Does the demise of Campbell Live signal the end of serious current affairs on prime-time television? Geoff Cumming, Matt Nippert and Phil Taylor report.

Prime-time current affairs: it's a model as old as free-to-air television, here and overseas. The magazine-style, half-hour format brings the chance to grill newsmakers on the big story of the day, to delve deeper behind the news and to bring on warm fuzzies about ourselves with human interest stories.

Traditionally anchored by a host with the brain of a wide-screen TV leavened with a common touch, we've seen few better practitioners than TV3's John Campbell. Dapper-suited Campbell's commitment to fair-minded, advocacy journalism grounded in "real" news has won legions of admirers, but not enough, it seems, to satisfy the bean counters.

Does the axe hovering over Campbell Live simply point to the financial imperatives facing TV3-parent MediaWorks or reflect a more seismic shift in the way audiences are watching free-to-air TV? In the digital era - where viewers choose not only what but when they watch, and where the day's "news" is instantly online - is current affairs as practised by Campbell Live a prime-time dinosaur?

The ratings that dictate where advertising dollars flow tell part of the story. When TV One pulled the plug on its traditional-format Close Up in 2013 for fluffy replacement Seven Sharp, it should have been the dambreaker that delivered thousands more "serious newsers" across to TV3.

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But where five years ago Campbell Live lorded it over TV One in the crucial 25-54 age bracket that advertisers target, the figures reveal a sorry decline since - its share of viewership plunging from 7.2 per cent in April 2010 to 3.8 per cent this week.

Officially, TV3 staff have been told the programme's future is under review, MediaWorks news boss Mark Jennings noting: "Viewer expectations in 2015 are quite different from those of 2005 ..." But the rumour is that the 7pm weekday slot will be taken up by a soap opera - pitching TV3 against TV2's Shortland Street, which currently draws more viewers than TV One and TV3's current affairs offerings combined. The daily soap is expected to be produced by Eyeworks New Zealand Ltd, a producer of entertainment shows including The Bachelor. NZ On Air says it has not yet received a request from MediaWorks for funding for a daily soap.

Sources say the mood among journalists at TV3 is "sombre". The struggle to pay for journalism is a challenge for all media, one observer says. "It's across the board. Everyone is under pressure."

The review pitches Campbell as bastion of public interest broadcasting against reality TV queen Julie Christie, appointed to the MediaWorks board in August 2013 under incoming chairman Rod McGeoch, an Australian businessman.

The company, which includes radio stations including RadioLive and The Edge, had endured turbulent times since it was acquired by Australian private equity firm Ironbridge in 2007 for $700 million just before the global financial crisis. Declining audiences and associated advertising spending, allied with Ironbridge's enormous debts to finance the purchase, took their toll. Senior lenders, owed $528 million of this debt, pulled the pin in June 2013 and called in receivers to effectively engineer a backdoor takeover.

Christie's expertise was expected to inspire a reality TV-assisted turnaround but ratings to date have not always matched the hype. She sold her company, Touchdown, into the Eyeworks group in 2006 but stayed on as a director until 2013 when she joined MediaWorks. Her brother, Michael Molloy, is listed on the Companies Office website as co-managing director of Eyeworks.

Reality TV queen Julie Christie was appointed to the MediaWorks board in August 2013. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Reality TV queen Julie Christie was appointed to the MediaWorks board in August 2013. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The appointment last August of former stock exchange boss Mark Weldon, with no background in broadcasting, was seen as part of a wider strategy to dress up the business for sale.

Speculation about Campbell Live's future mounted as the board's make-up changed. Campbell has his detractors; his campaigning, advocacy-style journalism does not wash with everyone and his crusades on issues such as the Christchurch earthquakes response and the GCSB amendment bill pitched him against a popular Government.

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Even so, the imminent threat to a blue-suited living treasure prompted outpourings on social media and calls for viewers to petition the beleaguered station. Labour's broadcasting spokeswoman Clare Curran said MediaWorks, regardless of ownership, had a prime-time obligation to keep people informed.

"Strong watchdog journalism that vigorously pursues an agenda of informing the electorate is a core tenet of a working democracy," Curran thundered. "We must not let any voice for injustice, accountability and inequality be scrapped."

McGeoch told the Weekend Herald responsibilities to his shareholders meant any commitment to public service journalism was on the backburner. "At the moment I've got five financial institutions trying to get their money back. We had a balance sheet with debts over $500 million, and it's now $90 million - because they took their medicine and turned it into stock.

"My job is to get the value back, and that means we couldn't continue with the status quo," he says of the Campbell Live review and other moves spearheaded by Weldon, such as bringing in Paul Henry at the expense of Marcus Lush. He confirms current shareholders are not interested in owning the business long-term.

McGeoch says the loss of anchor soap opera Home and Away had focused the board's mind on finding a suitable replacement; the company was looking to produce its own and was envious of Shortland Street's audience.

"This is an extremely competitive business now, the only way you can really grow revenues is to take it off your competitor."

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The ploy seems to be to attract younger audiences who advertisers believe are more impressionable and more likely to change brands, says Bill Ralston, former head of news and current affairs at TVNZ. He notes instant access to news is not the only challenge facing local programme makers. "There are relatively few genuine news stories in New Zealand. We are news poor - people hear the same story over and over again on the internet and other devices."

Traditional television channels were "becoming a soft option for people to watch programmes about food".

But ratings tell only part of the story, other media commentators argue.

"Ratings give an opportunity if new people in management don't like a presenter and want to make changes," says Dr Wayne Hope, co-director of Auckland University of Technology's media research centre.

Hope says there are huge risks in MediaWorks' approach. In Australia and the United States, commercial channels still hitch their wagon to their news and current affairs presenters who represent the channel's brand. TV3 risks significantly diminishing its brand by replacing Campbell in the post-news hour 7pm slot with a soap opera or light entertainment. "I think the Julie Christie business model has no room for current affairs per se," Hope says.

The appointment of former stock exchange boss Mark Weldon was seen as part of a wider strategy to dress up the business for sale. Photo / Peter Meecham
The appointment of former stock exchange boss Mark Weldon was seen as part of a wider strategy to dress up the business for sale. Photo / Peter Meecham

Dr Peter Thompson, who chairs the Coalition for Better Broadcasting, says the only surprise is that anyone's surprised. "If you are going to allow free-to-air television to be dominated by commercial outfits this is the kind of outcome you'd predict," says Thompson, a senior lecturer in media studies at Victoria University.

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TV One's axing of Close Up left TV3's Campbell Live and Maori TV's offerings as the only local current affairs content on prime time. "Current affairs with the exception of Campbell Live has been shuffled off to Sunday morning where it can't do any harm to the ratings.

Compare that to 10 years ago when the Charter-driven approach meant strong competition in current affairs."

A sign of the times was a NZ on Air subsidy to ensure the survival of TV3's weekly investigative programme, 3D Investigates.

Christie retains faith that reality television will deliver MediaWorks financial success.

Through a spokeswoman she expressed pride to online business daily NBR last week in the "excellent portfolio" of the X Factor, The Bachelor, Dancing with the Stars, The Block NZ and MasterChef.

Such shows were not measured solely on ratings, the statement said, with "Video On Demand viewing and integrated sponsorships" making significant contributions to the business.

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