NZ on Air cash for short online content could be a sign of more to come.

Traditional media are adapting as they strive to hold on to their share of advertising dollars with digital and video markets continuing to rise. At the same time, broadcasters also face new competition for video content subsidies.

The subsidies are for producers, not publishers, and audiences and advertisers are drifting towards digital media.

Consumers may always demand expensive comedies and dramas with high production values, but short form content and YouTube are hugely popular among young viewers.

This week, Herald publisher NZME launched a new internet video platform built around local content, called WatchMe.

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WatchMe is free on the internet and features short form comedy including seven-minute clips from the cult comedy show The Late Night Big Breakfast.

It is partly funded by advertising, but at least some of the content is part-funded by NZ on Air, which in September approved $500,000 of subsidies for four comedy projects to run on WatchMe.

NZ on Air's allocations for WatchMe shows are small fry compared to shows that run on traditional TV. It is early days yet, but in my opinion NZ on Air's backing of content for the new platform is significant.

It loosens the networks' grip on video funding that has been fundamental to their survival since NZ on Air arrived 25 years ago.

NZ on Air said that until WatchMe, there was no platform that competed with networks for mass audiences for video content. "Our strategy is to go where the audiences are," said spokeswoman Allanah Kalafatelis. "NZME has met the audience threshold and have shown a commitment to local content."

Laughable

That is particularly true for comedy, which has been hard to deliver on mainstream channels, the NZ on Air spokeswoman said.

TV3 has long taken the lead on lower budget comedy - though TV One took a commendable risk in showing The Late Night Big Breakfast, even if it was in a late night timeslot.

Jeff Latch, TVNZ's director of content, said TVNZ remained committed to both short and long form comedy.

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"We have a number of comedic projects in development and are working hard to find something with mass appeal and enduring multi-year potential," he said.

"Our own new short form online content proposition, OD Shorts, will also include comedic content," Latch said. NZ on Air said broadcasters had been prioritising drama and its response has been to support comedy on other platforms.

NZ on Air funding has been frozen. "The funding has not, and will not, increase so we just have to spread it further," said Kalafatelis.

Small beginnings

Among the NZ on Air funded projects for screening on WatchMe is a feature film Chief Gary, which picked up $200,000 from the main NZ on Air production fund. It is also being funded by the NZ Film Commission.

Chief Gary is made by people associated with The Down Low Concept, creators of the cult hit Hounds and producers for 7 Days.

From the NZ on Air digital media fund, the satire site The Civilian received $100,000 for 10 episodes. There was another $100,000 for Water Cooler - you can guess what that is about - from Breakdown Productions, and $100,000 for Yeti, about a Himalayan yeti who lives in New Zealand. The digital fund is small: it rose from just $2.6 million to $3.4 million last year, but many in the industry expect digital projects to make up a bigger proportion of funding in the future.

Campbell, not Campbell Live

John Campbell won't just deliver a radio version of his old TV show, says Radio NZ. Photo / Brett Phibbs
John Campbell won't just deliver a radio version of his old TV show, says Radio NZ. Photo / Brett Phibbs

It is probably for the best that Radio NZ's new multi-media Checkpoint show has been delayed until next year. It is a big risk for RNZ - albeit one the broadcaster says it needs to take to keep up with changes to media.

I still wonder how presenter John Campbell's style will go down with the NatRad audience, schooled in the direct, no-nonsense vein of Mary Wilson.

Radio NZ is in transition and acknowledges it has been punished in the ratings. It faces the same challenge as all traditional media: how to make a radical change without frightening established audiences.

One common gripe I've heard is about the showbiz tone creeping in on RNZ National. Radio NZ seems transfixed by Campbell's celebrity allure, at the expense of other shows that need some tweaks, such as its top-rating Morning Report.

Radio NZ chief executive Paul Thompson said the recent focus and investment in Checkpoint did not mean the broadcaster had taken its eye off the ball for Morning Report, or the other shows that have been knocked around in Nielsen ratings surveys this year.

Thompson said though Checkpoint would use Campbell's skills, his style would adjust and it was not a question of bringing his old Campbell Live TV show to radio.

"John is here to do Checkpoint, not Campbell Live," said Thompson. The new show is being handled by Campbell's pal Carol Hirschfeld - a former executive producer at Campbell Live.

Pip Keane, Campbell's executive producer until they both left TV3, has taken over as executive producer of the radio show.

Meanwhile, some "old school" RNZ staff have seen themselves restructured out of a job. Newsreader and head of presentation Hewitt Humphrey is leaving after 30 years, well known rural team member Kevin Ikin left after 30 years and Jim Sullivan's final Sounds Historical will run on December 27.