeners. That has fallen by more than 120,000 in three years to sit today at 380,152.
Newstalk ZB breakfast host Mike Hosking was a distant second to Morning Report three years ago – he was more than 100,000 listeners behind back then. But today he is almost 100,000 ahead.
“We do want and expect Morning Report to grow again in the next 12 months,” Thompson told Media Insider.
So what’s driven this fall in ratings – and is it salvageable?
For the past six years, we have been in a relentless news cycle.
It started internationally with the election of Donald Trump as US president in 2017 and has continued through the lens of war and massive economic challenges.
In New Zealand, we witnessed horrific events in Christchurch in March 2019 and at White Island in December that year, followed, of course, by the global pandemic from early 2020 and the dreadful weather events of 2023. In between, much of the political and social debate has become polarised and angry.
Thompson says “news fatigue is a well-documented issue for most talk radio networks globally, with time spent listening and audience numbers tracking down from their pandemic highs”.
“Our research tells us that the serious in-depth news we often specialise in is out of sync with some audiences who have wearied of all the grim news stories that have happened recently, including the pandemic.”
But that doesn’t fully explain why ZB has grown ratings and maintained its number-one spot, even ahead of music stations.
In my opinion, part of it comes down to perception of content.
RNZ enjoys and promotes itself as New Zealand’s most-trusted media organisation, according to an annual survey. It shared that honour in this year’s AUT Trust in Media survey with TVNZ and the Otago Daily Times.
A Curia poll on media bias earlier this year placed RNZ as slightly left of centre, compared with Newstalk ZB’s position as more heavily right of centre.
Journalists will take great exception to any accusations of them being biased.
Nevertheless, critics’ perceptions of RNZ programming being too “woke” or being left-wing may have partly caused an impact on listening numbers, especially as more scrutiny fell on the Labour Government’s ongoing pandemic response, especially from 2021 onwards.
On the other hand, ZB often receives feedback from its listeners that Mike Hosking is the only broadcaster or journalist asking hard questions of the Government, as evidenced by his weekly interview with Prime Minister Chris Hipkins. That’s also untrue – but nonetheless, a perception in some quarters.
There are other factors.
ZB seems to have benefited more following Today FM’s sudden closure in March. While the MediaWorks station was not able to generate significant ratings in its short time on air, its listeners may have been more inclined to move to ZB when the microphones fell silent.
Also, Morning Report has seen a major change in its line-up this year with Ingrid Hipkiss replacing Susie Ferguson and joining Corin Dann on air.
“Changes always take time to bed in and be reflected in surveys,” says Thompson, who adds he is happy with the refreshed line-up, including changes to First Up with Nathan Rarere that are showing “excellent” results.
“It’s worth noting, however, that election years typically don’t see an increase for talk radio audiences – normally, it’s the opposite. Online audiences tend to show more interest. With that in mind, we aren’t expecting significant change to current survey results till next year.”
Thompson makes the critical point of changing audience demands and habits, driven by the digital revolution.
“We remain focused on growing our overall relevance and engagement with audiences across a number of platforms.”
RNZ’s website audience has remained relatively steady in recent years, generating a unique audience of anywhere between 800,000 and one million people each month. It is generally in a three-way battle with TVNZ’s 1 News and Warner Bros Discovery’s Newshub for third overall spot each month, behind Stuff and NZ Herald.
Thompson pays tribute to ZB. It “has performed strongly and deserves credit for it”, he says.
“RNZ National and Newstalk ZB offer differing formats, content propositions and presentation styles for listeners. The most obvious difference is that RNZ National has a public service Charter which drives decision-making.”
Perhaps RNZ’s troubles are no starker than in the massive Auckland market.
In Auckland, RNZ’s audience has fallen from 197,028 at the start of 2020 to 132,986 today. At breakfast in Auckland, Hosking now has more than double the listeners of Morning Report – 202,815 versus 93,309.
Thompson says RNZ would “love to be stronger in Auckland”.
“But we also have to reflect all of New Zealand, not just a single market. We are always looking for ways to connect with more diverse audiences and it is a key part of our strategy across different platforms in the future. The recent launch of RNZ Asia – devoted to providing unique journalism by or for the Chinese and Indian communities – is a good example of this.”
There are some bright spots for RNZ in the latest ratings.
Wellington remains a stronghold – RNZ overall and Morning Report are still a clear number 1, a reflection of its history as a public broadcaster, and its popularity among public servants.
And RNZ has inched ahead of ZB again in Christchurch for the first time in seven surveys, after being well clear in 2020.
“Everyone at RNZ wants to see [ratings] grow and the only way to do that is to continue to adapt to changing audience needs,” says Thompson.
“But again, we are primarily interested in delivering on our Charter to a diverse range of New Zealanders. This is not done solely through broadcast. For example, our digital numbers were up 10 per cent in July on the previous year.
“And we maintain more than 60 agreements with other outlets which make use of RNZ’s material. We see the great things we do complementing each other to benefit New Zealanders.”
ASB under fire over global agency
It reminded me of Winston Peters’ long, drawn-out coalition talks with Bill English and Jacinda Ardern in 2017. For weeks, ASB has been running the pitch process for its media agency partnership – a multimillion-dollar contract that can lead to a windfall for the winning agency and heartbreak for the other contenders.
It was the talk of the advertising industry, with rumours of who was in, who was out; concerns about some agencies’ links to competitor banks; and general speculation over who was the frontrunner.
In the end, ASB announced this week that Initiative – owned by Interpublic Group (IPG), an umbrella global agency that also includes New Zealand’s FCB – was the successful winner.
ASB made no secret of the fact it was blown away by the mantra of an agency that also looks after Amazon, Nike, and Lego in many parts of the world.
Initiative’s Melissa Fein said that as a result of its winning pitch, the company would be launching in New Zealand as Initiative Aotearoa.
But ASB’s decision has not gone down well with independent media agencies in New Zealand.
“Quite frankly, it’s bizarre that in a market where we already have 17 global holding company agency brands and more than 30 independent Kiwi-owned agencies affiliated with IMANZ, ASB would prefer to bankroll the launch of yet another holding company brand in New Zealand – with all profits flowing offshore,” IMANZ chair Alex Radford told Media Insider.
“While ASB is free to choose its partners, the bank’s decision not to opt for an existing New Zealand agency diminishes the notion of local businesses supporting each other. In a globally competitive landscape, that kind of mutual support is invaluable.”
Radford then invoked the principles of ASB’s ‘Ben and Amy’, the young couple whom the bank uses in its advertising.
“The decision to go offshore for media planning and buying raises concerns about whether ASB is disconnected from its local consumer base, like Ben and Amy, who may prefer to see their bank supporting local businesses.”
Radford said it took ASB three months to make a decision “yet only one New Zealand-owned agency made the longlist”.
“This speaks volumes about the hurdles local agencies must jump just to get a seat at the table. And while tacking ‘Aotearoa’ onto a global brand name may give the illusion of local identity, what really matters is where the money goes, and in this case, it’s not within New Zealand’s borders.”
An ASB spokeswoman said in a statement following specific questions from Media Insider: “ASB selected Initiative Aotearoa following a standard RFP process. This was issued via local industry press and ASB completed a robust assessment of the agencies who chose to participate.”
Dentsu – the incumbent agency – will be gutted it’s missed out, as will OMG, owner of Dynamo. They were the two companies up against Initiative on the shortlist.
In a very classy response, Dentsu chief executive Rob Harvey told Media Insider: “We are really proud of the more than two decades of partnership we have had with ASB, delivering some of Aotearoa’s most iconic and effective campaigns over that period. As we wish ASB well, our business looks forward with positive momentum and opportunity.”
The hunt for TVNZ’s new CEO
Of all the major media changes underway – with various senior roles up for grabs – the most intriguing right now is just who will steer TVNZ through its business and digital transformation.
CEO Simon Power left TVNZ at the start of June and well-respected general counsel Brent McAnulty has taken the reins as acting CEO.
McAnulty may well be a contender for the permanent role but it is expected to be a hotly-contested recruitment process with a likely shortlist of local and international candidates.
It won’t be a quick process. It is critical the TVNZ board gets it right, especially as the state-owned enterprise works through its “all-of-business” transformation.
That includes a major digital-first cultural shift across the business, including in the newsroom, and a renewed focus on new technology and back-end product development work to further enhance TVNZ+.
TVNZ chairman Alastair Carruthers confirmed to Media Insider the board had appointed Kerridge and Partners to manage the recruitment process.
“They have begun work. We hope to make an appointment by the end of the year,” he said.
I suspect many contenders will be waiting to see the outcome of the general election before fully and finally committing.
Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson has been clear he wants to see a change of direction at the state broadcaster, with a stronger focus on public broadcasting, whereas the National Party will be happy to allow TVNZ to maintain its commercial focus.
Roles gone as Warner Bros. Discovery overhauls marketing
NZME and Stuff continue to work through newsroom staffing proposals, while Warner Bros. Discovery is the latest media company to restructure one of its teams.
It is overhauling its marketing team, with plans to disestablish eight roles and create four new ones. Of the eight roles being disestablished, only two of them have been filled in recent times; the other six have been vacant.
So in essence, the company is losing a net four roles from marketing, and two people.
The four new roles being created are understood to be a social media manager, a digital engagement executive, a marketing associate and a graphic designer.
“As we continue to review our ANZ organisation and navigate ongoing industry challenges, we have made several structural changes to our marketing team,” a Warner Bros. Discovery spokeswoman told Media Insider.
“This decision is fully aligned to our future ambitions and strategic transition to a digitally-led business.”
One Good Text
This week, we correspond with broadcaster and journalist Wilhelmina Shrimpton, who has been in India for the past month. She joins the NZ Herald next week, as Focus host while Cheree Kinnear is in France, covering the Rugby World Cup.
Just who is ‘Thomas Cranmer’?
My colleague at BusinessDesk, Daniel Dunkley, had one of the big media stories of the week yesterday, revealing the identity of Thomas Cranmer, the pseudonymous blogger and social media user who has been revealing a string of his own scoops recently.
‘Cranmer’ was the first to reveal TVNZ was paid $300,000 by a Government agency to air a series of climate change pieces. While sponsored content is nothing new or especially controversial, TVNZ will strengthen its labelling of such content on its Breakfast show.
As Dunkley reported yesterday, Cranmer is Philip Crump, a former Russell McVeagh lawyer.
Crump updated the ‘Thomas Cranmer’ bio on his Twitter (X) account last night, to reflect his real identity, and he spoke to Dunkley and, this morning, to Sean Plunket on The Platform to discuss the motivation behind his writing.
Crump, 51, a second cousin to Kiwi author Barry Crump, has spent much of his legal career in London.
He told Dunkley that he started his Substack blog during London’s lockdown in 2020.
“It started out as a couple of tweets, and there was some interest in those. I had a bit of time on my hands, and some skills in terms of being able to look through documents and identify issues.”
Crump said he would continue to focus on government, no matter who was in power.
“Of course,” he told Dunkley. “As my Substack page says, while I’m right-leaning politically, I’m probably a Red Tory, and I’m not coming from a purely business-oriented, capitalist point of view.
“In the UK, people say the Conservative Party isn’t really a conservative party any more, that it represents the interests of business. That’s also a common criticism of the National Party. And I think there’s an element of truth to that.”
NBR’s owners open the books
NBR owners Todd and Jackie Scott have opened the books during a Q&A with their co-editors, Hamish McNicol and Calida Stuart-Menteath.
The Scotts say the business is profitable, but they reveal a drop in revenue since the closure of the newspaper in 2020 and a decision to cease all advertising in 2021.
Jackie Scott said the business lost about 22 per cent of its revenue – $1,016,341 – when the NBR print edition was dropped. This included print subs, individual and bulk and retail revenue.
She said NBR was profitable but overall revenue was only just coming back: “2020/21 year we were down 17 per cent in revenue, then we dropped 11 per cent revenue in 2021/22, and we increased 6 per cent in 2022/23.”
Game on! The rise and rise of screen fun
We’ve come a long way since the 1980s, and those Casio calculators that allowed us to play a weird form of space invaders. If you were one of the lucky ones, you might have upgraded to the Casio boxing game.
Then there was the age of the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum computers with myriad games and some very wobbly but memorable graphics. Trashman, anyone?
‘Spacie arcades’ had the popular Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Galaga machines, amongst others.
Now, with smartphones, Xboxes, PlayStations, and Nintendos galore, we have more sophisticated gaming fun at our fingertips than ever. Or we might simply enjoy a quick game of Wordle.
Whatever the case, gaming is a popular pastime and lucrative industry.
A new report released today, New Zealand Plays, reveals 79 per cent of Kiwis now play video games, up from 73 per cent from the previous survey.
“New Zealanders have always loved video games, but this year we can see that this popular medium is growing faster than ever before across a wider demographic,” said author report, Dr Jeffrey Brand, a professor at Australia’s Bond University.
The average age of the Kiwi video game player is now 35, he says, and “women over 45 are more likely to play video games than men”.
“The report reflects that gamers are everyone – highly educated professionals, students, your grandparents or auntie. Video games provide something for everyone.”
Interactive Games and Entertainment Association (IGEA) chief executive Ron Curry said playing games would continue to grow across all age groups whenever people were looking to create joy in their lives.
The research found 94 per cent of New Zealand households had a gaming device, whether it was a smartphone, game console, PC, tablet, handheld or VR device, or all of the above.
The report said that for many years “video games concerned many who didn’t play them”. That moral panic has dissipated.
All age groups now played games.
“The most profound, if subtle, change has been New Zealanders’ positive attitudes about video games, the frequency with which games are played, the growing social environment of video gameplay, and the types of games played most often,” says an introduction to the report.
“We explore these findings in this report. However, we have observed a constant in the changeful environment: Although we play to realise different benefits, the main reason why New Zealanders of all ages and backgrounds play video games is to have fun.”
The survey, which has been going for 14 years, is a study of 809 New Zealand households, with 1328 respondents.
- Editor-at-Large Shayne Currie is one of New Zealand’s most experienced senior journalists and media leaders. He has held executive and senior editorial roles at NZME including Managing Editor, NZ Herald Editor and Herald on Sunday Editor and has a small shareholding in NZME.