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Ellis starts rebuilding struggling TVNZ

Big bucks target local programming

AUCKLAND — Local pubcaster TVNZ seems to be going from crisis to crisis rather than strength to strength.

But CEO Rick Ellis would rather talk about the progress he’s made in the last 18 months than the company’s worst-ever financial result — a loss of $4.5 million to June 30.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he says.

In an earlier incarnation as CEO from 1998 to 2002, he was deemed by the government as too commercial for TVNZ’s new cultural obligations and had him eased out. But he was brought back in 2005 as the pubcaster swirled in a downward spiral. Ratings were sliding — especially for its newsshows — and it became mired in warfare among on-air presenters, management, the board of directors and its government owners.

Eighteen months after returning, Ellis is credited with bringing calm and raising rock-bottom morale that had staff dubbing the studio complex “The Death Star.”

TVNZ honchos have chafed under the pubcaster’s mandated mix of public service and commercial obligations for 20 years. Indeed, while demanding healthy profits from the pubcaster, politicos have called for more and more noncommercial fare, and much of the company’s focus has been in spinning highly commercial formats as public-service TV.

It also faces attack by competitors like MediaWorks and satcaster Sky TV, which complain that TVNZ is being bailed out of a financial crisis with extra government coin for what are effectively commercial shows.

Some say Ellis’ vision for the pubcaster is too focused on new media at the expense of big revenue earners, and that he is ignoring the core business. Ellis says tighter management has eased TVNZ out of a crisis in the middle of a media revolution.

The Kiwi pubcaster must make a healthy profit with vague public service aspirations — a difficult model in a small market of only 4 million people that Ellis calls “a hybrid.”

His predecessor, Ian Fraser, had blasted the business model when he walked out in October 2005, telling a parliamentary inquiry in December that “TVNZ’s job is not mission impossible, but certainly mission very difficult.”

Flagship channel TV One had been the big problem, but its ratings slide appears to have been arrested, albeit with heavy investment in shows like the local version of “Dancing With the Stars.” But the news division, and in particular the 6 p.m. newsshow on TV One, is still losing market share.

Another big worry is TV2’s 26% fall between August 2006 and August 2007 in audience share as U.S. fare like “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Ugly Betty” failed to bring in viewers.

But the pols who dismissed a too-commercial Ellis are now his biggest fans.

“I’m a lot happier now than I was in 2002,” Ellis says. “I could see that TVNZ was not in a good place. I thought I could lead it out of that situation, and I think we are making progress.

“I came back with a different awareness of the importance of local programming in a country where the media are dominated by overseas-based companies. For that reason it is important that we are successful.”

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