Clarifications, commerce and Campbell Live

The idea that Campbell Live is, to use the often emotive language of the media, ‘on the chopping block’, seems to have been popping up for a few years now, and that’s not entirely surprising given the changes to the free-to-air TV market and media in general. But it was officially confirmed yesterday when MediaWorks management said it was undertaking a review. The Herald’s John Drinnan wrote about that decision and alluded to a rumour that Jono and Ben could be taking over the slot, but MediaWorks has taken the unusual step of responding to that story by issuing a clarification and saying it’s a “complete fabrication”. 

MediaWorks group comms director Rachel Lorimer has yet to return our call but in a statement MediaWorks said: “There is on-going speculation that the Jono and Ben show is being considered as a possible replacement for Campbell Live. This seems to be based on a fabrication by the Herald and has unfairly led to significant negativity towards Jono Pryor, Ben Boyce and the rest of the Jono and Ben team.” 

MediaWorks corporate counsel, Alex Nicholson added: “The statement in John Drinnan’s articles in relation to the Jono and Ben show, which is attributed to ‘TV3 bosses’, is a complete fabrication and is not based on fact. Jono and Ben has never once been mentioned in any MediaWorks management forum, discussion or document as a possible replacement for Campbell Live.” 

Last night, Jono and Ben posted on their Facebook page in typically humorous style: “Just read an article on the NZ Herald saying we’re rumoured to replace Campbell Live. We just want to say on the record, this is honestly the first we have heard of this. The only thing Jono wants from John Campbell is his marvellous full head of hair.” 

Campbell is a well-loved and well-respected journalist and presenter who started out under the shadow of Paul Holmes and, over the show’s ten-year history, has gone on to claim his throne and become the go-to interview for those in the news. Some inside MediaWorks says he’s also become something of a talisman for the broader news and current affairs division and his prestige—and attitude—influences the rest of the newsroom and pushes them to break stories and get big interviews. So he’s a crucial part of the organisation. 

But at a time when MediaWorks’ new chief executive Mark Weldon and the board he reports to look to be setting the company up for sale after its journey out of receivership and with ratings for Campbell Live failing to match those of Seven Sharp or Shortland St (Throng says it has lost 32 percent of its audience in two years), it announced that Mark Jennings, group head of news, will lead a review of the show in an effort to “improve commercial performance of the 7pm TV3 time-slot in a changing television market”. 

  • Check out MediaWorks’ financial performance here

“Campbell Live is one of the mainstays of New Zealand media and has been at the forefront of New Zealand’s news and current affairs landscape for a decade,” says Jennings in a statement. “John Campbell and Campbell Live have won every award possible, broken some of the most important stories of the decade, repeatedly been voted most popular current affairs presenter and programme, and made a real difference to Kiwis’ lives … It is not a reflection on the quality of the programme, or the work of John Campbell or any of the journalists or producers in the Campbell Live team.” But it does appear to be a reflection of the difficulties news and current affairs on TV shows are facing under explicitly commercial models (60 Minutes has moved to Prime, Sunday on TV One is now half an hour and, while it was unclear if 3rd Degree would return, it’s thought to have received a $500,000 NZ on Air grant for 3D Investigates). 

MediaWorks says this review comes as part of the broader review of the MediaWorks business by the executive team, something that’s already manifested itself in some major restructuring—and a number of high profile departures. But the news that Campbell Live may soon be at the end of the line led to a rather visceral response from fans on social media (there are already a few obligatory petitions, while some cynics also believed it was a stunt to boost ratings).  

MediaWorks has long talked up the importance of its news and current affairs shows. And it has just this week launched to mixed reviews what it obviously sees as the future of media with the multi-media Paul Henry Show. But there is no doubt the company has increased its focus on reality programming this year, with Dancing with the Stars the latest to be added to X Factor NZ, The Bachelor NZ, MasterChef and The Block NZ (all of which are very expensive shows to make).

Whether you put it down to mismanagement or a bias against the network from rivals (something a few inside MediaWorks believe is particularly apparent in the pages of the “tabloid” NZ Herald), there have been a number of whoopsies this year, from bullying judges to improper vetting of candidates, something MediaWorks pinned on production company Eyeworks for both X Factor NZ and The Bachelor. The unexpected cessation of Top Gear following Jeremy Clarkson’s ‘fracas’ with one his producers is another issue to add to the list. 

Of course, TVNZ also changed its emphasis at 7pm when it put Close Up out to pasture and the decision to go light has proven to be fairly successful, despite a fairly aggressive initial response to the changes. They generally saw this as a descent into infotainment and dumbing down. But as George Gallop found over 90 years ago, readers are liars—and the same probably applies to viewers. 

As the last paragraph in this brilliant story in The Atlantic shows

Critics complain that the media is too devoted to entertainment, mock consumers for ignoring serious news, worry that newspapers are destroying their own integrity, and cry out for a clearer separation between advertising and editorial. They’re raising perfectly adequate concerns about the relationship between the media’s civic duty to inform and its business prerogative to be read. But they’re asking for things to go back to the way they never were.

Sources inside MediaWorks have said the culture has changed markedly since Weldon’s arrival. It’s always been commercial, of course, but everything is obviously up for discussion at the moment and news and current affairs are a tough sell, especially when it’s screening on lucrative 7pm timeslot. Campbell Live serves an important democratic function and, laudably, its advocacy journalism helps to further causes it believes in (something reporter John Sellwood explained nicely in this post). But it doesn’t receive any NZ on Air funding, nor has it asked for it, according to Stuff, so maybe if it is to continue, that seems to be an idea worth exploring (Radio New Zealand is fully funded through NZ on Air, although it has had a funding freeze that’s been in place since 2009). 

As they appear in people’s living rooms every weeknight, many New Zealanders have a deeply personal relationship with those on TV (both for and against in most cases). So it’s understandable the audience would be aggrieved at the suggestion the show might be canned. But just as TVNZ justified its decision to start afresh with Seven Sharp and turf out Mark Sainsbury, who has done a good job on RadioLive, Jennings said “viewer expectations in 2015 are quite different from those of 2005 and we need to constantly review our programming to ensure we are meeting those expectations”. That’s entirely fair. And while TV is still the best way to reach a mass audience, there are now many other options for news consumers these days that will fill the Campbell void. 

Jennings says there is no specific timeframe for the review, but a period of consultation with all staff who work on Campbell Live has now commenced. As expected, Campbell was extremely professional and grateful for the support he and his team had received on last night’s show and on social media (Campbell Live made sure its views were made clear when it tweeted “Genuine, important & agenda setting current affairs …” last night). So it will be interesting to see whether the vocal minority manage to influence the decision, whether Campbell remains with the company if the show is axed and whether this review will impact the bringing together of the various MediaWorks news teams—and the deal with Sky News—that Jennings is in charge of. 

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