Hard News by Russell Brown


Mediaworks: The only horizon they see

When it emerged last month that Campbell Live was facing the axe, I ventured that Mediaworks had become far more Julie Christie's company than it was John Campbell's. And I think that's the reality behind the news that Campbell Live is to be replaced and its eponymous host will be leaving the building.

The people who make Campbell Live could have done no more to prove the programme's fitness during the six weeks it was officially "under review".

In part because news of its demise gave the show the kind of presence in the public mind that had been denied to it by Mediaworks' refusal to do any marketing, audiences shot up. On 16 nights in those six weeks, Campbell Live was the top-rating show on the network. Strong stories – most notably the Gloriavale series – drove the national conversation. It actually probably helped that they knew they had nothing to lose.

But it's highly likely the decision had effectively been made before the review even began – and that  this simply isn't the kind of show Mediaworks wants to run every night at 7pm.

The kind view would be that although the threatened show delivered tremendous 5+ ratings, the people who watch it weren't sticking around for the fare Mediaworks was choosing to screen after it. Basically, it wasn't providing an ideal lead-in for the reality shows that are the core of TV3's programming strategy and they needed something that did, even at the cost of killing a programme that on many nights was the most popular thing it screened.

But I'm not sure if some of the people involved deserve any such kindness. There are politics of various kinds at play here. The atmosphere behind the scenes at TV3 was toxic well before the rest of us knew there was a problem. Julie Christie's actions in, as a Mediaworks board member, appointing herself to a new senior management position and then mouthing off to staff about Campbell's impending demise still seem astonishing.

Christie's conduct may have ensured John Campbell himself a decent settlement. And while he will be desperately sad to leave, he should go out grandly, take a well-earned rest and then come back with something new. There will not be a lack of demand for his talents, and he now has the scope to do something different, perhaps even something outside linear TV.

It will be difficult for his colleagues. TV3's new current affairs show – let's call it 3 Sharp – is supposed to be on air in six to eight weeks and the only way they'll do that is to retain Campbell Live staff, even recruit the new co-hosts from the existing payroll. They will all have very mixed feelings.

The current Mediaworks strategy does not look kindly on stubbornly independent programmes. The intention is to create a joined-up media company in which each arm serves the other. Already, its radio hosts are required to talk up the reality shows on the TV arm, on air and on the internet. Both will have to promote the interests of the company's new events and and touring partnership, MediaWorks Nine Live.

Already, the establishment of the new Mediaworks Foundation as a channel for any charitable or fundraising activitiy anywhere in the company has limited the scope for the kind of advocacy Campbell Live has long done. I'm told the policy ("sick and vulnerable children only") will even prevent something as humble as an unapproved Facebook share. I also wouldn't be terribly surprised if there was pressure for "client engagement"  to influence 3 Sharp's editorial decisions.

But the absolutely key thing to understand about Mediaworks' current state is that its board of directors and senior executives are focused on the "exit event" – a trade sale or an IPO – that will deliver them millions of dollars in bonus payments. The far side of that sale doesn't really exist for them, still less for Mediaworks' present owner, the "vulture fund" Oaktree Capital. That is the only horizon they will, or can, see.

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