Hard News by Russell Brown


About Campbell Live

In the two years since it launched as the half-arsed idea of a no-name news and current affairs chief who legged it back to Australia before the bloody thing even premiered, TV One's 7pm flagship Seven Sharp has shed its founding producer and all its original presenters.

It has had stupid money thrown at it, been subject to toxic, panicky management interference and been dumbed down and messed with constantly. Under a presenter who basically holds down the same two jobs as Paul Holmes did, but without the likeability or life experience, it has stabilised  to roughly the ratings  that TV One has historically had for whatever it puts on after the six o'clock news, which provides a titanic lead-in of up to 750,000 viewers (between 300,000 and 400,000 of whom Seven Sharp keeps).

There are good people there, but if you can remember anything truly great it has done, you're doing better than I am.

Over on TV3, Campbell Live has the most journalistically able TV presenter in the country, probably the best current affairs producer of her generation, a stable, dedicated team and the oversight of the strongest and most enduring news manager of the modern TV era. While there have been some flat spells in its 10 years on screen, it has also reeled off a series of important, influential and long-running stories, and tugged its readers' heartstrings the way TV current affairs should. By contrast to Seven Sharp, it holds on to most of its lead-in news viewers and occasionally does better.

Guess which one is probably for the chop?

On one level, it's all in the numbers. As Throng noted recently, Campbell Live's ratings in the week of its 10th anniversary weren't just bad, they were some of the worst it has ever earned. Almost four times as many people watched Seven Sharp. More watched Shortland Street.

NOTE: It has just been pointed out to me what was going on in Campbell Live's anniversary week: the cricket. It looks like the two worst nights were, respectively, the night of New Zealand's semi-final against South Africa and Australia's semi against India. Seven Sharp does seem to have been less badly hit, but this is an important bit of context.

On another level: meet the new boss. As part of Mediaworks' recapitalisation in 2013, a four-handed board including former Eyeworks and Living Channel CEO Julie Christie was appointed. The conventional separation of governance and management finally fell apart in February this year when a new management role was created for Christie: acting manager of TV and video strategy.

But according to a story by Nick Grant for NBR on April 2, Christie had been making her presence felt well before that:

NBR understands last year Ms Christie made it known Campbell Live's days were numbered.

Julie's very public about what she thinks about people," says one source, "and she had a real crisis with John Campbell as a result of criticising him severely.

"She went around saying, 'He's over, he's finished'," the insider claims.

Several sources confirm Mr Campbell became aware of Ms Christie's prejudicial remarks about his future, leading to to an "ongoing dialogue" stretching over months.

That "dialogue" was still in train when Mr Campbell's contract was up for renewal at the end 2014, by which stage the matter had reached the desk of new group chief executive Mark Weldon.

Grant goes on to note that "Mr Campbell's negotiating position and resulting contract were much enhanced by Ms Christie's frankly expressed opinions."

And good bloody job too. For someone in governance to behave as Christie is said to have done – when her target was coming up for a contract renewal – is not so much unwise as insanely irresponsible. If Grant is right, she's cost the company a lot of money. She might have been able to get away with this kind of thing as CEO of her own companies, but as a board member helicoptered in to an invented management position it's frankly inept.

And yet, it's Christie's company more than it is Campbell's now. TV3 had already oriented itself towards towards event television before the new board was put in place. Christie's strategy of relying yet more on localised reality formats is risky – these shows are expensive and they run out of steam quite quickly – but it's where the company is going.

But Mediaworks is also orienting itself towards its much more profitable arm: radio. The channel that used to be C4 is now Edge TV, an arm of the profitable pop music station. With Paul Henry, breakfast TV is now simultaneously breakfast radio.

With that shift comes editorial implications. Commercial talk radio is less about diligent pursuit of the facts (and I do not mean any slight on Radio Live's many skilled news reporters here) than it is about reckons. It's the culture that allows Roastbusters radio disasters to happen.

There's still a difference. When Mike Hosking poo-pooed global warming on Seven Sharp, he was saying something that was just another idle day on commercial talk radio. On TV, Hosking was quietly hauled in after Seven Sharp's sponsor, RaboBank, got antsy about a flood of complaints via its Facebook page. And yes, now you're asking, things have reached a strange pass when the grown-up editorial voice in the room belongs to the damn sponsor.

As I write, the #SaveCampbellLive hashtag is trending number one on New Zealand Twitter – ironically achieving the all-important engagement numbers TV3 didn't get this week with the Paul Henry launch. There's also a petition calling on potential major advertisers to get in behind the show and another directed at Mediaworks management. That may not be enough to actually save Campbell Live.

If I'm right, and I don't really want to be, I would hope that a good new home – hell, maybe even a better home – can be found for the great talent on that show. Ironically, such a home would be the public broadcaster that we don't have. While some in the present government probably care about that lack, hand-wringing isn't budget and it certainly isn't vision or commitment.

If I'm to be bleak, I would venture that we're seeing a vicious circle. Part of Campbell Live's problem may be that fewer of the kind of people who would watch Campbell Live at 7pm are bothering with free-to-air broadcast television. Perhaps in the end we'll just plain stop bothering.

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