Paris is burning: MediaWorks spices up 2011’s TV battle with new channel—and new targets

The New Zealand television scene is already über-competitive. But, with a range of new initiatives from the broadcasters, a slowly increasing sense of economic optimism and an array of new technology that’s changing the game for everyone, things look set to get even spicier in 2011. In an effort to eat into the more lucrative older demographics that have long been the domain of TVNZ, TV Works is changing its focus slightly and is set to launch its mainstream entertainment channel FOUR very shortly. And it’s a decision chief executive Jason Paris says is already bearing fruit. When Paris decided to leave TVNZ for MediaWorks in March last year, his response to questions about plans for his new network was typically that he was the new guy and was just finding his feet. But he admits that excuse doesn’t work anymore. He’s been there long enough and now it’s action stations—and the major piece of action this year is the ensuing launch of FOUR, which will replace the niche, youth-focused music channel C4.

While Paris says C4 was doing very well for the network, broadening the channel’s focus and trying to connect with an older, richer demographic was a “no-brainer”, because it was what the agencies had been asking for. And so far he says the response has been extremely positive, with ad revenue up 15 percent on the last quarter when it was still C4 (sadly for the hipsters, C4 will replace C42 on the Freeview platform and will play a broad, cross-section of music, including at least 30 percent Kiwi content).

With TV3 also trying to mature its target demographic, it will be interesting to see how these shifts affect MediaWorks’ performance in 2011. But Paris feels the speed with which the changes have been made to its TV offering might have taken TVNZ by surprise.

He says TVNZ has a very strong channel in TV2, although, he says it is safe, family friendly and maybe even a little tired in the next breath. But FOUR, with the likes of the Simpsons, Community, Family Guy, America’s Next Top Model and Top Chef on the roster, aims to be slightly edgier. And, with the departure of the MTV offices from New Zealand last year, which he says will help “from a local perspective”, he feels FOUR will be starting from a very solid base.

“We think there’s a good chance for TV3 and FOUR to take some of that audience away from [TVNZ],” he says.

Paris will certainly be paying close attention to the performance of TVNZ’s new channel U, especially given that he and the agencies believe youth-focused niche channels aren’t going to drive a lot of revenue.

TVNZ is trumpeting the “social television” aspect of U and is working with Facebook to drive integration of online social networking with broadcast content (U live, a hosted block from 4pm to 7pm daily will feature chat and commentary driven by a U live Facebook application where profile pictures, people’s comments and polling activity will be automatically pulled through into broadcast). But Paris feels this is bordering on gimmickry, doesn’t think it’s anything particularly revolutionary and wonders whether it might cannibalise some of TV2’s revenue.

So, what about the performance of MediaWorks in 2010?

“I’d give us a pass mark,” he says.

Obviously, he says it was a tough year for the economy—and with the private equity firm owners Ironbridge trying to cut costs, also for the company. But he says things picked up a lot in the last half of the year, which was comforting given the company allocated a lot of time to planning and setting the demographic changes we are about to see this year in motion. Still, while the revenue may have improved, he says the costs to the news department of reporting on two major disasters late in the year certainly didn’t help the balance sheet for that department.

While most would agree TVNZ took the trophy in the news and current affairs department in 2010, both in terms of ratings data and awards won (but not so much in terms of avoiding diplomatic incidents), there is a feeling that TVNZ’s larger audience share is due in part to the ‘resthome effect’ (ie the large chunk of the Kiwi population who have always watched ONE news and probably always will). It’s hard to know who to believe when the ratings data comes out, because both networks are prone to spinning the numbers in their favour. But the young’uns (18-39) still seem to like 3 News, it performs well in the important Auckland Urban market (even though TVNZ disputes the existence of an Auckland Urban audience segment) and Nightline is still a jewel in the TV Works news crown (check out the Campbell Live promo here, which, as Opinion Added helpfully pointed out, features a taxi driver in a Holden, not a Mazda).

Paris says there are some exciting plans ahead for 2011 in the news and current affairs department. And, with the new channel soon to go live and the gauntlet well and truly laid at the feet of TVNZ, this battle should be fun to watch.

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