CTV rises after earthquake tragedy
Bold southern leadership has revived CTV three years since it lost most of its staff and plant in the Christchurch earthquake. MIKE CREAN reports.
Asomnolent air settles on the offices of CTV in Christchurch. Mid- morning. In a dimly lit labyrinth of little rooms journalists and technicians peer earnestly at computer monitors - wizards conjuring the magic of television for Canterbury homes.
This is regional TV, poor cousin to New Zealand's media clan, an understated, under-rated medium, its future perpetually in doubt.
Early-afternoon. In strides Nick Smith and the spell is broken. Large of build and personality, the affable Dunedinite is half-owner with his brother, Sir Julian Smith, of Allied Press which bought CTV in 2002. CTV is one of two regional channels in the company's stable, among a dozen South Island newspapers.
Smith's arrival brings older employees out of their cubby holes. They rib one another. They joke and guffaw. Smith is a man among equals, relaxed, easy going. He seems unworried that CTV has been through several phoenix episodes. He exudes confidence that it will rise again. He will be the wind beneath its wings.
But let's, for the sake of context, rewind the clock a year or two.
Smith was driving home to Dunedin when his car radio announced Christchurch's devastating 2011 earthquake. Next morning he drove back to inspect the chaos at CTV. He was appalled. Sixteen staff members were dead. The central city building was flattened. Equipment was destroyed. Cars were crushed under rubble.
Allied Press isn't governed by a huge board of directors that wrangle over reports from business heads and marketing analysts at oaken tables. Faced with tragedy and destruction, Smith sifted the arguments in his head. CTV was unprofitable but well insured. Common sense said write it off. His instinct said revive it.
"Perhaps it was blind faith. The future was debatable. It would have been so simple to let CTV die. Sensible people might have taken the insurance and shut down and walked away. But being southern-type people, with feelings for staff and the victims who perished, it would have been a slight to them. I decided we would get up and running as soon as we could," he says.
Seventeen employees were in the CTV building when the February 22 earthquake hit. Receptionist Mary-Anne Jackson had begun work there when the company was formed in 1991. She was at her desk inside the front door when the floor heaved, the staircase arced like a pendulum and window panes erupted. She ran outside, onto the road.
"Looking over my shoulder I saw it coming down. I felt a deep sense of helplessness. People were running everywhere. I was in a state of shock, shaking. Seeing the building collapse with all my good friends inside, innocent, good people, their lives taken in seconds. I felt numb and alone," she says.
Jackson sat up all night at a friend's place with candles burning and radio playing, hoping for news of a rescue. It never came. She was the sole survivor among CTV staff who were in the building. Ten others had the good fortune to be out of it when it came down. They, too, were saved.
She remembers trying to go back to the CTV building next day but being blocked by earthquake authorities. Then word came that Smith had called a meeting in the Mainland Press offices on Wairakei Road. The favoured few gathered there and heard Smith's decision.
"He said we would get up and running in memory of our colleagues. We ran on adrenaline. We banded together. We had a special bond," Jackson says.
Long-time CTV presenter Rob Cope- Williams returned from the country after the earthquake to find his home engulfed in liquefaction for the second time in five months. He tried to reach the CTV building but was turned away. He heard it had collapsed and 17 people were feared trapped within it.
"I just hit the wall," Cope-Williams says. "It started to sink in when we met at Mainland Press, 11 survivors, all in a daze. Wild rumours went around but we were groping at straws. I was an emotional wreck, frequently in tears."
Depression set in, he says. "I hated going to sleep, dreaded going to sleep, because I dreamed of walking around the building and meeting old colleagues."
Depression plunged him into grief. It was often spurred when people he did not know came up to him with tears in their eyes and thanked him for what CTV was doing.
"I felt exceedingly humble, also mentally, physically and psychologically exhausted. We just kept going. We kept putting challenges in front of us and that got us through.
"We owe great thanks to Nick. He worked very hard to get it going. He could have walked away.
"We thought, 'we have to make this work'. There were lots of barriers but we did it. People said we would never do it. We set a stake in the ground - news on the air within two months. Nick did a deal with Maori TV. We sent the programmes to Maori TV and we were on air on the 18th of April."
Producer-director Doug McCammon counts himself lucky. He needed a new cellphone and decided to go to the shop before the lunchtime rush. He left the CTV building a couple of minutes before the quake. He lived.
McCammon tells of colleague Malcolm Harris, whose wife worked at QEII Pool. She was walking beside the pool when a swimmer had a heart attack. Fully clothed, she dived in and saved him. Then she rang Harris and asked him to bring her some dry clothes. He left on this errand just moments before the quake. He lived too.
Lucky stroke. . . There but for the grace of God . . . Some guiding hand.. . A close call. "I'm sorry, but all those cliches are true," McCammon says.
The rebuilding of CTV was beset with difficulties.
The company found a home, "shoe- horned" (as Smith says) in the cramped quarters of Mainland Press, a building leased from Tait Electronics in the bustling commercial area near Christchurch International Airport. Then the search started for equipment to replace the gear lost in the quake.
Fortunately, the insurance payout enabled CTV to order a new electronic suite from Sony in Japan. Unfortunately, the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck there only a month after the Christchurch disaster affected shipping and delayed delivery by several weeks.
A third blow was the effect of business disruptions caused by the quakes. Many businesses closed or moved away. Seventy per cent of CTV's advertising base disappeared. It seemed a case of the softball rule: "three strikes, you're out". But Smith was a cricketer. He overturned the umpire's decision.
"This was a tough period," Smith says. All the while CTV staff were still dealing with the loss of colleagues in the quake. Jackson attended 13 funerals within two weeks, two of them on one day. Three months later she endured it all again at memorial services for the three victims whose remains had been unidentifiable and required DNA analysis overseas.
"It broke your heart to see the families and the young children of victims. Three years on it is still very raw for them. It doesn't go away. It still affects me," she says.
Add to that the stress of having to move out of her shattered house while it was made safe, moving back in, then packing up her belongings to allow repairs to be done. She credits the "huge emotional support" of family and friends for keeping her going.
Jackson says the main reason CTV rose from the ashes was the resilience of staff.
"CTV was always close to our hearts. All the staff were passionate about CTV. They loved it. Murray Wood (then manager and a victim of the quake) was our rock. It was his baby. He was very kind, had a big heart."
She has a special feeling about the 16 victims. "I believe they have been guiding us, giving us direction, giving us motivation to keep going. I miss them all."
This feeling is preserved in a simple shrine to the victims in the CTV offices. Staff and families attend a memorial service each anniversary date. Seventy people shared songs, reminiscences and laying of wreaths last February.
Cope-Williams tried to focus on his work through the cloud of depression. For months he hardly ate and slept little.
"I was running on empty. I had nothing left to give. I worked harder and harder to get through. I am still going through it, a personal mixture of grief, frustration, guilt that I was not in the building. I have not managed to exorcise it yet. Things still affect me. Anything to do with emotion sneaks up behind me. It was a very hard slog but we rebuilt CTV. We did it the Kiwi way," he says.
It was tough, says Smith, but exciting too.
"Did we do the right thing?" he muses. "Probably not financially. But we never shy from a challenge. We will keep going. In for the long haul."
CTV, New Zealand's first independent regional TV channel, had always struggled financially. Manager Andrew Keeley says its financial position six months ago was "pretty grim". He would not say how close it was to collapse but added: "We needed dramatic change. We could not keep going on as we were. Fortunately the Smiths back it. They are absolutely committed to it."
Regional TV throughout the country represented a chronic equation: under- investment plus mediocre management equals downward spiral to debt and demise.
Fifteen regional channels are operating in New Zealand. About as many casualties have fallen by the wayside. Only three continue in the South Island, with CTV easily the biggest. Dunedin's Channel 9 battles with hilly terrain to beam pictures to many parts of the city. Like CTV, it has been propped up by owners Allied Press. Invercargill's Cue TV benefits from a Sky frequency, making it available to viewers everywhere. The frequency was granted by the Government in return for an undertaking to offer educational programmes to the whole country.
Rebuilding would not be enough. There had to be change, says Smith.
"Getting up and running has been a challenge. We've done it. Now we are looking for the claw-back. The same-old is not an option. It is either up or out. We need innovative programming to grow audiences, which brings in advertising," he says.
The channel had to deal with New Zealand's switch from analogue to digital TV last year. This meant educating the public on how to access CTV. It has launched a flyer to households advising how to adjust their sets to Freeview 40 or to Igloo on Channel 86. It will soon unveil a promotion in conjunction with Challenge service stations to reinforce this message. With digital TV allowing its signal to reach a wider area, from Waimate to Kaikoura, it is working to capture a bigger audience and broaden its appeal beyond the "core" of women viewers aged 35-plus.
Smith believes regional TV should prosper in Canterbury with its largely flat topography and half-million population. Yet CTV "went bust three or four times in the past," he says. Good programming and low costs are his prescription for a healthy channel.
Keeley was appointed general manager last October to address these needs. He grew up in Christchurch. He worked for The Press and The Star before shifting to Australia and a career in community newspapers. After the earthquakes he was torn between a wish to come home and a fear of confronting the devastation. The homing instinct won and he is glad.
Smith admits news stories used to be "too long and boring". Keeley has recruited new blood in the journalism side to make news snappier and more interesting. Livewire addition Jacqui Shrimpton has already made a difference. CTV has re-branded news delivery as "First at 5", rescheduling the evening bulletin to 5pm to capture the at- homes and workers knocking off at 4pm. A repeat at 6.30pm catches a later audience.
Keeley has increased technical staff to beef up production. Local programming will increase from the current 18 per cent to 30 per cent. Even 18 per cent is far above what other regional channels achieve, he says. Meanwhile CTV produces and sells items around New Zealand and the world. It helps train students from journalism and broadcasting schools in Christchurch.
Keeley wants "a real local medium" that will increase viewers from the current "conservative estimate" of 250,000 a week. With a potential audience of 500,000 and a "local content for the local market" philosophy, he is "very confident" of meeting, or exceeding, this target. An independent survey planned for late April will show if he is right.
Canterbury University lecturer in television journalism Jo Malcolm sees a revival of CTV as positive for the region.
"CTV is really important. It is good for the city to have them covering local issues. We are lucky to have them. I am excited about it," she says.
Malcolm says CTV must build its audience, which means improving its news.
"News is the cornerstone of any channel. You really have to pull people in for the news. People are very habitual about TV watching. You must work hard to get them. A really good news product will be essential. People like to see stories about their city and region. So many stories are happening at the moment. There is a wealth of news out there," Malcolm says.
She cautions that a news service is expensive to run. She says CTV must be clear about its focus - is it Christchurch news or Canterbury news?
"They must put in the money. It always comes down to resourcing," she says. She is thrilled to hear that Allied Press has decided to stand behind CTV.
Press television commentator Trevor Agnew says CTV's small-scale and local focus has long appealed to older viewers and anyone who wants a break from the youth-oriented approach of the big channels. Watching bowls from Burnside, re-runs of Petticoat Junction, local documentaries, old movies and reports from the A&P Shows around Canterbury is "very easy", Agnew says.
Many older viewers' have difficulties adjusting their TV sets to receive CTV, Agnew says. However, advertising volumes indicate the channel is doing reasonably well in a market that is being "squeezed" by so many options.
A TV channel needs a point of difference to survive in a competitive climate and CTV has this with its local emphasis, Agnew says.
Keeley acknowledges the challenges. He sees increasing public confusion over the proliferation of electronic news media. He is "annoyed" that the Government paid $1 million for a Sky frequency for Auckland's Face TV. He believes Canterbury is more deserving of a Sky frequency, which would make CTV more widely accessible, and is lobbying the Government and politicians for equal treatment.
Keeley knows he must tread with "care, understanding and respect" as he rings changes among staff still affected by the events of 2011.
"But we need to move forward for the people of Christchurch and Canterbury and to make a difference," he says. He is heartened by assurances of independence and support from the Smith brothers.
Jackson is heartened too. Keeley's "get-up-and-go" attitude is encouraging staff, she says. His experience, capability and motivating presence are the recipe for success.
Smith shares their optimism. "I have a much better feeling now than I have had since 2002. If we can't make it in the next six months, we should step aside and let someone else try".