COMMENT: Sky Sport's The Breakdown has evolved into one of the best sports shows on TV. Does the show signal a new era for Sky and New Zealand Rugby's long and complicated relationship?
Three main characters make up the must-watch sports TV show of the post-Covid era.
There's John Kirwan, an All Black great and epitome of the gentle giant, who balances the old with the new while rocking a hoodie and a sports jacket. There's Mils Muliaina, the pre-millennial All Black who's the closest thing on the show to the modern players' voice.
And then there's sporting polymath Jeff Wilson – the host of Sky Sport's flagship rugby talk show The Breakdown – whose ever-present passion for the game shines through his pointed questions to the panel of fellow former rugby stars.
The Breakdown is a straight-down-the-line sports talk TV show, in the same tradition of football shows like ESPN FC or TNT's vastly popular Inside The NBA. It lacks the innovations of high-concept debate shows like Pardon the Interruption or the tech savvy and vibrancy of a web series like The Ringer's NBA Desktop, but manages to pack its 50 or so minutes a week with enough quality content that gets you excited for the weekend's matches.
The All Blacks trio sits around a desk (when they're not in lockdown) to discuss and analyse the hot rugby topics – bro banter and North-South Island rivalries feature heavily. Wilson describes it as "guys across generations trying to connect the legacy of the game over time to what's happening now". But the panel also aren't afraid of getting into serious debates on rugby's uncertain future.
"The voting system, it's not very democratic, is it?" exhales Muliaina in a fiery episode with Sir Bill Beaumont, who was re-elected as World Rugby boss despite not receiving New Zealand's vote. They're also happy to shoot it straight with public figures outside of the game like Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Sports broadcaster Bernadine Oliver-Kerby chimes in with recaps of the big headlines of the week. Exclusive interviews and short journalistic pieces from former Newshub reporter Ross Karl are sprinkled throughout to make a solid hour of television. No other sports show on New Zealand TV commands the attention of viewers or breaks through into the wider international conversation like The Breakdown.
It's All Blacks TV, made by the All Blacks – and it's slowly evolved into one of the best and most important shows in New Zealand sport.
Wilson, who scored tries for fun on the All Blacks wing in the 90s, has shapeshifted from one of the country's greatest athletes to a polished broadcaster over the last few years, a sidestep he admits wasn't something he envisioned as a young sportsman.
"Did I think I would become a presenter and host my own show? Never in a million years," he says. "There are people who would've done this for a long, long time and I was never really sure whether or not I was going to be able to learn quickly enough.
"Going from live sport radio for 15 months to then go and work for Sky full-time was a great opportunity to keep being involved in the game."
It's almost as if he naturally took upon the broadcasting arts like he mastered multiple codes – he represented New Zealand in both rugby and cricket – throughout his sporting career.
"I was just really lucky I was given the opportunity," he continues. "And good people helping me develop the necessary understanding and skills to navigate your way through a live show, which unless you've done it you sort of never really know.
"Once you get that opportunity and they turn the red light on, you got to try and piece it all together."
New Zealand has long been crying out for a rugby talk TV show that's worth watching, something that helps push rugby – a sport in dire need of storylines and discussion – back into the zeitgeist.
Previous attempts at sporting TV shows by Sky have tended to verge on stale and self-serious, often feeling out of place in sport's Twitter era. Meanwhile, Sky lost the brilliant 1014 Rugby – an analysis show on the tactics of rugby – to its competitors Spark Sport ahead of last year's World Cup.
But a combination of newfound social media awareness and pandemic-induced innovation, as well as what appears to be investment in its talent from Sky, has seen The Breakdown emerge as one of the few shows that feels relevant in the current New Zealand sporting landscape.
Over the years, rugby has fought a losing battle against the gradual contentification of sport. Rugby…in this attention economy?!
The internet has decimated business models across industries, including the national game. In the lockdown age, rugby is on its knees, drowning in the algorithmic churn of pop culture over-saturation.
"We've still got to connect right through our grassroots to the very top and stay connected from our All Blacks right down," Wilson says about the challenges facing his beloved sport. "If we continue to do that and do that even better I think you'll see an even more positive outcome on the game."
Part of that challenge comes down to a need for funding for the grassroots and across the different levels in the sport, something that some say hasn't quite filtered down through NZ Rugby's flawed top-down All Blacks model. The other side of connecting and engaging with fans, is partly down to shows like The Breakdown.
"As a broadcaster and being part of the media, we've got a really important job to do in that," says Wilson. "And that's what I'm hoping I can add and The Breakdown can add and all of the good people working at Sky that I deal with. And across all media who can do something to move the sport forward."
In recent months, the show has started to do something it hasn't done in its previous five or so seasons: break news.
Thanks in part to Sky's "revolutionary" broadcast deal with NZR, which saw the rugby governing body become a five per cent stakeholder in Sky, the show has sometimes become the chosen platform for how NZR releases its news – like it did for the exclusive unveiling of Sam Cane as the next All Blacks captain.
That close partnership between media and sporting organisations has been a worldwide trend in sport, says Steve Jackson, an Otago University professor who specialises in sports media.
"Sky was struggling, New Zealand Rugby was struggling, and they're both looking for solutions for survival basically … It's a win-win," Jackson says.
"That's a global trend, whether it's the NBA or NFL or individual teams, there's increasing control of the content from the commercial side of things.
"It's controlling the content whether it's branding and commercial but also protecting the brand from scandal. In other words it's the Fox News 'no spin zone', they want to control the spin."
From the perspective of traditional media like newspapers or news sites – NZR's uneasy bedfellows with similar goals – issues like holding the national rugby body into account arises. At the same time, the outdated business model in the journalism industry hasn't necessarily lent itself to the public interest either, which in turn, has caused some athletes like All Black Ardie Savea to resent traditional media.
When it comes down to it, NZR's ostensible use of Sky as its in-house news organisation won't change too much for fans, says Jackson.
"I think they would both argue that it's pragmatic. I'm guessing journalists who don't have exclusive access to this information or traditionally didn't have equal access aren't going to be happy about it.
"The average member of the public, do they care? I'm not sure if they do as long as they can get access to the information. For example the team announcement was on Sky and if people can't have access to it and can't afford it, they may be upset. But people are watching less television so they're going to get the information probably through another source.
"I think the bigger question is the one I don't think any of us can answer is the unintended consequences down the line as to what this might mean."
Wilson – a rugby man if there ever was one – is fully aware of the responsibility thrust upon his show and the need to sometimes challenge NZR, something he says the organisation invites.
"We know we've got a strong relationship with New Zealand Rugby and they have, particularly in the new regime, been encouraging us to challenge what they're doing and to challenge what's happening on the field and off the field.
"There's no doubt that we feel that's our (the show's) responsibility."
Wilson says there's been a recent shift on the show towards an emphasis on creating more discussion in and around rugby – and it seems to be making for better TV as well.
"The last sort of six to eight months – and even towards the end of last year as well – there was a bit more of a focus on creating a bit more discussion in and around the game," Wilson says. "And trying to get people a little bit more access to people and driving that."
"Access", as Wilson describes, is one of the show's selling points.
Rugby in New Zealand hasn't always been accessible over the years. That lack of access has come down to a tricky balancing act for both Sky and NZR: making sport – in all its forms – more accessible in the cord-cutting and social media era, while balancing commercial imperatives like selling the sport, its sports stars and breaking through into the cultural consciousness.
The first issue of accessibility has come down to Sky's virtual monopoly of sports rights in New Zealand, which was only recently broken by the arrival of Spark Sport and the international sports streaming environment.
"I think Sky took advantage and exploited their position for decades," says Jackson. "Every Sky subscriber knows that and they felt they were taken advantage of."
Sky's high prices and the pay-walling of sport for decades – along with a failure to adapt to the changing technological landscape – has left generations of fans out in the lurch, with some turning to alternative sources on the internet for sport and entertainment.
"All the back-door things like Netflix coming in and the ways that people use their back-door entry (streaming) – perhaps in some cases illegal – to access sport through other sources, [fans are] going to do it and they're not going to apologise.
"I think there's a lot of public relations that Sky's going to have to do. It's got to move fast. It's so far behind on the streaming stuff. It's going to have a lot of work to do to win back the public and to catch up in terms of technology. There's no question about that."
But under the new leadership of CEO Martin Stewart, the company has started to pivot heavily towards what it deems to be the future, from its purchase of RugbyPass to the development of its new streaming platform Sky Sport Now and reduction in subscription prices.
Sky's quest to win back public goodwill and reclaim its title of the country's 'home of sport' can be seen in the almost universal accessibility of The Breakdown, something that would be previously unheard of for the TV company.
The show is not only available across Sky's platforms, but also free to watch on the official All Blacks YouTube channel as well as media organisations like NZME and RugbyPass. Sky Sport's podcast-cum-TV show The Pod is another example of Sky reckoning with the online realm.
It's not all doom and gloom for NZR either, as the successful Super Rugby Aotearoa competition showcased. And the rugby body has started to realise that making their players and administrators accessible – at least through their chosen channels – is beneficial for the sport in the long run. NZR's close ties to Sky also suggests it finally understands that televised rugby is its core product.
Whether it's on the field on Saturday evenings or through fan engagement throughout the week on social media and TV, both Sky and NZ Rugby seem to be not just working together, but also open to new ideas from the outside and innovating to help preserve the national sport.
If the evolution of shows like The Breakdown is anything to go by, rugby might just be fine.
"There's a lot of positive things that are happening," says Wilson. "We're seeing what Super Rugby Aotearoa has brought to the table. There's a renewed enthusiasm for the game and of course the unusual circumstances that Covid has presented. But because of that, it's almost built some momentum.
"You're seeing people engaged in sport and that's a lifestyle choice where positive things can come out of it. And that's why I think it's important if we can get attention and bring attention to it, it can have a real positive outcome on people's lives."
"Sport isn't going to go away," adds Jackson. "But I do think it's a genuine opportunity for everyone to do things differently. And that's through inside and outside of sport."
Disclaimer: NZME has a partnership with Sky TV to broadcast The Breakdown every week on nzherald.co.nz