04 May 2016

Mark Weldon's disastrous tenure

So the unloved chief executive of MediaWorks, Mark Weldon, resigned this morning, presumably having received strong hints from his board to fall on his sword. His departure, coming as it does in the wake of numerous high- and lower-profile staff departures from the company, will not be lamented by most of his employees, who have seen a radical reshaping of the network during Weldon's tenure and the end of many of TV3's long-standing programmes. As Duncan Greive has so clearly spelt out, Weldon never understood what makes the network tick and how that affects its relationship with viewers:

This then, was Weldon’s chief failing: that he didn’t understand either the value of news to TV3, or the importance of relationships within the whole organisation. The channel was always the plucky upstart, its culture the stuff of legend. But as waves of those who had made it so departed, at every level of the business, so that culture eroded even as flash new studios were built and new brands pioneered. And if the public hates your channel for what you’ve done to its longstanding faces, they’re going to struggle to get excited about your reality shows and your radio stations.
Ultimately, TV3's owners run a business and their objective is profit. Weldon's role was clearly to shake up the network quickly for selling on, so the vulture capital fund owners, Oaktree Capital (assets under management: US$96.9 billion), could reap a high return on their investment and move on to their next target. So Weldon's approach involved moving away from costly line items like news and current affairs and instead focusing on low-cost, lowest common denominator reality programming, preferably with plenty of product placement deals to benefit the company's bottom line.

This led to a string of setbacks for TV3 in particular, including the ending of a 25 year run of current affairs programming, the cancelling of John Campbell's highly regarded crusading nightly 7pm show Campbell Live, and last week the shock resignation of popular newsreader Hilary Barry. Weldon's brand relied on fellow traveller Julie Christie's tatty reality programming, which achieves higher profit margins but dilutes the channel's brand to the point where it affects viewer loyalty, with potentially serious long-term effects on the station's viability.

This is because TV3 has until recently held a special position in the small New Zealand television broadcasting sector. The twin TVNZ channels, TV1 and TV2, have since the early 1990s moved so far from their original public service broadcasting roots that they are unrecognisable. They offer a solely commercial mix of programming with almost no public interest content, competing in exactly the same space as the privately owned TV3. But TVNZ retains a strong and loyal viewership amongst conservative older viewers who will never shift networks as long as TV1 news runs at 6pm and Coronation Street appears in some form. The rest homes of New Zealand deliver a guaranteed captive audience to TVNZ nightly, and even the unfeasible approach of using the Mike Hosking as the vanguard of a charm offensive has failed to deter these well-trained eyeballs.

TV3, from the very beginning, was different. Starting out as the anarchic, free-spirited upstart network, it was the home of personable young news teams and the rambunctious, daring Nightline crew. Soon it won viewer loyalty by carving a niche as the privately-owned broadcaster that was simply miles better than its publicly-owned rival, and it became the place where young media wannabes were desperate to work.

Although in the end John Campbell couldn't quite bring in the eyeballs and the associated advertising revenue to sustain his nightly current affairs show, what he did bring to TV3 over many years was the hallmark of journalistic integrity, decency and personality lacking across the dial in the bland and relentlessly uninventive TVNZ. With his show's cancellation and the subsequent shift to a revamped and revitalised Checkpoint programme on Radio New Zealand - which is every bit as excellent as hoped, and fast becoming essential viewing - TV3 squandered its point of difference, both for viewers and for its loyal employees. Many other staff behind the scenes have left too during Weldon's tenure, either having jumped or being pushed in the major restructuring to cut costs.

As Radio New Zealand's Mediawatch presenter Colin Peacock points out, all this bad blood has now come back to haunt Weldon:

Mr Weldon stands accused of trashing the corporate culture - either wilfully or carelessly - that those before him had built up at MediaWorks. This was highlighted by the scrapping of well-regarded current affairs shows such as Campbell Live, and Mr Weldon's hiring of gossip writer Rachel Glucina, just after a serious breach of ethics in her now-notorious "Ponytail-gate" scoop for The New Zealand Herald. 
The long list of former TV3 journalists celebrating his resignation on social media makes it obvious how unpopular he was.
Perhaps Weldon's replacement will be given more leeway to retain some aspects of TV3's distinct culture by adopting a longer-term view. If not, history will record Weldon's disastrous tenure as the end of a remarkable era in New Zealand broadcasting.

See also:
TV: Mastermind & Peter Sinclair, 29 July 2015
TV: Competing in a market of fluff & titillation, 12 November 2014
TV: The remuneration whoopee cushion, 8 February 2013
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