MediaWorks made two announcements last week, but one got more coverage than the other. 

The news that 6pm anchor Mike McRoberts is a contestant in the next series of Dancing with the Stars almost overshadowed the broadcaster’s intriguing move to “bulk up” by adding a billboard operation to its TV and radio assets.

MediaWorks will take over the New Zealand arm of Australian out-of-home advertising business, QMS Media.

In return, QMS will get a minority share in MediaWorks, which is owned by US fund manager Oaktree Capital. 

According to MediaWorks’ CEO Michael Anderson, “no cash has changed hands”.

The merger will have surprised most commentators as Oaktree has had the “for sale” sign up for many years and there have been few hints that it might  expand the business.

Anderson, who was hosting a new season programme launch at the trendy Ostro restaurant and bar last Thursday, explained it this way, “In New Zealand, if you are a media company, you have got to have scale. By adding QMS we get some of that. When you have scale you have more value.”

Anderson has extensive experience with “out-of-home” advertising as he was a director of Ooh Media, one of the two big players that dominate the Australian market.

MediaWorks has had previous opportunities to buy billboard companies but Oaktree probably feels more secure in entering the game now with Anderson at the helm.

“I really enjoyed the journey with Ooh Media and learnt a lot. Out of home has increased its share [of the advertising market] in New Zealand in the last five years from 3 to 6 percent because of digitalisation,” said Anderson.

Digital billboards, which are essentially large screens, have revolutionised the sector and seen it grab a much bigger chunk of the market.  They have cut out the physical cost of producing the ‘skins’ that go on static billboards and allowed a faster changeout of advertisements.

It has also allowed the “out-of-home” companies to tap into what is known as the “short” market.

The number of advertisers buying “short” – holding back their spend until the last minute in the hope of getting a better deal or a tactical advantage – has been increasing recently.

Anderson says the move into billboards gives MediaWorks touchpoints across the whole day.

“You listen to radio at breakfast and drive time and watch television at night … now we can reinforce the advertising messages when you go past one of our out of home screens. We are across all platforms.”

MediaWorks will pitch itself as a one-stop shop for advertisers looking to roll out major campaigns, something that its big competitor TVNZ can’t do, but Anderson will need to make sure that his sales team secures a premium for the integrated play and doesn’t end up discounting any part of its offering.

“We have been increasing the yield on radio and the yield on TV so I think we can do it with outdoor too,” said Anderson.

The MediaWorks’ boss expected that consolidation of media companies in New Zealand would continue.

“The dance hasn’t stopped, the fragmentation [of audiences] means not everyone can survive and we want to be an active player in the consolidation.”

Anderson told Newsroom that he was feeling more confident now that the TV side of the business was performing better. Ratings for key programmes like Newshub at 6pm and The Project are edging up, with reality franchises like The Block performing strongly.  

“We have very supportive owners who have been very patient and come on this journey with us.”

The governance structure at MediaWorks is certainly very different to a few years ago when it had a board chaired by Aussie lawyer Rod McGeoch and included Julie Christie, Paul Lockey and Martin Dalgleish.

Now, it is a board of just three. Anderson, Oaktree’s Jonas Mitzschke and Queenstown-based, Jack Matthews.

Presenters who dance.

There weren’t many surprises at MediaWorks’ new season programming launch at Ostro. The same advertising agency types, the same journalists and the same faces from the network heard that the same programmes will be return next year.

The Block is back, Married at First Sight is back and so is Dancing With the Stars.

The one surprise was that Three’s head of content, Andrew Szusterman has talked another 6pm news anchor into appearing on the dance show.

Last year, McRoberts’ co-anchor Samantha Hayes out-danced and out-thought a group of radio hosts, politicians and minor celebrities to win the contest.

Reportedly, McRoberts was heard to mutter “there goes the credibility” or something similar.

So what convinced the journalist who shaped his high-profile career by reporting from war and disaster zones around the world to throw himself at the mercy of a panel of erratic judges and a rather opaque public voting system?

In a bizarre video posted by the network, McRoberts equates the challenge of winning the dancing competition with operating in war zones and says he is always at his best when he is facing an insurmountable challenge.

McRoberts, of course, knows that there is no way he can win. After Hayes’ victory last year the network would be pilloried if another one of its stars came out on top.

Szusterman would no doubt have told McRoberts that the show is a vehicle for the viewers to see another side of him, just like they saw with Hayes.

But unlike Hayes, McRoberts has always been a fairly open book and has mostly worn his heart on his sleeve. The public know him well.

No, the most likely explanation is that McRoberts is bored. 

The days of sending reporters from New Zealand to war zones to report properly and not from live points in distant cities are mostly over.  It is too dangerous and too expensive. One kidnapping by a Jihadi group and a small TV network like Three would be in a desperate situation.

The big British and American networks employ expensive security teams to accompany their presenters. These are high cost operations.

When you are sitting in the confines of the studio night after night, presenting the same sorts of stories for nearly 20 years, boredom tends to set in. 

John Campbell, tired of the studio, left RNZ for a more varied role at TVNZ; Mike has gone for the Paso doble.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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