Since it set up in competition to the state broadcaster, TV3 has given TVNZ a serious run for its money. Serious, because against most predictions at the time, the private channel did not go for the lowest common denominator in cheap, commercial entertainment. It became from the outset, and has remained, a strong and conscientious broadcaster of news and current affairs. It has been highly competitive despite TVNZ's inherited advantages from decades when it was the nation's sole source of television, and without a second channel to tap the light entertainment audience at peak time.
The resignation of one of TV3's leading presenters, Hilary Barry, led our weekend edition not just because she has been a popular presence in the nation's living rooms for so long, but because she is the latest departure of many well-regarded journalists from the company of late. Unlike John Campbell last year, Barry does not appear to have had her position under review after losing ground to a revamped rival, as Campbell Live did when TVNZ's Seven Sharp was conceived. Quite the contrary, it is the 3News operation that has been given a fresh look, as Newshub, and the rival's 6pm news hour looks tired by comparison.
TV3 is also said to be winning the battle of breakfast television, where Barry has been the warm and human foil for Paul Henry. She has been the popular face of the channel since Campbell left and it must be shaken to see her go.
Its parent company, MediaWorks, faces the same challenges confronting all news-gathering companies around the world as some of their audience and advertising moves to the web. Barry's resignation, coming on top of the February departure of the channel's long-time head of news, Mark Jennings, suggests the news operation is being cut to a level these professionals do not find satisfying.
If so, this should be a worry to everyone who values competitive television news gathering. One or two commentators have suggested television news really does not matter anymore because younger people get their news online. They may get it online but it is being gathered, written, filmed, edited and presented by news organisations that have to pay their way. And nowhere in the world is web advertising or subscriptions alone paying for the scale of news gathering that free, democratic countries have so long enjoyed.
This is a challenge for the news industry, not a death warrant.
People whose interests are wider than their personal and occupational orbit will always need news services they can trust. The challenge for the industry to is find new commercial models that can sustain news delivered in the new ways that people find most convenient to receive it. The challenge for journalism is to provide news and information in new forms of the same standard as before, or better. We can always do better, and the web provides resources that enable us to do better.
The fear is MediaWorks is losing too much talent. It needs to show it is still a serious competitor for visual news and current affairs. Its failure would be New Zealand's loss.
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