Mark Jennings

by Matt Nippert / 24 February, 2007
News man.

Mark Jennings, TV3's news chief, doesn't have the reputation of a mongrel. He's headed news and current affairs for 11 years, overseeing the CanWest channel's growth from being a decided underdog to beating his better-resourced competitors at TV1 in several key demographics. He has become known as a man with well-considered opinions. The Listener caught up with him at his workplace, a converted dairy factory, where his degree of consideration immediately became apparent: Jennings took a full 24 seconds to mentally compose his response to our first question.

How was Bill Ralston as an adversary? I found Bill probably - and you'll laugh at this - the most mature of all the news directors who have been in that spot. On expensive overseas jobs it makes sense to co-operate at times, and we never sweated the small stuff. From a competitive point of view, we always had a fear that his strategy would work at some point. But I think he's been hard done by. TVNZ agreed to his strategy, they didn't get the ratings results they thought they might, so guess what? "It's all your fault, Bill, out you go." That's pretty tough.

With him gone, you've now seen off six people opposite you at TVNZ. It seems incredible to think that I've been here that long.

You've outlasted executives at TV3, too. When Brent Impey took over as CEO, he got rid of all the senior executives except you. That's because nobody understood news enough to get rid of me. And I do see myself as an institutional memory. When the management team are sitting at the table, someone will say, "Why don't we try this?" And I'll say, "No, we tried that 10 years ago, and it didn't work then. And we tried that five years ago and it didn't work then." Everybody thinks I'm very conservative, but I don't think I am. We've done lots of high-risk things at times.

What's the biggest risk you've taken? Replacing John Hawkesby with John Campbell and Carol Hirschfeld, neither of whom had read news. We had them practising in a pretend set and I remember them struggling. I thought: "Aw, man, this is going to be the end of my career." It was particularly difficult for someone like John, who's a non-conventional newsreader, but I really wanted to do something different. I wanted journalists reading the news, and knew instinctively that that was going to be our point of difference.

Isn't newsreading just mouthing instructions from the autocue? What difference does being a journalist make? There are subtle things. Live and breaking news were going to play a much greater role as the technology got better and cheaper, and I knew that if we had a breaking story on the air, no one would get anywhere near Campbell [for interviewing skill]. It also allows you to work in the field. You can, as we have, bring our news out of Ground Zero in New York and out of Lebanon. You cannot do that with a Judy Bailey or a Richard Long. They're world-class readers, but they're just not capable of that.

You returned to New Zealand after a decade in Australia, turned down a job on the soon-to-be launched Holmes show and decided to head the Christchurch bureau for the fresh new TV3. Why? There's still talk around 3 News about the Christchurch mafia. It was a group of people that were thrown together and by sheer luck we had complementary skills and all got on. No matter how bad the company situation was, we refused to think about it and just ploughed on: our sole focus was beating TV1. We wanted to do it on a daily basis, and we did.

TV3 went into receivership shortly after launching. How did you fare? We all had shares in the company - I think they were $3 - because we all thought it was going to be brilliantly successful. The one programme TV3 had that they thought was going to be a big winner was the Disney franchise. We had Mickey Mouse! In the Christchurch bureau, we had photographs of Mickey Mouse and various other characters dotted around. One of the top executives from Auckland visited the bureau. We were all wearing our ties that day. When he arrived, I went to shake his hand. He looked straight past me to the wall and said to his sidekick, "Mickey is crooked." And his sidekick had to hop up on our reception desk and straighten this photo. Once it was straightened, he turned to me and said, "What is your name?"

Once I had him seated with a cup of coffee, I called my stockbroker. I got out at $2.95, and everybody else in our office lost their shirt. I think they still use the scrip as wallpaper in their toilets.

TV3's done well among the younger demographic in recent years. How do you tailor news differently? There are things that are different and things that are not. Relevance, for instance, is always there. Talking to journalism schools - as we all do - is an interesting experience. I ask the students, "What news do you watch?" I've found these people to be brutally honest. Sometimes their tutors sit and cringe: "This guy is going to give you a job, don't say this!"

How cutting are they? They've always analysed the news bulletins the previous night and they'll say, "That story was crap." And, "Why did you over-sensationalise that?" And, "Why did you run that story on Kylie Minogue? Is that news?"

Is Kylie Minogue news? She has a place in the news bulletin, but it's not at the top, it's somewhere near the bottom.

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