TVNZ announces it may axe Close Up

CLOSING DOWN: TVNZ is proposing to end Mark Sainsbury's weeknight current affairs show Close Up.
CLOSING DOWN: TVNZ is proposing to end Mark Sainsbury's weeknight current affairs show Close Up.

The cancellation of Close Up by TVNZ spells the end of long-time broadcaster Mark Sainsbury's association with the state-owned channel.

Television New Zealand announced this morning that it will end its flagship current affairs show 'Close Up' by the end of the year.

TVNZ called the closure a "proposal" and said a period of consultation with the show's 16 staff would get underway today through until mid-October.

TVNZ head of news and current affairs Ross Dagan said a new daily current affairs show "with a distinctively different format" would launch in the 7pm slot in the New Year. He would not release any further details of the proposed new show at this stage.

Sainsbury told Business Day the final Close Up programme in November would mark the end of his 31-year tenure at the network.

He said he would have preferred the programme, and his role, to continue but was accepting of today's decision.

"I'd love to keep going until I drop dead. But let's be real, it is the end of an era," he said.

"They've been looking at the programme for most of the year - we'd made a huge effort - but they want to make changes. They want to look at the format that's been there for 23 years. It needs a rev up."

"I think it's time they tried something different, with someone different," he said.

TVNZ has started soliciting suggestions on its Facebook page on what should replace Close Up. The first post said "one with Paul Henry in it," while another said "one without Mark Sainsbury".

The channel's former head of news and current affairs Bill Ralston told BusinessDay that a "reformatting" of the programme might mean the "death of any serious nightly current affairs" at TVNZ.

"If they reformat it my guess is that it'll be populist, it'll be entertainment-focused, it'll be pretty much 'current affairs-lite'," said Ralston.

"It's very sad - that programme format has been around since it was introduced by Paul Holmes way back in the 80s. You could say it's old and past its use-by date, but I don't think current affairs is ever redundant.

"The only thing I can think of for the new format style is something like Breakfast, but they'll have to call it Dinner I suppose."

Ralston said the move would also force TV3's hand over the future of Close Up's 7pm competitor Campbell Live.

"It's also sad for TV3 and John Campbell because he needs the competition to keep him and TV3 on their game," he said.

"It'll be interesting to see TV3's response and whether they maintain Campbell Live or whether they adopt some other format that might attract more viewers."

MediaWorks TV’s head of news and current affairs Mark Jennings said he believed Close Up had been simply outperformed by Campbell Live.

He said there would be no changes to Campbell Live’s format, although the show might up it’s promotional activity.

Nielsen ratings data showed Close Up had slipped from 8.5 per cent of the 25-54 year-old market in 2010 to 6.6 per cent for the 2012 year-to-date.

Campbell Live’s ratings had dropped from 6.4 per cent to 5.4 per cent in the same demographic.

Sainsbury joined TVNZ in 1981 and headed the network's press gallery office as political editor before taking on the Close Up role in 2006.

He was undecided on his future today, but said he was looking forward to returning to Wellington.

"There are numerous things I've been looking at over the years, but the main thing I'm concerned about is the team of fantastic team of people working on Close Up at the moment."

TVNZ's Dagan thanked the 16 member Close Up team, and said that everyone was aware that traditional current affairs shows were losing favour with audiences.

"Close Up remains the number one daily current affairs show by a substantial margin, but ratings for us and for our competitors in this important time slot have diminished over time," said Dagan.

"We're committed to staying at the forefront of what New Zealanders want to see and we owe it to them and to ourselves to continually evolve and enhance television current affairs.

"We want to reinvent the early evening slot, to present the stories of the day in a way that is very different to what has gone before.

"As presenter, Mark Sainsbury has done a fine job and has earned a deserved place in television history through his coverage of some of the most significant issues in New Zealand's recent past."

Former TVNZ news chief Paul Norris says TV3 should be keeping a close eye on what kind of programme replaces Close Up.

The Christchurch Polytechnic broadcasting tutor was responsible for giving Paul Holmes that same prime-time 7pm weeknight time-slot when he was head of TVNZ's news and current affairs department 23 years ago.

Norris said TVNZ's cutting of the Close Up format, which was pioneered in New Zealand by the Holmes show, would affect all of New Zealand's television players.

He said the ratings drop was a concern but he did not believe shunting entertainment programming into a current affairs slot would solve the problem.

"At least part of the audience out there actually want something more serious, more substantial, more meaty, and how to actually deliver that at the same time as keeping the programme fresh, entertaining and engaging, that's the challenge," Norris said.

"It's a very tough slot and it will require quite a considerable feat of creative imagination to get it right, and it may require a little bit of experimentation to get it right too."