Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

3rd February 2000 - Eh-oh! Tellytrubbies!

Copyright © 2000 Russell Brown

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and now is the summer of our discontent. No, it's not that we're really feeling dark in out hearts - give or take a Titewhai or two, we seem fairly happy in ourselves. But - as the organic butcher said to me yesterday - what the hell happened to our summer?

I can't remember whether it's a La Nina or an El Nino and I don't really care - can't we just have weather like we used to when I was a kid? Golden?

But if the weather for most of us has been indifferent, it's been metaphorically miserable over Nelson Street. They've been staring glumly out the rain-streaked windows of the boardroom, wondering how the hell this could all have happened.

John Hawkesby, the newsreader who now plays tennis and hosts things, stands to collect nearly $6 million as a settlement over his unfortunate departure after spending precisely 24 grim days of a six-year contract reading the news on One.

It is, basically, a monumental cock-up - one lent extra legs by the former Prime Minister's foot-in-mouth efforts on that same channel. Jenny Shipley, we now know, really did just make it up when she burped up the information on Crossfire that Hawkesby was getting $1 million. It was much worse than that.

Hawkesby, an unemployed TV presenter at the time, signed a six-year contract paying him $700,000 a year - a figure that some New Zealanders struggle to make in their whole working lives. There didn't appear to be a termination clause.

Hawkesby, as we now know, was a disaster. So whose fault was it? TVNZ CEO Rick Ellis brought a ton of scorn down on himself by pointing the finger at Neil Roberts. He was, everybody said, blaming the dead guy. But let's be honest - it was Roberts who first started sniffing after Hawkesby, publicly declaring after Hawkesby spat the dummy at TV3 that lunch would be in order.

But these things always go north. Ellis was not only in charge when the deal was done, Roberts was resting in peace. And in the end, the buck stops with the TVNZ board. One or two of them ought to be a bit afraid.

But this is almost beside the point. Which is that a public broadcaster should not have looked to replace one old trooper with another. If there's anything a public broadcaster ought to do, it's earn market share by developing talent, not buying it.

The archetypal public broadcaster, the BBC, has been losing its stars over the past few years. One by one, they've departed for vast salaries with one of the private terrestrial channels, or with Rupert Murdoch's Sky television.

So the BBC, rather than licking its wounds, has embarked on a nationwide search for new talent. If it works, maybe Murdoch will eventually buy that talent too, in which case it's time to develop some more. Perceptive listeners will deduce that this sounds a bit like the bFM model - the difference being that, round here, the cheques aren't quite as large. Even for Graeme Hill.

Anyway, if they were going to get rid of dear old Richard, they ought to have had a better plan than just sticking Hawkesby in front of a camera and carrying on like nothing had happened.

The irony is that the ratings apocalypse that took place when a familiar face was changed is arguably proof that personalities do matter a lot to the viewing public. The TV One audience legged it not on the standard of reporting or editorial judgement, but because it didn't like what they'd done to that poor Richard Long. In that sense, it's our fault.

Yet none of this is simple. Richard Long, for example, is technically a far better reader of the news than Carol Hirschfeld. But the chemistry with John Campbell that makes Hirsch work might never have happened with the also very technically-able Hawkesby, particularly given that, stay or go, he was in the middle of a very severe hissy fit about having to share the limelight. It was basically better for TV3 to lose him - especially in the light of subsequent events.

The problem with TVNZ is that it is a sausage factory, especially in news and current affairs. Everybody's been through the TVNZ charm school - the "quirky" ones included. But it's the onscreen personalities who haven't been groomed - Holmes, McCormick and Havoc and News, who actually nail it.

The culture is embodied also in the way the new is done. It was TVNZ, remember, which introduced to news bulletins such ghastly redundancies as the phrase "our top story" - oh, that'll be why it's on first, then.

A few years ago I wound up at a dinner table with a senior TVNZ executive who solemnly told me that being the market leader wasn't easy. It brought challenges of its own, he said. Maybe they need to get over it.

The top brass have certainly been taken down a peg or two by Helen Clark's announcement that the government will not presently approve TVNZ's Big Plan for a $217 million joint venture into digital TV with the British company NTL. But if this is some punishment for the Hawkesby debacle - and TV3 so gleefully rolled the two together in its reporting this week - or a sign that the government's got the pip, then it's wrong.

Former SOE minister Tony Ryall rushed to the press to declare that Labour had consigned the public broadcaster to a backwater by knocking back the joint venture. Ryall appears to be as shameless in Opposition as he was in government. One doesn't generally like to report table talk, but I had the questionable fortune of being sat next to Ryall at lunch last year - and his enthusiasm for the plan was nowhere in evidence then. He seemed very dubious indeed.

By the same token, a new government has every right to baulk at approving a plan for the biggest single investment in New Zealand broadcasting history in its second month in office. With National's wilful underfunding of Te Papa already threatening to mess up Clark's treasured arts and culture plans, she hardly wants the same thing to happen in broadcasting.

There is a policy vacuum around public television right now. But if Cabinet is going to fill that vacuum, it better not muck about. And anyone who believes TVNZ can just make the world stand still and potter along making programmes about worthy topics is wrong, wrong, wrong.

For all its glitz and cheese and messy management, TVNZ has also harboured some really good work. Its Website is the most popular New Zealand site on the Internet. Its visionary work with low-cost, fast and flexible hard drive-based production systems for community TV was winning awards two or three years ago.

The broadcast project TVNZ has built around the America's Cup is absolutely leading edge - more interesting than the boat-racing to my mind. It has a growing international reputation as host broadcaster for major events.

Now, excuse me, but do you see Sky of TV3 doing any of this? No. Sky might have paid for the rights to screen sport, but the OB vans at the ground come from Moving Pictures, a TVNZ subsidiary. And it's not like Rupert Murdoch or Canwest Global don't have the money. They've just got better places to put it than in little old New Zealand.

The fact is, it will probably only be public policy that procures serious investment in broadcasting production and delivery in New Zealand. If that policy is to be expressed via a state broadcaster, Cabinet will probably be obliged to conclude that the state broadcaster will need a business strategy and a major partner - and, probably, that pay TV will be part of the mix. It may well decide that a deal with NTL ain't a bad idea after all - if for no other reason than that NTL is used to doing battle with Rupert Murdoch.

One cause of qualms in the government is the fact that the digital platform TVNZ wanted to use - Power TV - is not the same as that settled on by the Sky empire - Open TV. It seems a bit better for interactive services, actually, but that's beside the point. Somebody really needs to explain to Marian Hobbs that only having one kind of digital decoder in New Zealand isn't as good an idea as it sounds.

Sure, things could be worked so everyone's got the same set-top box. But it's almost impossible at present to have more than one service delivering to any one box. One reason for that is that these things are built with chips that can be rewritten over the air as the broadcaster requires. Having two services managing the same box would be like having Telecom and Vodafone trying to mess with your mobile phone at the same time.

Basically, just like you need a different phone for each of the cellular providers, you're going to need a different box for every service provider. It's actually not that big a deal.

On the other hand, if Sky Television is granted the monopoly on the delivery of digital television in New Zealand we will all surely be rogered by Rupert. Sky's production standards are shoddy enough as it is, without handing them the nation on a plate. There must be meaningful competition in digital - and if it's not going to be TVNZ and NTL then the government needs to work out who it is going to be.

And, finally, a word on Waitangi. The Prime Minister will celebrate our national day at Akaroa - and frankly the wicked old witch and the silly old men deserve no better.

Ngapuhi can't expect to get the main event back until it sorts its own shit out. And maybe not even then. Maybe the feast ought to be mobile.

We tend to forget that the big official production at Waitangi is the legacy of a former Prime Minister - Rob Muldoon. Perhaps, in broadening the focus of the day, the new Prime Minister may be creating a legacy of her own


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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