(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, August 4.)
I have a confession to make. I have been wrong about Television New Zealand.
I had come to the erroneous conclusion that TVNZ no longer cared about the mature viewers who make up its core audience. In fact it’s much worse than that.
It turns out that the state TV network isn’t simply indifferent to the people who have been its most loyal viewers. It wants to get rid of them altogether.
They are an inconvenience. A nuisance. An embarrassment.
TV critic Jane Clifton recently reported that TVNZ had vowed to “young down” TV One, the channel of habitual choice for most viewers of middle age and older.
She pointed to TVNZ’s recent decision to install Alison Mau as frontwoman on one of its longest-running and most popular programmes, Fair Go. Veteran presenter Kevin Milne – voted one of New Zealand’s most trusted people – is still on the show, but Clifton says he’s being edged out.
She also reported speculation that Pippa Wetzell of TV One’s Breakfast show was being groomed to take over as presenter of Sunday, TVNZ’s flagship current affairs programme, from another veteran, Cameron Bennett, whose departure was announced recently.
Meanwhile, according to Clifton, TVNZ has instructed the producers of Good Morning to attract a younger audience, preferably at the expense of the older age group rather than in addition to it.
Clifton didn’t cite sources but she is well informed, and too good a journalist to make it all up.
Besides, her article was consistent with comment from other informed observers who have noted a trend to promote younger faces on TV at the expense of presenters and journalists with authority and experience.
Former TV current affairs journalists Lindsay Perigo and Janet Wilson have both commented (as I have) on the preponderance of inexperienced but often pretty young female reporters on the TV news, some of whom barely seem to have mastered the rudiments of English, let alone journalism. Paul Holmes has noticed it too, and remarked that “the age thing” bothers him.
It’s not only female reporters, either. TV One has been busily making a star of its youthful-looking reporter Jack Tame, a boy wonder who is rumoured to be paid a stonking salary despite his relative lack of experience. Tame is a journalistic lightweight who nonetheless comes across well on screen, which makes him a perfect fit for the image TVNZ wants to project.
Clifton’s article in The Dominion Post crystallised what must have long been naggingly apparent to perceptive viewers – and never more so than when TVNZ aired its critically savaged Cheers to 50 Years of Television, a programme made to mark television’s golden jubilee but which succeeded only in demonstrating just how little TVNZ knew about, or cared for, its core audience.
As I wrote at the time, the negative public reaction to this silly celebrity game show, which featured two panellists known only to viewers of a TV2 children’s programme, confirmed that viewers at home had a keener appreciation of television’s central place in New Zealand culture than the decision-makers who run the medium.
Not that the overwhelming criticism of Cheers to 50 Years seemed to bother TVNZ. In a ringing declaration of the organisation’s values, a TVNZ spokeswoman said the important thing was that the show got good ratings.
So now, assuming Clifton’s analysis is on the nail, TVNZ’s strategy is laid bare. The state broadcaster is pursuing a younger audience and will evidently do whatever is necessary to attract that market segment, including getting rid of capable and experienced hosts like Bennett (and Milne, if Clifton is to be believed) and further dumbing down its programming – if that’s humanly possible.
Why is it taking this course? That’s anyone’s guess, but I suspect TVNZ is acting under the baleful influence of its most important clients, the advertising agencies. Ad agency executives worship the cult of youth even though the affluent middle-aged are much bigger spenders. Logically, well-to-do baby boomers should be the ad agencies’ primary target – but since when did logic enter into it?
An even more interesting question, though, is what conclusions can be drawn about the nature of TVNZ’s relationship with the public, and about its corporate culture.
On the former point, it’s clear that the relationship that state-owned television enjoyed with New Zealand viewers for several decades – in which a public sense of pride, involvement and ownership in television was valued and reciprocated by a broadcasting organisation with a strong public service ethos – is at an end. (In which case another question arises – namely, why should the public still own TVNZ when it no longer meets the public’s needs?)
On the second point, I think we can safely assume that the TVNZ hierarchy places no value whatsoever on loyalty, either to its audience or to its employees.
Former newsreader Judy Bailey, who delivered TVNZ a huge audience and effectively became the public face of the organisation, was jettisoned the moment her stratospheric salary made her a political embarrassment. Now Cameron Bennett, who has been with TVNZ for 24 years and served it well as a foreign correspondent before fronting Sunday, has got the heave-ho because he no longer suits TVNZ’s “branding”. Kevin Milne may be readying himself for an involuntary exit too.
The way Bennett’s departure was announced tells us something else about TVNZ’s corporate ethos. The announcement was spun as if Bennett’s resignation was all for his own benefit. “Format changes provided him [Bennett] with a natural opening to assess his personal priorities,” announced head of news and current affairs Anthony Flannery, in a textbook example of human resources department doubletalk.
This unctuous flim-flam didn’t surprise me in the slightest. Having recently been the subject of a letter to The Listener in which TVNZ’s head of corporate affairs flagrantly misrepresented something I had written, nothing emanating from TVNZ’s corporate headquarters – which I once labelled the Death Star – could surprise me.
The people I feel sorry for in all this – apart from the viewers whose loyalty TVNZ isn’t remotely interested in reciprocating – are the many good, conscientious and talented people who still work for the organisation.
I won’t name any, because that might be the kiss of death for them in that toxic environment. But I bet that when they see the fate of people like Bennett, they must nervously wonder when a vial of poison is going to be handed to them too.