Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Ralston Gone; Bank tells Govt: Sell TV2

A few days is a long time at TVNZ... News chief Bill Ralston officially quit New Zealander's state broadcaster before he was more unceremoniously dumped in the next month or so. The former journalist was originally brought in by former CEO Ian Fraser in 2003 to bring "a bit of mongrel" to the TV One newsroom.

He refused to censor himself, making infamous comments like suggesting former Prime TV's Chris Taylor should be "throwing himself off Auckland's tallest building" (after poor ratings for Holmes), and TV3 had cocked-up and must be "wetting themselves" (after moving John Campbell & Carol Hirschfeld from 3 News to Campbell Live).

Unfortunately for Ralston, ratings for State TV's flagship One News hit a fairly steady slide during his reign. In mid-2004, 809,200 viewers (aged 5+) watched One News... last week that had slumped to just 487,300.

However, media commentators are quite rightly pointing out that Ralston shouldn't shoulder sole blame for the ratings slide, noting the poor marketing campaigns (Text Yes or No now... It's not about us... It's about You! It's Your News!"), and the major controversy over salaries.

He also seemed to struggle to change entrenched habits and working styles at TVNZ, and while the news has changed a lot during his reign, not all the changes are what I would have expected given his background as a top notch journalist. (Former TVNZ employees Paul Cutler and Trish Carter are being tipped as possible replacements.)

Meanwhile, investment bank Goldman Sachs JBWere is encouraging the New Zealand Government to take advantage of the current shake-up in Australasian media ownership, and sell State TV2.

The bank reckons TV2 could fetch $436 million, based on recent media deals. Last week, Tony O'Reilly's Independent News & Media made a bid for full control of APN News & Media (NZ Herald, Radio Network).

CanWest Global Communications is also preparing to sell Australia's Network 10, and is reviewing its stake in CanWest MediaWorks NZ (TV3, C4, RadioWorks).

Selling TV2 is a great idea that is well overdue, although I'm less convinced by their suggestion that TV1 be "transformed into a BBC-style, commercial-free, public channel fulfilling TVNZ charter obligations".

However Goldman Sachs JBWere does admit that privatising key assets is "not within the psyche" of the Labour-led government. It may take a change of government to see a change in attitude towards state-owned broadcasting, but by then the NZ taxpayers may have lost the opportunity for a decent return.

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