The story of CTV

WILLIAM MACE
Last updated 10:40 28/02/2011

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Canterbury Television has gained more international recognition in the past week than any time in its 20-year history but for tragic reasons.

CTV began as the regional TV pipe-dream of Joanna McMenamin and her brother Paul in the early 1990s: something to showcase the unashamedly parochial voice of Cantabrians.

Its legacy should reflect that, though it has been overshadowed this week by pictures of the channel's destruction which were witnessed by millions on television screens worldwide.

On Tuesday the Gloucester Street "Brick House" that CTV started out in - already condemned and vacant after the September earthquake - tumbled into ruins at the exact moment CTV's modern six-storey home also crumpled to the ground like a final curtain.

But will it be the end for CTV? Many locals hope not. The station has put up a poignant message to viewers noting the destruction of the building and the lives lost in the quake.

As the names of the 15 CTV staff missing, now presumed dead, came to hand late in the week the heads of Christchurch's venerable broadcasting and journalism schools took stock.

Jim Tully, head of the University of Canterbury's Journalism School, recognised Rhys Brookbanks among his graduating students from 2010.

"Rhys unfortunately was working on a story at the station and I guess he will be one of those who's pulled from the rubble.

"He'd only started a couple of weeks ago, so it's pretty heartbreaking to have a former student killed in those circumstances, especially when they've got so much potential."

On Tuesday New Zealand Broadcasting School head Tony Simons ran from his Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology building onto Madras Street to see a "huge billowing cloud" to the north.

"Soon after that someone told me it was CTV and to be honest with you when they said it I was kind of like, 'Oh dear', and then a few seconds afterwards you realise the implications of that, not just for the people inside but for the people you know that are inside."

The names Sam Gibb and Matty Beaumont, both NZBS graduates, sit on the list of those missing.

Another former student had a day off that day, while cameraman Richard Lord was out of the office on assignment when the quake struck.

Another missing associate, Jo Giles, was a some-time lecturer at the school and of course Murray Wood - the station's colourful part owner and managing director was a huge supporter.

"He was probably sitting in my damn seat, if you know what I mean," said the station's former managing director and CTV presenter George Balani.

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Balani was there from the beginning. He recalls how the McMenamins set the goal of a sustainable regional television station and a committed team's passion and elbow-grease pulled it off.

He recalls that TVNZ eventually bought CTV and a lot of the staff were made redundant.

A new incarnation, CHTV, rose from the ashes to compete with CTV under the majority ownership of Balani.

Eighteen months later they moved into the building on the corner of Madras and Cashel Street.

"It was fantastic - we all set that up on the smell of an oily rag, everybody worked for peanuts to get it up and running ... there was an incredible team spirit about it.''

Jo Giles was one of the first to join the team at the new offices, says Balani.

In 2002 the ownership of both CTV and CHTV was merged under the shareholding of Chris Smith and Allied Press - the company behind the Otago Daily Times and Dunedin's Channel 9.

Chris Smith lasted only 18 months and that's when Murray Wood put his hand up, said Nick Smith, chairman of Allied Press.

He says they chose Wood, who was a 10 per cent shareholder in Renaissance Corporation and founder of Magnum Mac, because of his ICT experience and that the father of six was a ''local''.

So was the channel still run on "the smell of an oily rag"?

"I would say it was run on a well oiled rag when you look at the numbers of staff we had compared with operations elsewhere,'' Smith said.

The station had 25 staff based in Christchurch.

"I might say that the wage rates were not as high as TVNZ, well that's obvious,'' Smith said.

"We ran it as tight as we could, in fact we were just starting to tighten it up even more in the last few months because we did get over-bloated with numbers.

"Since September the debtors ledger started to go out as people found it difficult to pay their commitments."
Smith has been quoted as saying the station will broadcast again, but he emphasises that he is only part owner. Wood's wife is now an equal decision-maker on the future of CTV.

"But, if there's a chance that everything works out then yes, we'll be back again, but there are too many intangibles at the moment to come to a hard and fast decision."

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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