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Send in the Clowns

By billralston September 28th, 2012

So TV ONE’s Close Up is to close up shop at the end of the year. According to TVNZ it’s too old, past it’s prime, tired and no one wants to watch it any more.
Instead TVNZ will invent a whole new 7pm programme which it claims will be current affairs. Neither statement is true.


The three-part nightly current affairs format is more than 23 years old, dating back to Paul Holmes launching it in 1989. Throughout those years its popularity waxed and waned.
A low ratings phase was usually turned around by an infusion of new production staff, stronger editorial content and fresh journalism that meant the programme broke stories.
The classic format for this type of show is incisive interviews with the newsmakers of the day, tough investigative stories that told people things that they didn’t know already, powerful human interest stories and being first with the “gets” – seeing and hearing people in the news before any other media interviewed them.
The idea is to be the subject of “water cooler” chat the next day, making the show a “must see, must not miss”.
Over the last few years, I believe, Close Up drifted from that winning formula. If it was tired it was because making a daily current affairs show is tiring, it is the Russian Front of television journalism, it’s exhausting and debilitating if you do it for too long.
Nightly current affairs requires a constant turnover of reporters and producers, feeding fresh reinforcements into the programme as longer serving staff reach the end of their endurance.
TVNZ’s claim that the days of the three-part nightly current affairs show is over ignores the fact that A Current Affair on the Nine Network and Today Tonight Channel 7 still pull big audiences in Australia.
What is killing Close Up is its audience. The change is being driven by its marketers. Close Up may have twice the audience of its rival Campbell Live on TV3 but it’s the wrong kind of audience.
Close Up viewers tend to be aged over 50 yrs old, the majority live outside Auckland and there are not a lot of Household Shoppers viewing it.
TV ONE fears its audience is literally dying. Advertisers don’t like older viewers, they think they can pitch their products better to younger viewers. Advertisers like Auckland viewers because that city is where the money is. Advertisers love Household Shoppers because they spend the money.
TV ONE wants a 7pm show that will attract this new audience because they can sell more expensive ads and make more money.
While TVNZ isn’t saying what kind of programme it will put in the 7pm slot next year my long experience with the half-witted reasoning of TVNZ’s top management suggests it will be lighter, fluffier, magazine style. Think Breakfast at 7pm.
Then again, another format suggestion involves sending in the clowns. TVNZ’s Head of News and Current Affairs Ross Dagan apparently helped set up The Project on Channel 10 in Australia. It is a news and current affairs show fronted by comedians. No, I’m not joking, comedians.
TV ONE’s strategy is fatally flawed. It’s targeting younger people, women, household shoppers and Aucklanders. At 7pm these people are either watching Shortland Street on TV2, having dinner, gone to the gym, out on the turps or glued to their computer.
All the new show will do is ensure a large clump of former Close Up viewers migrate to Campbell Live on TV3, which is good news for John.
I have the feeling the new 7pm show will be lucky to last a year on screen and then the gleeful marketers and programmers will be able to run a game show or soap instead.
TVNZ has a vertically anally/nasally integrated management structure and Mr Dagan is too far down the bottom of the executive ladder to have any effect on the marketers and programmers who sit at the top.
In my experience TVNZ upper management don’t like News. They don’t watch it, don’t understand it and they don’t want it cluttering up their airwaves. It chews up too many resources, its expensive, and they distrust it because it risks being an intelligent product at times.
What worries me most is that Close Up’s problem with “the wrong kind of audience” is shared by ONE News and Sunday. TVNZ management have already slashed the hour long Sunday to 30 minutes so as to accommodate a talent quest. How long before it disappears off the screen altogether?
They’re already inserting fake news style infomercials into the 6pm news advertising breaks, damaging the credibility of their flagship programme.
I’d be the first to admit even news and current affairs needs to be a commercial product to attract audiences and generate revenue. But TVNZ is headed in completely the wrong direction.
What’s worse is that programmes likely a nightly current affairs show can perform a valuable function in a democracy, holding politicians and newsmakers to account, exposing stories that others don’t wish us to know, and providing genuine insight into what is happening around us.
We are about to lose that, on TVNZ at least.

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