History never repeats

by James Cardno / 27 September, 2003
It's got Jackass, but can C4 avoid being one?

Shortland Street keeps staggering along like a blind dung beetle, but there's nowhere for the mass of musical talent that this country churns out to play their videos."

Aaron Carson, general manager for Auckland radio station 95bFM, talks about the vacuum that new free-to-air national music station C4 will fill when it officially takes over TV4's frequency on October 3. The driving force behind the changeover was TV4's continuing unprofitability for owners CanWest. The new station is helmed by staff such as programme director Andrew Szusterman (ex-programming guru of MTV UK, Channel Z and 91ZM, Szusty to his mates), and is aimed at the fickle 19-25 age group. "It's been a journey since we came up with the idea in January," he says. "We've constantly come up against hurdles that have been worked through."

C4 hopes to succeed in a market where many - M2, MTV UK and Max TV - have failed. Station manager Suzanne Wilson - "We saw a gap in the market and decided it would be the best use of the frequency in primetime."

"The channel has been designed to fill the huge gap" - Daniel Wrightson, programme director of Auckland's regional, free-to-air music station Max TV, 1993.

"I just felt that now was the time to put together a package which basically filled the gap that was not being filled by others." - David Rose, managing director of Satellite Media Group, creators of TVNZ's M2, 2001.

Is the continuing gap in free-to-air music TV the inevitable result of chasing an unattainable dream? What killed the video stars? NZ On Air stated in its 2001 Phase Four music strategy initiative that it aimed to "establish a partnership with a music-television provider that will increase the opportunities for music videos to play on free-to-air tele-vision". What happened?

Szusterman's belief echoes the sentiment of many in the industry - that TVNZ (the Moriarty-like spectre behind the demise of Max, MTV UK and M2) is responsible for the death of free-to-air music television in New Zealand. "Max TV was doing relatively well, which is why it was bought and subsequently shut down by TVNZ, who launched MTV UK and Ireland on Max's frequency. Problem was the satellite feeds were reportedly costing TVNZ millions per week. It was never going to be profitable from the outset with overheads like that. M2, in my opinion, nearly nailed it; TVNZ just nailed it. M2 was regularly getting 40,000 viewers at two in the morning. Not too bad for little old New Zealand."

The subject is also of interest to Carson - as former frontperson of Max TV's rock show, he has first-hand experience in the tumultuous world of music TV. "The crying shame is that if you've got a frequency, there's nothing hard about making good music TV, provided you've got a vision for what it will be from day one, and have the commitment to see it through. Max TV cost $60k a month to run - it was totally viable. The commitment wasn't there. MTV was doomed from day one. The motivation for it was the wallet, not the heart. M2? Same thing. The challenge that they [C4], and anyone else with the means to do it will face is to allow the channel to breathe its own air and exist outside the boundaries of whoever is footing the bill."

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