These are strange days for TV networks. They face a slump in advertising revenue and NZ on Air funding is being spread thin.

So how do they fund local content? Partly, the answer is about genre bending.

At TV3, they have merged current affairs and comedy to come up with The Project. And TVNZ introduced a new class of documentary with the Kiwibank-commissioned Mind Over Money.

Then, on Saturday we saw the first episode of Graeme Sinclair's Ocean Bounty, an off-peak reality series that takes genre bending to a whole new level.


In my opinion, the first episode was a combo of native advertising, reality TV and a food show, with a side order of politics. It means TV3 gets content for free, and picks up the revenue from ad spots.

Sinclair has been plying these waters for a long time; his popular series Gone Fishin' is festooned with product placement. Ocean Bounty appears to have a closer affinity with PR and native advertising than showing off products.

The first show in the 13-episode series featured Sinclair promoting a view of the industry identical to that of the sponsors: Sanford, Sealord, Deepwater Group, Talley's, Fisheries Inshore NZ, Vela Fishing, Independent, Moana NZ and the Fiordland Lobster Group.

The show was introduced with a scripted segment from former Prime Minister John Key, who also makes incidental appearances on a fishing boat.

Recreational fishers I approached criticised what they said was a pro-industry bias in the programme.

In 2015, the Ministry for Primary Industries appointed Sinclair as a representative of the recreational sector to a working body, the Technical Advisory Group (Tags), without talking to recreational groups. In a submission to MPI, recreational fishers complained that his appointment was "flawed given clear links to commercial fishing interests, sponsorship by industry body Seafood NZ and promotion of commercial fishing views."

Seeking solutions

Sinclair has been applauded for running a successful TV production company, overcoming the barriers of physical disability.

He says he presents the views he believes in, and stands by his integrity. He acknowledges there was opposition to his role on Tags from the recreational sector. "They did not consider me to be impartial because I wasn't aggressive enough towards commercial," says Sinclair.

Former PM John Key, as seen in video grabs from Ocean Bounty. Photo / Screengrab
Former PM John Key, as seen in video grabs from Ocean Bounty. Photo / Screengrab

"To me, either you are part of the solution or you are a part of the problem.

"Commercial and recreational fishermen have got to find ways to stop stabbing each other in the back and shooting each other. Until we achieve that, the resources go nowhere.

"While you say there is conflict [between commercial and recreational] there are many areas where there is a great deal of positive stuff happening ... at least I am trying to find a way through the mire and bring people together."

That's a valid argument, in my view. But it does raise the question about how networks deal with shows that are heavily funded by sponsors, promoting an industry view.

Mind Your Money was a prime-time show and TVNZ appears to have taken the issue seriously. MediaWorks, TV3's owner, says Sinclair's company Frontier TV is responsible for the content of the fishing show.

Clearing the decks

Allow me a few Pollyanna moments, playing the glad game on the future of newspapers.

The Commerce Commission's rejection this week of the Fairfax-NZME merger at least clears the decks and enables work on a new future for the media sector.

Recently, advertisers have become more sceptical about Facebook and Google. That said, the Facebook/Google juggernaut is not going away and there is no time to waste.

I believe it would be surprising if NZME and Fairfax appealed the ComCom decision in the High Court.

That might take years and meanwhile there is a clear and present danger to the groups.

In my opinion, Fairfax is the more vulnerable, largely because it is restricted to its print and online arms, while NZME controls about half of the commercial radio industry. Radio revenue has been comparatively resilient.

Other media companies such as TVNZ, MediaWorks and Spark were already relieved to see ComCom rule out the Vodafone-Sky TV merger.

The rejection of the NZME- Fairfax deal will make those other media groups reappraise their own restructuring plans - and possibly make them think about acquiring some Fairfax or NZME assets.

Coinciding with the ComCom rejection, Fairfax HQ in Australia announced it was laying off a quarter of the journalists at the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Australian Financial Review.

In this country, the jewel in the crown for Fairfax is the Stuff website. Given the problems facing Fairfax, you have to wonder whether it might consider beating a retreat from New Zealand, possibly passing Stuff into local management.

• Potential conflict of interest: I am a contractor to NZME. I have not been given any special insight into NZME strategy.