It was fitting that the last question at Paul Holmes’s resignation press conference was the one that, over 15 years, became a Holmes show archetype: the feelings question.
“How will it feel,” asked a journalist, “to put in the earpiece for the last time when you do your final show tonight?”
The host put on a mournful face: “It may already have happened …” and the conference was over.
Only two hours earlier, the expectation at TVNZ appeared to have been that Holmes would farewell his people with a final show. But instead Susan Wood, fronted a new show, the hastily-assembled (obviously, there was no time to scare up a new theme tune) Close-Up at 7, and Holmes himself delivered a brief farewell to camera from his office. For all the speculation on Holmes’ future in recent years – including last month’s Listener cover story questioning his future at TVNZ – it was a reminder that in personality broadcasting, change is usually sudden.
There were echoes of the way in which Holmes began his ascent in 1987; taking the breakfast seat at 1ZB while Merv Smith, the man who had held it for years, decamped to a rival broadcaster. If history really were to repeat itself, Holmes would take his audience with him and give his old employer a clobbering in the ratings. But then, eventually, the pretender would haul back the ratings and proceed to glory.
The thing missing from this picture is, of course, the pretender. The facts of Holmes’ departure from TVNZ seem well enough agreed: news chief Bill Ralston wanted Holmes, along with the broadcaster’s other presenters, to go onto an annual employment contract. Holmes (who is midway through a five-year contract in his other job, at Newstalk ZB) could not accept that, so the two men shook hands and agreed to go their separate ways. Holmes cannot begin work with his new employer, Prime TV, until his contract expires on December 31.
It would be naïve to suppose that Ralston had not already been thinking of life after Holmes. A move to annual contracts would have given him the flexibility to act at the right time, and without the PR disaster that paying out a long contract would involve. And apart from anything else, the era of long and bountiful contracts has passed at the state broadcaster.
Inevitably, other media quickly began setting odds on a likely successor. Wood, it seems, is seen as the loyal lieutenant of the old show, rather than the host of a new one. Paul Henry, who Ralston worked with at Radio Pacific, was immediately rumoured to be in the frame. But there was no getting away from the fact that the man everyone thought had the personal attributes – the intelligence, the personality and the sense of humour – to front a flagship 7pm show is is currently under contract at TV3. Even the 3 News report noted, with some satisfaction, that newsreader John Campbell was an “obvious” candidate. Ralston could choose to wait a year until Campbell was available, but that’s a long time to tread water.
Holmes, on the other hand, must be counted a great buy for Prime Television – even at a salary of a million dollars a year, a third more than he has been getting at TVNZ, and equivalent to more than 10 per cent of Prime’s total revenue last year.
No other individual could attract the kind of attention that Holmes does – and, of course, Prime is getting not only an early-evening host, but synergy with Holmes’ Newstalk ZB show in the mornings. TVNZ was never in a position to tailor its programme too tightly to Holmes’ radio audience – Prime will jump at the chance to do so. Prime CEO Chris Taylor also appeared confident that a number of advertisers and sponsors would be following Holmes.
What remains to be seen is how many skilled production and editorial staff will join Holmes from TVNZ before his new 7pm nightly show launches next year. Prime’s only current news programme, First at 5.30, is a lightweight headlines bulletin largely compiled in Australia. Prime will be starting from scratch if it carries through with its plans to support Holmes with a local news organisation.
But already, there are hints that Prime might become a home for TVNZ’s old guard. Prime’s chairman, former TVNZ CEO Brent Harman, approached TVNZ veteran Andrew Shaw earlier this year, when Shaw was producing NZ Idol for South Pacific Pictures, and Shaw joined Prime as its new programmer. Unsentimental and commercially-minded, Shaw is unlikely to be the last to pass from TVNZ to Prime.
In the end, this is good for everyone. For Prime, for Holmes (who will benefit from a chance to prove himself again) and for TVNZ. Ralston would of course have hoped to have both a fully-fledged new show format and a pretender at hand, but in the end, as he told TVNZ journalists on the morning the news was announced, Holmes “has made our decision for us.” It could have been worse.
It’s a mark of the man’s influence that is has been widely assumed that both TVNZ and Prime will next year air 7pm shows based on what we know as the Holmes formula. It’s actually likely that neither show will be quite like Holmes – and indeed that’s what we should hope. Some fresh ideas and competition on merit should be good for New Zealand television, and good for the viewers.