It’s difficult to imagine a pair as bullish and opinionated as Duncan Garner and Heather du Plessis-Allan as underdogs, but that’s exactly what they were when confirmed as the hosts of Story in June last year.
As the substitutes for John Campbell, they were seen as the symbol of a television network that had given up on the earnest current affairs reporting typified by the Campbell Live team.
After Campbell Live was canned, the public responded with protests, an attempt to boycott TV3 and an ocean of social media outrage. And it was in this context that Garner and du Plessis-Allan had to establish themselves as the new faces of current affairs on MediaWorks’ most important channel.
Across the competitive ditch, TVNZ was sitting pretty with Seven Sharp performing well (and bouyed further by viewers boycotting MediaWorks).
Seven Sharp had, since the arrival of Mike Hosking and Toni Street, established a comfortable ratings lead over its competitor. And, as shown in the Throng graph below, Campbell Live went from consistently beating the Seven Sharp in the ratings in 2013 to falling way behind in 2014 and 2015 (Campbell Live did pick up when viewers tuned in in a bid to save it).
Suffice to say, Garner and du Plessis-Allan were up against it.
The early days for the show were by no means easy. After a strong start, the show started shedding viewers, and by September it was a mammoth 345,000 viewers behind Seven Sharp.
This continued over the month of September, and the show seemed to be struggling to perform any better than its predecessor had. It was a period that vindicated all those who criticised MediaWorks for canning Campbell Live. What was the point of making the change if it was to make no difference at all?
But human beings have short memories. And a lot can change over a few months.
And a recent release from MediaWorks trumpeted that this week Story had notched up its third ratings win of the year against Seven Sharp (according to Nielsen numbers, Story secured 127,000 viewers to Seven Sharp’s 105,400 in the key 25-54 demographic).
Accompanying this announcement in the MediaWorks release was the fact Newshub Live at 6pm had won its timeslot against its competitor and that Paul Henry was matching its competitor in the breakfast slot (and it also coincided with a surprisingly glowing review of The Paul Henry Show from former NZ Herald editor Tim Murphy).
In the statement on the ratings, MediaWorks acting chief news officer Richard Sutherland was pragmatic, saying: “While last night’s ratings are early days, it’s gratifying to see viewers switching to our TV news programmes to watch Mike (McRoberts), Hilary (Barry), Duncan, Heather and the rest of the team.”
Of course, winning a few slots here and there is by no means an indication that MediaWorks has successfully wrestled its news properties out of a slump.
But, MediaWorks communications manager Will Seal points to Nielsen data showing that Story’s performance isn’t just a flash in the pan (the figures show 2015 weeks 32-50 versus 2016 weeks 5-14).
“Story eroded Seven Sharp’s ratings margin over 2015 and the margin is down 14 percent year-on-year for 2016 to date,” Seal says. “Audience share for Story is up 11 percent for 2016 compared to 2015, whereas Seven Sharp is down 15 percent for the same period.”
This week, Story was given a further vote of confidence by MediaWorks, with a new, slightly lighter iteration of the show being extended to Friday nights.
Presented on alternating weeks by either du Plessis-Allan or Garner and other rotating stand-ins, The Friday Story will see the hosts and guests share a lively panel discussion of the major and minor stories of the week.
“The Friday Story is a lighter take on the week and the perfect start to your Friday night,” says MediaWorks group entertainment content director Andrew Szusterman.
Until now, the 7pm slot on a Friday night (arguably its strongest night of the week) has been relatively inconsistent for MediaWorks. While the programming schedule has been strong with Jono and Ben leading into 7 Days, MediaWorks has struggled to link from the 6pm news into the comedy lineup.
Most recently, MediaWorks was running Road Madness, a show that featured comedian Urzila Carleson commentating on a series of clips of people behaving poorly on the tarmac. However, it’s unlikely this show, which was dry at best and cringe-worthy most of the time, will be missed by many.
It’s interesting to note that in the hunt for stability in this timeslot, MediaWorks has turned to a team that has come to prominence during what was one of the most unstable periods for the company.
At face value, the move makes sense. Audiences are already comfortable seeing Garner and du Plessis-Allan on the television around this time in the evening, and both have shown a good knack for the banter necessary for more light-hearted current affairs.
MediaWorks has also made an important move by drawing a line between Story and The Friday Story.
Had the more light-hearted Friday programming simply been slipped under the Story umbrella, it could have potentially damaged the overall perception of a news brand willing to tackle tough issues.
That said, whether or not the move strengthens the 7pm slot is yet to be seen. But as evidenced by last year, du Plessis-Allan and Garner seem up for a good ratings battle. The only difference this time is that we can't consider them the underdogs.
TVNZ head of news and current affairs John Gilespie sent through the following statement on the performance of Seven Sharp: "We’re really pleased with how audiences are responding to Seven Sharp – and that’s reflected in its continued hold over the 7pm slot. Seven Sharp has twice the total audience of Story and it consistently outperforms it in the commercial demos by a long shot. From a news perspective we are (and should) always be very aware of the big picture – and that’s how I think ratings information should be approached as well."
Gillespie also questioned the accuracy of MediaWorks' numbers, saying: "I don’t see any pattern of Story chipping away, I’m not sure how they have worked out their numbers, our numbers are telling a different story."
Additionally, TVNZ sent through an extended graph showing the week-by-week ratings of the two shows for 2016: