John Campbell, Hilary Barry and Simon Dallow on TV1 or Duncan Garner, Paddy Gower and Tova O’Brien on Three. Election night is one of those rare nights when most of the country tune into free-to-air TV, but which team will do a better job? Mark Jennings looks at what the viewers can expect.

Some people don’t like the way our TV news services compete or the way TV journalists harangue politicians and try to dominate media conferences. They suspect competition leads to sensationalising and that TV reporters try to be bigger than the story itself. They think it is all a bit unseemly – and sometimes it can be.

This competition between 1 News and Newshub is deeply embedded in the psyche of both outfits and neither wants to let it go. It is motivating and can be deeply rewarding for the individuals on both sides if they come out on top.

The battle has its origins in the difficult birth of TV3 in 1989. TVNZ had plenty of time to prepare as TV3 fought a three year legal battle to get a licence.

Legend has it that when TV3 was about to go on air for the first time, TVNZ’s CEO Julian Mounter climbed onto a desk and told his troops that he was going to kill the upstart private station.

True or not, it seeded the idea in TV3 that the state owned broadcaster will always be its implacable enemy. There are only one or two people from that era still working at Three, but the enmity towards TVNZ has been passed on from reporter to reporter and is imprinted in the network’s DNA. The ultimate expression of this rivalry surfaces on election night.

The battle for the hearts, minds and remotes of viewers in the 25 to 54 age group is won comfortably by 1 News every night of the year – except one night every three years.

Winning the ratings in this prized demographic for the last three or four elections has been an important morale boost for Three’s news team and the whole company.

Newshub reporters will undoubtedly head off to the various party HQs on Saturday night with a “take no prisoners” team talk still ringing in their ears. Getting the first comment from a party leader as they step from their car, getting the first sit down interview with the victorious or defeated leader and maybe, that candid, telling soundbite with a party apparatchik. Winning the individual battles in the field helps to win the war.

Back in the studio the competitive pressure is on anchors and panels of experts to pick the trends first, the seats that will change hands and, above all else, be first to declare the result – although under MMP that normally comes with caveats.

Entertainment, as well as information, is important to viewers sitting at home enduring five hours of talking heads, maps, graphics, and static shots of the leaders’ houses.

Three’s news team puts huge store in winning the whimsy battle and usually does by a mile or two, but they are facing a different sort of opponent this year – it is spearheaded by two of their own kin.

John Campbell and Hilary Barry, former stars at TV3 – when it was still called that- are anchoring TVNZ’s coverage. Campbell loves election nights and he and Barry (television’s wittiest news presenter) will have made a pact not to be ‘out-funned’ by Three.

Whether by design or not, the two rivals seem to have adopted different strategies this time round.

Newshub has put its political journalists – two former political editors, Gower and Garner, plus the current political editor, Tova O’Brien – in the studio and sent its studio presenters to the field. Mike McRoberts to National, Samantha Hayes to the Greens, Tom McRae to ACT. Reporters Jenna Lynch and Anna Bracewell-Worrall will be at Labour and NZ First respectively.

By contrast, TVNZ has kept its presenters – Campbell, Barry and Simon Dallow at home in the studio and deployed its political journalists to the field. Political editor Jessica Mutch McKay will be at Labour, Maiki Sherman at National, Benedict Collins at the Greens and Katie Bradford at NZ First. Eloquence and ease in front of a live camera versus match fit roundsmen straight off the campaign trail. It will be an intriguing battle.

When it comes to each side’s panel of commentators and experts, Three looks to have it all over TVNZ.

Rotating through the studio at Three’s Flower Street base will be Paul Henry, Linda Clark, Mathew Hooton, Shane Te Pou, Trish Sherson and Josie Pagani. They will be backed by three former politicians: National’s Chris Finlayson, Labour’s David Cunliffe and the Greens’ Russel Norman. It is an embarrassment of riches.

TVNZ says its panel will include former National MP Nikki Kaye, Emma Espiner, Liam Hehir and Morgan Godfery. It lacks the heft and ringcraft of its rival’s.

Although, if Auckland Central turns into a close race, Kaye will be a handy player to have on the desk.

Technology always plays a part on election night but the most important thing with results graphics is to make them clear, uncluttered and instantly readable. Viewers switch channels if they can’t get an instant fix on who’s winning and who’s losing.

Three plans to unveil a new augmented graphics (digital images rendered onto real world objects) package that will show the number of seats each party has in Parliament based on the party vote. It is bound to be given a test run under live conditions in Friday night’s Newshub bulletin at 6pm.

Newshub’s confidence is high after its leaders’ debate, and two referendum debates, rated well. On paper, it looks to have the stronger team, although it could run into trouble trying to give everybody a share of airtime.

There is one other thing that could play to TVNZ’s favour, but it’s a long shot. With so much advance voting, and those votes being counted during Saturday, the result could come earlier in the night than in past elections. Having someone like Campbell, who has the skills to throw away the script, take control and truly drive a live TV show from the anchor’s chair, might just make it a close run thing.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

Leave a comment