Whatever happened to hard news?

FORM REVERSAL: Mike Hosking and Toni Street in the revised Seven Sharp.
FORM REVERSAL: Mike Hosking and Toni Street in the revised Seven Sharp.

When Toni Street was first approached to work on TV One's ailing prime time show, Seven Sharp, she had her doubts.

Touted as the bandaid for haemorrhaging viewers from Close Up, it quickly became clear that Seven Sharp was pouring salt on the wound. Within a week of its debut in February 2013, the show - with presenters Ali Mau, Greg Boyed and Jesse Mulligan - had lost more than 55,000 viewers.

It sounded kind of like a hospital pass.

"I had my reservations if I'm being 100 per cent honest . . . I didn't agree with everything that was being done on Seven Sharp for that first year, so we had quite a few discussions as to what the show was going to be if I was going to be involved," Street, who was working on Breakfast at the time, says. "That obviously involved quite a number of changes."

She thought the conversational approach of the show was a good idea, but the show wasn't getting it right.

"My gut feeling was it had probably gone a little too light for current affairs; for me having worked in news for the past eight years I felt like you couldn't ignore the story of the day and that was quite important to me, that we were reflecting that."

It's been six months since Street has been in the role, and if the ratings are anything to go by, she and host Mike Hosking are going "gangbusters" - a favourite word of TVNZ head of news and current affairs John Gillespie.

This year, Seven Sharp has been pulling an average of 430,000 viewers in the 5+ demographic per episode. In comparison, Campbell Live had 240,000, according to figures from ratings company Nielsen.

But critics say Seven Sharp has gone too far in the opposite direction, with worthy news stories overlooked for entertainment.

And with TVNZ canning local content on 20/20 in May, there is concern that the state-owned broadcaster is placing less value on serious current affairs.

Street says the programme is giving the audience what they want.

"Yes, Syria is a very hard-hitting story and in reality you could do that as your lead story every single night but what we try and ask every day at Seven Sharp is what people are talking about and that often becomes our lead," she says.

"We're not pretending to be a Sunday, we're a daily show that has a conversation with the audience.

"I think that crossover from the traditional form of current affairs to what we are now has been a hard transition for those in the industry and those who are watching."

There's no doubt the chemistry between Street and Hosking is enjoyed by viewers. The Seven Sharp social media feeds are littered with comments like this one from @x-emma-j-x on Twitter on June 12: "@ToniStreet really loving you and Mike on @SevenSharp - I never knew current affairs could be so funny! You've hooked me into watching it :)." or this from Rangi Clarke on Facebook: "Seven Sharp. Love the lightness after a day at work. Mike and Toni are the best! Never miss it!"

"I think one thing we've been doing well so far is we'll do a story but we don't do it to death, and I think ratings can often show you that even if people are engaged in a story, they don't want to see it repeated for two weeks, and we won't thrash a story so that people get sick of it," Street says.

"At the end of the day we think we've got a formula that rates well."

But during an exclusive story, Campbell Live does earn audience attention. When it unveiled the tactics of Dead Sea Spa operators and got them kicked out of the country's malls, its audience jumped 16 per cent to 252,840 viewers, while Seven Sharp's dropped 11 per cent.

While ratings are important, Mediaworks director of news and current affairs Mark Jennings will tell you Campbell Live "creams"

Seven Sharp when it comes to audience engagement.

Campbell Live had retained viewers steadily over the decade, as Close Up shed them. And while Seven Sharp might have a good week, it was not hitting anywhere near the viewership Close Up had in it's heyday, he says. (In 2005, Close Up averaged 527,000 viewers a night.)

The more important figures for Campbell Live were in the older 25-54 demographic, where they were tracking comparatively well - 88,000 average viewers a night so far this year, compared to 103,000 for Seven Sharp.

It was true that what audiences wanted had changed a lot, with NZ On Air-funded shows like The Nation now picking up a lot of the purely political content.

"You can't load up a show like Campbell Live with political interviews any more, so we're constantly thinking about the content that actually really matters to people. Whenever we get that right we see it in the ratings.

"I think [current affairs] is the backbone of the network in many ways . . . we're a big, big part of the network's personality, its brand. When you say TV3, people respond by saying ‘Hillary Barry, Mike McRoberts, John Campbell'. The big stars on this network are in current affairs. We are the thing that consistently performs year after year."

Campbell Live executive producer Pip Keane says their key focus is on breaking stories and, increasingly, on campaign journalism. This had become a big part of the show since 2011, when $100,000 was raised for 12-year-old Evan Hill, whose extreme buck teeth were making his life a misery.

"We look at the ratings, of course we look at the ratings, and we always want to be better but our focus is we are a current affairs show. We will chase the stories of the day, and we will chase the people of the day.

"Our audience is really engaged, and I think we're making a difference. There's definitely a market for advocacy journalism, going into battle for people and I think we're good at that. We can make things happen, we can get synthetic cannabis banned and we can get the All Blacks to Samoa."

Last month, when a gossip columnist suggested Campbell needed a co-host, an online poll with 1400 respondents found 70 per cent thought he was fine as he was. Keane says the survey speaks for itself. "I think what sets us apart is that we've got John. That's our strength, is that we can fit the entertainment in the programme using our other reporters."

Media commentator Russell Brown, who has worked with TVNZ and TV3 and now presents Media Take on Maori Television, said Seven Sharp's ratings could be partly put down to the gravitas of the 7pm TV One spot, which people had been tuning into for decades. (One News had an average of 641,000 viewers in the year to June, while 3News had 281,000.)

"I can see people want something a bit lighter, and it works for their audience. I do think Seven Sharp dumbs things down, I know they have avoided stories when they are heavy-hitting which is not something Campbell Live can be accused of."

Cutbacks at TVNZ are worrying, and Seven Sharp is indicative of the direction in which the state broadcaster is going since the abolition of its official charter in 2011, he says.

"There's so little serious current affairs being made here that it's actually becoming a concern, and in that respect it's hard to see TVNZ as a serious public broadcaster.

"They've brought [the 7pm slot] back from a ratings slump and that can't be ignored . . . but it's made to make money and return a dividend to the Government."

Other commentators are not so quick to dismiss the infotainment style, and say the attention span of the modern audience is more fickle than ever. Canterbury University lecturer in television journalism, Jo Malcolm, says younger audiences will channel flip from story to story, and that Hosking and Street's on-screen chemistry keep people watching.

"I think people have been really warming to them as an on-air duo, and I think Seven Sharp have been getting it right in terms of the mix in light and shade. They've got quite, I wouldn't say heavy-hitting, but harder pieces and then the lighter stuff."

But sometimes they run a fine line, she says. "I mean, Prediction Chicken, really? I can see sometimes why 7 Days takes the piss - sometimes it's on and I think really, is this it, on 7 o clock?

"In general I do sort of despair at the lack of strong current affairs but I do have to give TV3 the marks. The way 3rd Degree took the Teina Pora case and made it their story, there are people who are still digging and getting there."

But TVNZ head of news and current affairs Gillespie says none of the journalistic rigour has been lost in Seven Sharp just because the programme is fun to watch.

"Not at all, I don't see that somehow because you're taking maybe a lighter approach, or enjoying it - I think people must think a smile means you're somehow not pursuing something with the rigour you should be - I don't see it that way and I don't think our viewers see it that way.

"Some media commentators may well, but when you look at the story selection and what we do, we have a wide range."

There is still a commitment to long-form, investigative reporting with Sunday, which pulls in the second highest viewership after One News with an average 613,000 viewers an episode; award-winning journalism which is as "vital" to the network, he says.

The decision to stop producing local content for 20/20 in May was purely financial, because it was too costly to make, he says. From 12 staff, three contractors had lost their jobs and the rest had stayed with TVNZ in other roles.

But he will not rule out more changes. "I would be lying to you if I said there would be no more restructures in news . . . there will always be changes and there should be."

Sunday Star Times