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Jehan Casinader: Behind NZ's Newsroom Doors

One year ago, the building blocks of the New Zealand television scene were rapidly rearranged as Paul Holmes handed in a sudden resignation to Television New Zealand and moved next door to Prime Television. JEHAN CASINADER looks back at one of the biggest one-year shake-ups in the history of New Zealand’s media.

Behind New Zealand's Newsroom Doors

By Jehan Casinader

It is two weeks after Paul Holmes debuted on Prime Television with a ceremonious tree-planting session on One Tree Hill. A handful of invited journalists, media moguls and advertising executives gather at Te Papa’s Icon Restaurant in the capital for the fledgling network’s season premiere.

The journalists wander smugly, intermingling and discussing the fate of the fledgling network. Amongst the crowd is critic Jane Bowron, who, the previous week, delivered Holmes a searing appraisal.

The advertising executives are anxious, timidly sipping red wines and obliging weak smiles to the journalists whose flow of merciless reviews in the preceding weeks threatened to devalue their investments. The network’s Chief Executive, Chris Taylor, is unperturbed.

“To the media here tonight, please go easy on us; we have got a long road ahead,” says Taylor mildly. “A slump in the ratings and you are all over us like a bad rash.” Bowron smirks. “We assure you,” continues Taylor, “it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.”

Then there is the show reel, and as Holmes twitters on about how “it’s about passion”, Getaway presenter Charlotte Dawson looks like she would rather be somewhere else. Programme Director Andrew Shaw, the man who brought NZ Idol to our screens before jumping ship to Prime, is ruthless.

“I built Television New Zealand and I am now committed to tearing it down. As for TV3, not even a day’s work. I don’t need to be Lost on some remote island. I don’t need another 48 episodes of CSI Miami. I don’t need to be Eye to Eye, Face to Face or Close Up.” He slams his fist on the podium. “We will win.”

The battles have been fought on all fronts this year, and the networks have been united and divided, from Chris Taylor’s admission that he was relaxed about chequebook journalism, to plans to ban cameras from Parliament, to Prime’s unsuccessful efforts to pinch Coronation Street from TVNZ. Many of the issues the television industry has faced stem from Holmes’ dramatic shift to Prime late last year.

By December, the broadcaster’s departure was just beginning to leave the front pages of the Sunday newspapers, but Tui billboards around town still read: “We’ll miss the cheeky whitey. Yeah right.”

Former TVNZ Political Editor Linda Clark, a long-time confidant of Holmes and now presenter of National Radio’s Nine to Noon, sits in her office at Radio New Zealand House looking over the morning papers. The recruitment section carries a selection of positions at Prime; the gathering has begun. Clark’s own Executive Producer, Amber Older, who had worked with Holmes at Newstalk ZB, was to leave National Radio within weeks to join Prime as a producer for Paul Holmes.

As it turns out, this particular morning Holmes is driving around Central Auckland. Clark arranges an interview, puts down the phone and smiles. “He has just had to pay for his own haircut for the first time in 16 years.” A ripple of laughter echoes through the office.

Yet Holmes had moved to a network that “appreciated” him, unlike TVNZ which reportedly did not offer so much as a thank you after his programme raised $2 million for victims of the Manawatu floods. He admitted to having some sleepless nights in weeks preceding his debut. Nonetheless, there he was, fresh-faced and ready for assault, in a studio that, just months earlier, had been empty except for tins of rat poison.

Prime relied on Holmes to help neutralise the network’s multimillion-dollar losses. But just three nights after it debuted, Paul Holmes nearly slipped under the ratings radar. Producer Pip Keane had said the week before that she would be rapt with 250,000. The programme was not living up to expectations.

But Holmes had survived numerous rounds of staffing cuts at TVNZ, even the biggest round of programme and personnel slashing the network had ever seen, on the arrival of Bill Ralston. On the morning of a busy news day almost two years ago, TVNZ’s Wellington newsroom was buzzing with chatter as the axe began to fall. Staff were told that Mike Hosking has been dismissed; one of the first in a string of high-profile departures from the network in the subsequent months.

A reporter whose position has been disestablished wanders across the newsroom, discussing the future of his career with colleges. Ralston wants him in Auckland; he isn’t willing to move. It is early days, but a deep sense of discontentment is running through the veins of TVNZ. The shadow sword hovers.

A former TVNZ presenter, who wishes not to be named, says that TVNZ management employs a reckless, unconsidered approach. “I’m out of there, so I can say what I like now. But I’ve always said what I liked. It’s quite an unpleasant environment. The way they do things is extremely disconcerting; the gung ho approach leaves staff wondering what on earth will happen next. Morale is low, and it shows.”

Ralston’s known desire to stamp out TVNZ’s ‘celebrity culture’ has not always appeared to be compatible with the reality of successfully marketing a network. Under his management, TVNZ has launched some of the largest and most personality-driven news marketing campaigns New Zealand has ever seen.

While Holmes’ departure offered yet another opportunity for Ralston to hammer home his message, within weeks, TVNZ had launched another widespread and aggressive marketing campaign, for Close Up. The arrival of Campbell Live to TV3 in April intensified the marketing stakes. With the recent departure of newsreader Judy Bailey, and falling ratings for One News, there are new marketing strategies in the pipeline.

A letter, in the unmistakable, wandering handwriting of a child, hangs above the newsroom desk of Campbell Live producer Peter Stevens. “Dear Channel Three,” it reads, “I would like you to stop showing Campbell Live because he [John Campbell] is terrible. I want The Simpsons on, ok? Thank you. Bye.”

The writer’s objection echoed the sentiment of young viewers across the country. But while some soldiers must be sacrificed in any ratings war, the decision to produce Campbell Live produced gains that outweighed losses for CanWest. It was, after all, Paul Holmes who created Campbell Live when he exited the TVNZ newsroom a year ago. Ultimately, he has found himself losing the battle.


Jehan Casinader ( ) is a freelance youth journalist in Wellington.

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