New kid on the block turns 21

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TV3 is coming of age. Not just metaphorically, either – later this month New Zealand’s third television channel will officially turn 21, having been a guest in our homes since its launch date on November 27, 1989. 

It seems only yesterday that we first met, although that probably tells you more about Remote than the Mediaworks-owned channel. How time flies when you’re having fun. Compared with stuffy TVNZ, TV3 was a fun park. 

Alright, fair enough, veteran newsreader Philip Sherry wasn’t exactly a laugh a minute, but he soon was replaced by Joanna Paul (now Paul-Robie) who would later become a key face of the network. 

Yet, for all the freshness and novelty value, it’s easy to forget that TV3 was almost scuppered in its maiden year, being placed in receivership after just six months and rescued only after CanWest agreed to come onboard. 

On the upside, the close shave had an immediate effect, spawning the channel’s signature evening news bulletin Nightline, featuring Paul and Belinda Todd, while John Hawkesby took over as the 6pm anchorman. 

The shake-up also led to a change in the channel’s target demographic age, the move to embrace the 18-49 viewership regarded as both a calculated risk and an admission that fighting TV One head-on was futile. 

It worked too, for a time at least. Nightline was mostly heading TVNZ’s Tonight programme on the ratings, the 6pm news bulletin was performing strongly and a policy decision to provide more local content was being well received. 

It was also the time of the “great poach”, when TVNZ One dumped news-reader Richard Long and enticed Hawkesby to switch camps, only to cut their losses following viewer outrage and reinstall Long alongside Judy Bailey. 

Not only did this prove a productive exercise for Hawkesby, who was reportedly compensated with a TVNZ payout of $5m, it also provided a young John Campbell with a major break – co-hosting TV3’s 6pm news with Carol Hirschfeld. 

Together the pair would carry the flagship news bulletin for seven years until, emboldened by the winding-up of TV One’s Holmes, TV3 invited Campbell (with Hirschfeld as executive producer) to host Campbell Live

TVNZ countered with the creation of Close Up and for the past six years the two current affairs shows have been duelling spiritedly – TV One keeping its nose ahead, and TV3 settling for an edge in younger viewers. 

Now, however, with the Mediaworks channel announcing its intention to once more tackle TVNZ front-on, and with Campbell Live looking rejuvenated by the contribution of new executive producer Pip Keane, TV3 is exuding a fresh confidence. 

Whereas once it was the new kid on the block and (in a ratings’ sense at least) a poor cousin to the all-powerful government broadcaster, it’s now matured into what appears to be a growing threat, not to mention a viewing option for all ages. 

TV3’s rites of passage have been turbulent, very nearly fatal and made commercially difficult by the on-going battle against a taxpayer-funded rival. To have negotiated them successfully is no mean feat.