2016 has seen falling audiences with even Sky looking vulnerable.

2016 might be looked back on as the year television finally acknowledged that the good times wouldn't last forever. This had been clear from revenue lines for a while, but as with most troublesome ideas, it took a while for the industry to adjust to this reality.

At every one of the major players there was some form of signal that the wind had changed, that simply rolling out the team for one last shot at the title wasn't going to end well. Sky, the biggest of the lot, acknowledged it in their desire to merge with Vodafone.

TVNZ revealed it in a sudden focus on youth within the company. MediaWorks probably watched all this with an "I told you so" shrug, while also, for a second consecutive year, being by far the most interesting story in media.

Why so interesting? The pure chaos which never quite leaves its Flower Street headquarters. This year began with the resignation of long-running head of news Mark Jennings, who would later announce the looming launch of his own online news service. His resignation begat that of Hilary Barry, another TV3 veteran but one with an infinitely higher public profile. And then, within days, that of Mark Weldon, the bloodthirsty CEO who had gutted the news division so zealously.

Story and Paul Henry were both cancelled by TV3 this year.
Story and Paul Henry were both cancelled by TV3 this year.

This commenced a period of relative peace, before another paroxysm toward the year's end, as two of the shows Weldon championed - Story and Paul Henry both ended, one voluntarily, the other less so.

Outside of news the channel launched Family Feud and found it had a big, corny but perfectly pitched hit on its hands, while the second season of The Bachelor became an epic horror movie. The women were desperately trying to avoid the reluctant bachelor, Jordan Mauger, who essentially hated them all almost as much as his decision to appear on the show by the end.

It was bleak. For a reality triumph we had to look north to Bravo, which launched The Real Housewives of Auckland, a show which caused chaos and controversy and legal issues which linger to this day, but was rarely less than riveting television.

This was largely down to the cast, particularly Gilda Kirkpatrick and her death stare and the sweet, strange persona that is Anne "The Champagne Lady" Batley-Burton. They gave us a view into what life is kind of like amongst the mostly rich.

Coincidentally, this was also what Filthy Rich and Dirty Laundry tried to do, the year's biggest budget local drama debuts. Both aimed to look inside a world of murky money and show us the lives behind it. Each failed, both as productions and with audiences, and the funder NZ on Air has proposed a reasonably radical shake-up of funding, due to be finalised next year.

TVNZ's Dirty Laundry was one of several shows that failed to fire this year.
TVNZ's Dirty Laundry was one of several shows that failed to fire this year.

The troubled state of these once-reliable local dramatic productions might have been what pushed TVNZ to announce a bold new strategy with new names for its channels, and a youth movement called "New Blood". It was presented at a low-key but impressive function at their flash refurbished city HQ, which showed the effort which has gone into developing sub-brands and digital platforms. That energy dissipated a little when, two months later they acknowledged they were staring into the abyss.

"The current free-to-air model is not sustainable in the long term," chief executive Kevin Kenrick admitted to the Herald's Joanna Hunkin, a bleak vision accompanying the company's lowest profit in five years.

The problems for TV3 and TVNZ are largely driven by a splintering audience outside of the Super Gold Card demographic - ratings are suddenly a closely guarded secret, but some supplied to me at The Spinoff showed a 40 per cent decline for the coveted 18-49 age group over the past four years.


All this just means free-to-air television is joining music and print media down here in the mud. For the longest time Sky has watched us all getting dirty and humiliated without a speck landing on it.

Then 2016 happened. Suddenly audience was declining and churn at an all-time high, and the once imperious, still incredibly profitable Sky started to look vulnerable. It responded by attempting a merger with Vodafone which would give the combined business a matchless bank of customers and a far less costly transmission network for it to transition to in time.

Lurking across all satellite and linear TV channels are the streaming services. Both Netflix and Lightbox reportedly have over 300,000 New Zealand subscribers, the latter in no small part due to being packaged up with parent company Spark's broadband packages. Each focused around exclusives, prestige nowhere-else shows of the type which air on Sky's SoHo, each delivered over the internet and accessible on everything from phones to, shockingly, televisions. Each a fraction of the cost of a Sky subscription.

It's created a strange new war, with very defined winners and losers. It's great for content creators, the best of whose work is being bid up higher and higher. It's terrible for platforms, who are forced to pay more than ever for shows with no confidence they'll find viewers.

In between sit audiences, with more choice than ever, but an increasing number of oddly circuitous paths to the content itself. It feels like end-times, but also the beginning of something entirely new, with no one exactly sure when or how the show ends.