It may be time for television broadcasters to see the writing on the wall and cut their early evening news offering to a total of an hour – 30 minutes of news and the rest devoted to current affairs.
They have ample reason to think that the days have gone when they could hold large audiences until 7.30 pm with material that was even loosely news-based.
Warner Bros-Discovery NZ is already partway to that conclusion, announcing last week that The Project will not be renewed next year. TV3’s owner did say it would be replaced by “a redefined news show in the 7 pm slot”. The as yet undefined nature of that programme has led to speculation that Patrick Gower may be the beneficiary of the vacated timeslot.
However, both Discovery and TVNZ had a very hard 2022-3 financial year. In spite of both networks cracking hearty about prospects for the current year, the fact is that broadcast television is looking into the same sunset that newspapers have long contemplated.
Added to that is a drift away from news bulletins. When NZ on Air started its Where Are The Audiences? surveys in 2014, the total television audience peaked at about 70 per cent in the 6 pm to 8.30 pm timeslot. This year, the peak in that time slot was 37 per cent of the potential audience. Given the rate of decline, next year the news slot is likely to attract less than half the audience it boasted a decade earlier.
Discovery lost about $34 millionon its New Zealand operation in the past year and, although the company appears to have a long-term view of this market and its digital streaming potential, it is looking to contain its costs.
The Project is a high-ticket item. It is a copy of an Australian programme and there are costs associated with its licensing (not worth the cost, in my view, as there is nothing particularly innovative about the format). It employs 24 staff, including three presenters, and is filmed in front of a live audience. All of this might be fine for boom times but not in the straightened circumstances in which New Zealand media now find themselves. The Project was living on borrowed time, and the word around the traps has been that the axing did not come as a surprise to those involved.
For its part, TVNZ has seen a massive profit slide in the year to June – down 78 per cent to $1.7 million (or less than the median sale price for a house in Remuera). It has cut costs but, so far, its ninety minute news slot has not been touched.
Newsgathering is a costly business for both broadcasters and is not immune to cost cutting exercises. However, they could reduce costs without materially affecting their news coverage.
Populating hour-long bulletins can be a challenge and it is hardly surprising that they contain ‘fillers’ and material repeated from earlier in the day. A concise, well-paced 30 minutes bulletin could cover the ground without losing a lot of substance.
The second half-hour would be devoted to programmes like Seven Sharp or The Project’s replacement. However, the timeslot should demand a harder edge, more current affairs, and less self-indulgent chatter. Better still, Seven Sharp and The Project could both be replaced by the sort of current affairs interrogation and analysis that informs and holds power to account.
There is definitely room for a mixed format daily programme that combines in-depth studio interviews and longer-form field production. If the combined formats look too expensive, a studio interview approach would have fewer overheads but as much appeal…with the right interviewer.
This may all sound a little like back-to-the-future, but I ask myself whether there is something inherently wrong with resurrecting something that worked well in the past.
Dusted off, freshened up, and given its own personality, a current affairs talk show still has appeal. The number of current affairs podcasts that utilise the format and gain strong followings suggest to me that there is an audience for the genre. It is curious that the format is seen as innovative in a new medium like podcasting, but old hat in the media that gave birth to it.
Television programmes that continue to use the format – like Q&A and Newshub Nation – are relegated to Sunday morning along with churchgoing and visiting ageing relatives. Why? And don’t say it is because they will not work in primetime because neither has been sent there to test the waters. Q&A’s Monday 9.30 pm experiment was a scheduling error that placed it too late for most viewers.
However, a new news hour also calls for innovation. It is an ideal opportunity to combine established journalistic techniques and new forms of digital engagement. And imagine what use could be made of the positive attributes of artificial intelligence.
There is an opportunity to restore some of the 6-7 pm slot’s previous appeal. Then there will be the challenge of finding or producing an audience winning programme to hold the 7pm slot, which won’t be easy.
Here, I hear a resigned sigh: “But all this costs money.”
I have an answer to that.
In the same week that Discovery announced it had to cut The Project, Meta and Alphabet – the parent companies of Facebook and Google – announced revenue that would make many countries’ central bankers weep with joy. Google’s parent didn’t do too well, at least according to the share market. Alphabet had a slow quarter and revenue only amounted to $US76.69 billion. Yes, you read that right – quarterly and only. On an annualised basis that would put Alphabet’s income well ahead of New Zealand’s GDP. Meta’s quarterly revenue grew to $US34.1 billion, up 23 per cent on a year ago.
Both groups are more than able to contribute significant funds toward the maintenance of New Zealand’s news industry, an industry that was crucial in getting them to market dominance and which they have decimated. And their current moves to capture much of the generative AI market will similarly feed off our news media…if they survive intact.
The incoming government should add a significant revenue levy on Alphabet and Meta to its First 100 days to-do list. That revenue should then be redistributed to fund endeavours like a new news hour on our state-owned and private sector television networks.