By LOUISA CLEAVE television editor
Television New Zealand's attempt to anticipate a Government charter for more public service-style broadcasting has cost it thousands of viewers.
TVNZ's Monday night viewing figures have taken a dive since it started the documentary slot NZ Festival, and advertising industry sources say it has had to compensate advertisers.
And its highly publicised news bulletin Late Edition, hosted by Linda Clark, was beaten by TV3's Nightline on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
TV One general manager Shaun Brown said it was too early to judge the performance of Late Edition.
"This is a programme we're doing five days a week for a year, so I certainly don't look at how it rates ... on its first three nights.
"The early ratings for shows like that are almost immaterial. We're in for the long haul."
Mr Brown said he expected Late Edition to perform as well as its predecessor, Tonight, which had a nightly audience of between 140,000 and 352,000.
Waitangi night was considered a disaster for TVNZ, industry sources say, because the award-winning drama Nga Tohu: Signatures was beaten by Roswell on TV2 and Special Victims Unit on TV3.
Late Edition dropped half its 211,000 viewers from the previous night to 105,000. This compared with Nightline's 176,000.
Late Edition's audience did not improve on Wednesday night.
NZ Festival, which started two weeks ago, has given TVNZ an indication of the audience drop-off it could expect from screening minority programmes in prime-time slots.
Feathers of Peace, the first of five local documentaries on the "distinct, evolving culture of our country," drew 281,000 viewers in TV One's usually strong 8.30 pm slot.
A British documentary about pilots who drink before flying, which screened at that time on January 22, pulled 563,000 viewers.
Janet Johnson, head of television buying at The Media Edge, in Wellington, said the festival series had performed worse than expected and TVNZ was now having to "make good" with advertisers by screening their ads again and forgoing new advertising revenue.
Mr Brown said it was disappointing when quality programmes did not rate.
He was unaware of free air time being given to advertisers.
"It is a difficult challenge maintaining audience levels and delivering against the diverse range of programming the charter will require, but that is the challenge we have been set, and we'll get better at it."
The second NZ Festival documentary, A Taste of Place, did slightly better and next Monday's feature, about the life of Bruno Lawrence, is expected to have wider appeal.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said Helen Clark was pleased with viewer numbers.
"She finds it very encouraging that numbers in excess of 200,000 are watching documentaries."