Breakfast wars 2022: Tova O’Brien v Mike Hosking, John Campbell v Ryan Bridge

OPINION:

The battle lines have been redrawn. The generals on either side have assembled the best mercenaries they could afford. The scene is set for the commencement of a media royal rumble not seen (nor heard) in years. And yes, this war will be broadcast across the airwaves.

Waving the flag of the sturdy Newstalk ZB empire is the battle-hardened Mike Hosking, whose ruffled hair offers the only hint he has spent decades swatting away all the pretenders to the commercial radio throne.

So who dares step up next to challenge the man who even the Prime Minister regards with a wary eye?

As if plucked from the lines of an epic poem, a breakfast radio novice steps forward in acceptance of the challenge.

Former Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien, an enormously talented television journalist, will go head to head with Hosking in the new year.

O’Brien gave up one of the most coveted journalism roles in the limelight of primetime TV to wander into the shadows of radio to take on the MagicTalk breakfast slot, vacated earlier this year by Duncan Garner.

Garner’s reasons for leaving the show offer an ominous warning of what awaits O’Brien in her role: gruelling hours, ridiculously early starts and constant ratings pressure.

Then again, O’Brien isn’t one to flinch in the face of long hours or hard work.

One of the most enduring images of political journalism in 2021 will be the flash of O’Brien’s canary yellow coat as she ditched a live cross to chase down Christopher Luxon for comment as he headed toward a caucus meeting the morning after the demotion of Simon Bridges. The all-nighter she’d just endured had little impact on her tenacity.

O’Brien has a contact list as long as the list of recent National Party scandals and the resilience to go toe-to-toe with even openly hostile interviewees.

The announcement that she would be joining MagicTalk (recently rebranded to Today FM)prompted the Spinoff editor-at-large Toby Manhire to write: “The poaching of O’Brien is a masterstroke, a literal turning-of-the-dial moment. It makes it very clear that they’re not content with running a fringe talk radio station. As they attempt to assemble a newsroom from scratch, O’Brien’s appointment is a powerful signal that they’re not pissing around.”

The aspiration and symbolism of a rockstar appointment might be there, but at this stage, MagicTalk remains stuck on the fringes.

The latest radio survey showed the cumulative audience for MagicTalk in the 6am breakfast slot was only 77,600, compared to Newstalk ZB’s audience of 491,200. This divide was consistent across all the key metro areas of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

Hosking has shown no sign of relinquishing his spot at the top of the pile, with audience numbers continuing to hover around the half-million mark and his share of the overall breakfast radio market sitting at a staggering 34.9 per cent.

Building on this strong start to the day, Newstalk ZB was even able to topple RNZ National earlier this year to claim the overall top spot – which is no easy feat considering RNZ has a loyal audience and no advertising interruptions.

All of which is to say that Hosking remains as tapped into Kiwi culture as ever – even without regular help from the Prime Minister.

A media industry executive speaking under the condition of anonymity told the Weekend Herald “that flipping this would be close to impossible”.

He suggested the best MediaWorks could hope for is growing the share of time spent listening by a few per cent.

“The thing about talkback is that it has this built-in defence mechanism,” the executive said.

“The audience are old, therefore set in their ways. This also favours right-wing slants – and that won’t be Tova.

“In terms of the political centre/left, you are competing head-to-head with RNZ. So MagicTalk will want to have modest success KPIs.”

Another advantage for Hosking is his suave comfort in shifting from editorial to commercial messaging without skipping a beat. To pull this off without losing credibility isn’t easy and it’s something a traditional journalist like O’Brien may find tricky to adapt to.

John Baker, co-founder of media and marketing consultancy Conductor, notes that another major encumbrance in the ratings battle lies in the frequency occupied by Today FM.

“The interesting quirk about radio ratings is that a lot of it is simply down to listening availability versus personalities,” says Baker.

“It often comes down to a question of whether you can have a quality radio experience due to the frequency in your region.

“Newstalk ZB has arguably the best FM frequency in Auckland (you can easily test this for yourself next time you drive out of the city) as well as being in the ‘Japanese import’ radio frequency bandwidth.”

Vehicles imported from Japan can only pick up a few radio stations, among them Newstalk ZB and Mai FM.

“This is one of the reasons Mai FM does so well in Auckland and why MediaWorks stations, in general, perform so strongly across the country. This was a great strategic move MediaWorks made many years ago, which is still paying dividends now.”

Baker argues that unless MediaWorks adopts a different frequency strategy with Today FM, the status quo is likely to remain unchanged.

“I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it will be a massive challenge and I don’t suspect many media buyers will expect a dramatic share shift in the short term.”

Given that O’Brien is expected to lean slightly to the left in her presenting style, the better target might in fact be for her to go after the RNZ Morning Report audience, which has been shaky in recent surveys.

“O’Brien is perceived to have more sympathy for the Prime Minister and the centre-left than Hosking,” says Baker, “so it will be fun to see if the PM gets a regular slot.”

“Imagine the howls of outrage.”

Dancing on a cliff edge

A relationship with politics has always been integral to talkback radio. Nothing gets the callers and texters more agitated than the bureaucrats in Wellington making decisions in ivory towers.

Advertising strategist David Thomason has spent much of his 30-year career with his finger on the pulse of cultural trends in New Zealand – and he has long been fascinated by the enduring appeal of Mike Hosking.

Thomason says that while Hosking is adored by some and abhorred by others, there are few people as adept as the broadcaster at tapping into the frustrations and angst of New Zealanders.

“Talk radio is a mix of news and entertainment,” says Thomason.

“Hosking knows this better than most. This is why he doesn’t refer to himself as a journalist. He’s cast himself as a dramatic character battling against the establishment. Every time the Government makes a decision, he’ll find a reason it’s wrong.”

This game of daily opinions on everything is a dance on a cliff edge. It might appear exhilarating, but one wrong step and he could join the offensive lemmings below.

Thomason says it’s remarkable how close Hosking gets to that edge without crossing it and becoming a commercial liability.

He contrasts this to someone like Piers Morgan, who went too far, became unpalatable and has since been unable to climb back onto the high platform he once occupied.

This has also played out in the local market, with numerous hosts being cleaned out of the MediaWorks stable as part of the rebrand.

The most notable of these departures in 2021 were stand-in host John Banks, whose comments saw advertisers pull their funding.

Veteran broadcaster Sean Plunket, with his long history of controversial statements, left shortly thereafter and has since started a niche radio brand called The Platform.

And while Peter Williams retired after a long prestigious media career, his more recent dalliance with conspiracy theories wouldn’t have endeared him to many within the business.

Thomason says recent history has shown that commentators leaning further to the right pose a far greater risk than those who lean left when it comes to comments costing money.

“There’s been a big shift in the media landscape I’ve seen in recent years. Brands are far more willing to pull their advertising temporarily to remove the association with a certain kind of thinking.”

Whereas comments made on the radio would previously be broadcast once on the airwaves, they can now be captured by listeners and rebroadcast via social media. The names of employers, brands and sponsors can easily be tagged in sharing the public shaming around.

“I’d be terrified to be in that kind of role – one mistake and you’re trending or possibly removed,” the strategist says.

Thomason says the fact advertisers continue to work with Hosking – and even have him read their advertising copy – shows just how good he is at operating within the Kiwi cultural context.

“That said, he did maybe go a bit too far with Jacinda Ardern,” says Thomason, referring to the decision by the Prime Minister to ditch her weekly slot with Hosking.

“You never want to be so critical that people stop talking to you. It will be interesting to see how this plays out when Tova steps in.”

Whichever way this battle plays out, the real winners here are Kiwi listeners who will have the privilege of choosing their flavour in broadcaster (provided their car offers the frequency bandwidth).

The smiling battlers

Radio isn’t the only venue set to deliver ratings bloodshed in 2022. In addition to creating an opportunity for O’Brien on Today FM, Garner’s departure from The AM Show in August also made a set available on the television side.

His show was previously simulcast, which meant he was essentially doing two jobs at the same time in a strange media experiment that was put to bed by the separation of MediaWorks Radio from its television department (which was bought by Discovery).

After doing a decent job as the stand-in host, broadcaster Ryan Bridge was recently appointed as the full-time replacement for Garner.

So how much of a difference has he made?

Discovery, which owns channel Three and The AM Show, says the show has seen a 30 per cent increase in viewers since Bridge began hosting.

In the 16 weeks prior to Bridge taking over, the average daily number of viewers in the age 5+ demographic was 49,600. Since then, the average number of viewers has increased to 62,300.

In terms of audience reach, the show now reaches on average 163,572 Kiwis aged 25-54 and 351,196 aged 5 and up per week, according to Nielsen.

Lockdown hasn’t been unkind to TVNZ’s Breakfast show either, with the show’s ratings also enjoying a lift, essentially maintaining the gulf between the competitors.

Over the past six months, Breakfast’s average weekly reach was around 604,800 in the 5 and over category and 216,500 in the 25-54 category. By comparison, The AM Show reached around 360,000 in the 5+ and 165,900 in the 25-54.

The AM Show has, however, announced a number of changes that could shake things up in the coming year with Mark Richardson and Amanda Gillies signing off after five years.
Gillies is taking up a new job as a national correspondent at Newshub while Richardson will continue as host of The Block NZ, as well as regularly appearing on The Project.

Discovery has recruited veteran broadcaster Bernadine Oliver-Kerby and entertainer William Waiirua to join Bridge and co-host Melissa Chan-Green in an attempt to narrow the lead established by Breakfast’s rock-solid crew led by John Campbell and Jenny-May Clarkson.

Given that viewership habits are as difficult to change on television as they are in radio, Baker thinks it could prove an uphill battle for Bridge and Chan-Green to chip away at that lead.

“The only realistic way this would happen is if The AM Show was able to somehow bring in some incremental viewers to the breakfast TV zone,” Baker says.

“If they continue to battle over the existing audience, history suggests it’s unlikely the dial will shift dramatically. While Bridge has less of a combative or polarising approach than Garner, denting the habitual audiences of Breakfast and the popularity of Campbell will be a tough ask.”

Breakfast television occupies a strange space in the cultural zeitgeist, filled with light-hearted banter and quirky segments.

But don’t let these frills distract you. There is a commercial strategy at play here that gives advertisers a safe space in the morning to hang out with New Zealanders before they head off to work (under normal circumstances).

“Breakfast has, for a long time, also been cost-effective to buy into television versus investing in ‘peak’ airtime,” says Baker.

This is particularly important given that television audiences tend to drift away in the middle part of the day. Winning the eyeball war during breakfast is therefore crucial to revenue and success of the broadcaster.

The country’s favourite breakfast warriors might dance and wave their magic broomsticks in jest, but make no mistake – they are waging a continuous battle for your eyeballs.

So New Zealand, are you entertained? And if not, who will win your attention next year?

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