Goodbye Mr Campbell and thanks for all the marvellousness

Back in 2004, John Campbell came to talk to our journalism class in Wellington. What I most recall was all the swearing (something he was renowned for doing often, despite his nice guy persona), but I was also struck by his enthusiasm and the fact that he would take time out to come and talk to the next generation of journalists. Since then, I’ve always had a soft spot for him and he’s always been my favoured 7pm host. I enjoyed his attitude, his self-aware presenting style (“camera turn”), his good humour and his sense of purpose. So, like many, I’ll be sad to see him leave the airwaves on TV3 tonight after ten years. 

I always enjoyed how he regularly mentioned his team on air; MediaWorks staff tell tales of his willingness to stop and chat; and, as evidenced by the stories featured on the show, he obviously has a great deal of empathy for the ‘common man’ (one criticism is that his intellectualism meant he never fully related to the common man, unlike Paul Holmes). Compare this to his 7pm rival Mike Hosking, who one source inside TVNZ says rarely if ever interacts with those who work on his show and is openly elitist. 

Over the past few weeks, the reverence for the show and the belief that it was the last bastion of investigative journalism was sometimes laid on a bit thick. But after hearing Nick Davies’ confronting presentation about the future of news (and reading about the dynamics of power in his book Hack Attack); after seeing continuing cuts to editorial departments at most of the major news organisations; after seeing how dominant PR now is in comparison to journalism; and after seeing the public response when it became clear he was in danger of being taken off air, he is a rare, much-loved creature and it feels like a pretty big loss. 

As many have written, this decision comes down to commerce and for a commercial broadcaster that’s getting set to sell—and for a commercial broadcaster that’s trying to figure out the long-term role of a daily current affairs show in an increasingly on-demand news era—it was entirely fair to look at the options. Campbell Live’s declining ratings had been an issue for years, and as head of news Mark Jennings said on MediaWatch, the recent rise in ratings after the review was announced was not sustainable. But it still made money (one source said the show costs between $2-3 million to make, although that’s fairly cheap because of the existing news infrastructure at MediaWorks) and previous administrations worked hard to ensure the success of the show wasn’t just measured on ratings. But in a world of accountability and vanity metrics, this is a point that is often overlooked. As the oft-used quote goes: not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

Of course, there is no point running ads that people don’t see. But resonance is still important in marketing. As is purpose and, in the case of sponsorship, context (just because it’s the most popular sport in the world, that doesn’t mean FIFA’s sponsors Coca-Cola, Hyundai and Visa aren’t being tarred with its dodgy brush at the moment). And as The Spinoff’s Duncan Greive said in a recent interview, one podcast download means so much more than one view of a story with a clickbaity headline. Campbell Live’s low viewer numbers don’t seem to equate to the show’s overall impact on those viewers, something long-time sponsor Mazda obviously understood. How nice would it be to take a leaf out of the books of diving and gymnastics and add a degree of difficulty score to get a true sense of media impact on consumers (The Economist and The Financial Times are moving away from ‘how many’ and focusing on quality metrics like time spent, so they’re trying). 

Through the whole saga, Campbell has managed to retain his dignity—at least on screen—even though this whole situation was obviously extremely stressful for him and the team. And, to use a knobby phrase, Campbell’s ‘personal brand’ has probably never been stronger as a result of it all. So there’s no doubt he will pop up again, as Brian Edwards explained. In what way, it’s hard to tell. It seems likely to be with an established media player. But overseas, Yahoo invested heavily in Katie Couric (and it also screens the new season of Community). Perhaps there’s a chance he could take his sponsors and some team members with him and start something online, although the size of this market might preclude that (prizes for guessing which company did some back of the envelope figures to see whether it could afford to run the show). 

So much has been said about John Campbell. But Ali Ikram summed it up beautifully

One of the things everyone knows about JC is that he is unfailingly polite; polite sometimes to the point of parody. It might seem like something small, but it is actually the outward expression of something greater, and the message I will be taking from my short time working on the show: kindness has power. It’s not money, it’s not a clenched fist, it’s not an earthquake or a force of nature. But it has its own quiet influence, that if applied consistently day-upon-day can do great things. If we allow ourselves to see our fate as being connected to that of the person next to us we do not just make our community better, we make ourselves better. I acknowledge these are strange words to be writing about a TV star and a show made by a commercial broadcaster in a dog-eat-dog world. But to put it another way, compassion, intelligence and thoughtfulness is where the gap in the market is.

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