COMMENT: The 13 most ominous words spoken on television this year came on Thursday night from The Project co-host Jesse Mulligan as he lamented cuts to a number of comedy and reality programmes on his network, Three.
“The next move could be for MediaWorks to close down the entire station,” he said in a personal commentary near the end of Thursday’s show. While conveyed as Mulligan’s sentiments, the wording would almost certainly have been vetted from on-high before going on air.
Maybe not. It has been rumoured for some time that MediaWorks’ owner, the American fund manager Oaktree Capital, has given its NZ executives until Christmas to sort out the troublesome television business or risk its closure. Three has lost money for years. Ironically, Mulligan’s own show, The Project, with its high talent and production costs would have contributed to the budget woes. Three has been propped up by the commercial success of MediaWorks radio.
In an earlier life, Jesse Mulligan was a stand up comedian and a scriptwriter for 7 days. The pain of seeing his friends staring at unemployment no doubt played a part in his decision to speak out on air. But it also fits with Mediaworks’ strategic attempts to prevent Oaktree shutting down Three.
Under a television closure scenario, the radio business, with most of the country’s biggest commercial radio brands, would continue. But Three, and all its 30 years of competitive promise, would go out of business and hundreds of jobs would go with it.
This week’s hard-headed cuts to shows such as 7 Days, NZ Today and Married at First Sight NZ were more worrying than a television network’s standard programming brutality. The telling thing about dropping these programmes was that the first two mentioned above are actually publicly-funded by NZ on Air. Three simply couldn’t afford the relatively small licence fee – in some cases in the low tens of thousands of dollars – it must pay as its contribution to those projects. Comedian Guy Williams’ NZ Today show has had good ratings but was doomed by being in an off-peak slot. MediaWorks can’t afford to spend anything on off-peak programming because outside of primetime the ratings mean little and don’t translate into advertising dollars.
7 days plays in prime-time, and even though its ratings are still reasonable, they are drifting. By cutting back the number of episodes, MediaWorks will be hoping the scarcity value increases viewer interest. It will also save money by filling the slots with cheaper product.
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the network chose not to commit to run these publicly funded shows next year because it couldn’t guarantee being here to broadcast them.
MediaWorks’ top executives are expected to comment further, as early as Friday morning, on the company’s future. Their announcements might not be about pulling the trigger for Oaktree. But they are likely to be more bad news.
Whatever is announced, it will be targeted at an audience of one: Communication Minister Kris Faafoi.
The company has campaigned publicly for the Government to step in and save media businesses. Its argument is a combination of criticising the state-owned TVNZ’s non-commercial business practices, exempt as it is from paying the Government a dividend, and the impossibility of competing for commercial dollars against the giant global digital platforms like Facebook, Google and Netflix.
MediaWorks wants help from Faafoi and it wants it by Christmas. Before Oaktree gives up.
Herald shakes up its Newsroom
In NZME news: the New Zealand Herald is reforming its newsroom by targeting “the leadership structure” and asking editors to re-apply for a number of new roles. Managing editor Shayne Currie briefed journalists last week on the restructure, called Project 2020, and suggested the new way of managing the newsroom could be in place by next month.
It’s suggested the operation had become editor-heavy and reporter-light and involved too many layers.
One intriguing element is a change to the way the heavyweight ‘i’ – or Investigative – team is run. An insider claims the ‘i’ team, which has been prominent in producing Premium inquiries and projects for the paywalled part of the Herald website, is to be disbanded. Currie says the journalists’ roles will stay but there will be changes to some reporting lines.
Herald staff understand the aim is to return some desk editors and managers to frontline news writing and producing. While roles might disappear, Currie expects the total newsroom headcount to stay the same. The re-think was focused on changes in audience habits and how the Herald operates internally.