Thursday, November 10, 2005

It's the Quality, Stupid

It's become received wisdom that the problems at TVNZ--from the ratings dip in its news & current affairs to the ructions over salaries--are an inevitable outcome of the insupportable balancing act required by its "dual remit", to act as a public service broadcaster while still succeeding commerically and returning a dividend.

Every commentator and his dog is suggesting that TVNZ be split up, with TV2 retaining a commercial focus while TV1 is freed from the demands of the market to act as a pure public broadcaster a la the BBC. The neoliberal, "government has no business running a TV station" types are gunning for TV2 to become commercial-only (and eventually be sold), while the likes of Chris Trotter are more enthused about the prospect of a "nation-building" public service-oriented TV1.

This may well be a very good move, and the dual remit may indeed be unsustainable. But I don't believe that it is the real reason for TVNZ's slump in the news & current affairs ratings. In this area, the purely commercial TV3 has won viewers simply though providing a better product.

There's a persistent, and I would have thought outdated, view that the market only demands lowest common denominator trash, while quality and local content will always make a loss. That may be so if you think consumers are all morons, and "nation-building" has to mean documentaries about tuataras. But TV3's CanWest stablemate C4 has done a fantastic amount to expose and promote NZ music, developed local presenting talent, and met the needs of a range of niche markets, all while paying its way through the innovative use of text voting.

Over on TV3, take a look at the way the channel presents its delayed free-to-air rugby coverage. With so many people having Sky, this could easily be a lame duck. But presenters Oscar Kightley and Nathan Rawere provide a preview and highlights package which is funny, irreverent and popular. Would stuffy TV1 have thought of getting a gay Polynesian comedian to front the rugby, celebrating and at the same time gently deflating some of the the pomposity of our mythic national sport? I can't imagine a much more nation-building exercise than that.

The news section offers simple, straight-ahead presentation, thankfully free from the eyebrow-twitching frippery of TV1, plus some striking weather graphics.

TVNZ's real problem is an entrenched sense of entitlement and a lack of imagination, innovation and capacity for renewal. It shares the tendency of ex-state monopolies to combine corporate excess with stifling hierarchies and the inertia of bureaucracy. Unlike a real private company, it's never had to fight for and win its market share.

It's also guilty of believing its own myths. Befuddled by endless womens' magazine covers, its management actually seems to have believed that Paul Holmes was a genius and Judy Bailey was the (rather creepy-sounding) "mother of the nation". Meanwhile, those of us who loathed Holmes' insulting style from the beginning, and didn't want any bloody autocue-reader for a mother, have been gradually joined by more and more people who've weaned themselves off their inherited tendency to go straight to the TVNZ channels.

But some, including the likes of Trotter still don't understand that this is what has happened. In his Independent article, Trotter opines:

"The inerrant democracy of the ratings system also requires TVNZ to assemble a galaxy of TV "stars." The Susan Wood, Kate Hawkesby, Paul Henry, Kay Gregory, Wendy Petrie and Simon Dallow "brands" contribute to building viewer loyalty and play a key role in keeping the most lucrative audiences away from TVNZ's competitors.

For politicians and TVNZ board members to complain about the quantum of these presenters' salaries betrays a woeful ignorance not only of their function but also of their huge commercial value."

Wrong. This was the rationale repeatedly wheeled out to explain why the annoying "personalities" foisted on the country were being paid three times the Prime Minister's salary. But surely, the lie to that was given by the experience of Holmes, who took his "magnetic personality" to Prime, where he won all of 1% of the audience.

As many of us had sworn through gritted teeth all along, it wasn't the personality which brought the audience and the advertisers, it was the timeslot. The TVNZ audience was inherited; for previous generations it was the only thing on, and, given reception issues, for some people still is.

The criticisms of "star" salaries by the public and politicians were less tall poppy-bashing resentment that anyone should get paid that amount, than disbelief that they were really justified on commercial grounds. And in fact, TVNZ hasn't been "keeping the most lucrative audiences away from [its] competitors", but haemorraghing them at an increasing rate.

A real example of a presenter winning an audience is John Campbell on TV3. Though this is the second time I've made complimentary mention of him on this blog, don't mistake me for his No1 cheerleader. Like Holmes, Campbell has his tics and foibles which annoy or attract according to taste. But his outstanding quality is that he generally treats his topics with intelligence, and both his viewers and interviewees with respect.

John Campbell did win permanent admiration from this viewer a few weeks ago when, in a piece on teenage drinking, he took the unprecedented step of actually asking some teenagers what they thought. The devilish cleverness--to hit upon the fact that people who aren't included by the first-person plural pronoun in phrases like "our kids" and "our properties", also watch TV.

I understand that with the funding available for public service objectives over the last several years, TVNZ has been able to commission and broadcast a number of locally-made dramas and documentaries, some of which are suposed to be quite strong. It's hard to say, since the majority have been buried away in odd, inaccessible timeslots.

If TVNZ had been daring enough to put even one or two of these new local programmes in prime time, they might have some genuine grounds for pointing to the stresses of a dual remit and conflicting objectives. As it stands, the real problem is that they are doing both jobs badly.

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Susan said...

Quite agree, Simon. You've got it exactly. Only the women's magazines and the media themselves actually believe that anyone cares who reads the news as long as they get it delivered without too much "razmataz" and fuss. As you have pointed out, media commentators fall into the trap themselves just as readily as "the media" themselves. They tend to overlook the most obvious thing (quality of content) and talk about making the presentation more "slick" or "relevant to the 18-35 demographic" or whatever. For example, on Saturday morning on Kim Hill's programme I heard yet another media commentator saying that one "innovative" thing they needed to do was make TV something that people could "do other things to" so they didn't have to watch the screen. I would have thought that what we call "radio" and has been around for quite a while?

Jack Yan said...

Hear, hear, Simon! I don’t follow reality TV, so I’ve been watching a lot more from Canwest such as John Campbell’s show, or, lately, Family Guy. It’s a simple matter of quality, something which the Canadian channels once lacked, but they have been able to deliver more recently. The turning point was when TV3 finally brought its weather up to par with TV1—not that that was the single act that turned things around, but it is a useful marker in time.
   Once upon a time, the government channels did have the knack, but somehow they lost it. This wasn’t solely due to TV3 and TV4 (as it once was) lacking it, but because they put up a decent fight in the 1990s. Since, things became complacent. And the media establishment would champion one another, with women’s magazines proclaiming the very latest from Kate Hawkesby or Paul Holmes. I had never heard of the phrase ‘mother of the nation’, and as I once blogged, no one at my office, and no one in a 450-strong Yahoo! group on New Zealand, had ever heard that description given to Judy Bailey prior to her sacking.
   They believe their own BS. And compounding the problem is a change in PR personnel within TVNZ.
   In my role as a publisher, I am noticing New Zealanders value quality once more. Admittedly, there was an era where we appreciated the dumbed-down television—not because of a lack of intelligence, but because of the novelty of voyeurism. That trend is well and truly over—but TVNZ has not noticed. In fact, other than The Insider’s Guide and The Market, I can’t name any show that I would recommend to people from the two state networks. And you are right, Simon, about timeslots: has anyone seen a single promo for The Market? Or is the idea of showing a multicultural Auckland too much for TVNZ’s seemingly monocultural management to stomach?
   The fact that quality shows are winning fans is something that TVNZ is only gradually becoming aware of. With reality shows—Fear Factor, The Amazing Race—there is a fundamental problem that offends a human instinct: they indicate that you have to be a conniving bastard to win. It’s not the message we want children to get, and I think kids are smart enough to instinctively feel there’s something gravely wrong with that message. I don’t know how these shows do in their timeslots, but ten to one their ratings are dropping. The novelty has worn off.
   It is possible to be a government broadcaster and have quality programming, but that necessitates hard work, a willingness to take risks and, rather than use consumer focus groups (which are rear-view mirrors) take a chance on new programmes that have some meaning. TV3 did so with Bro’ Town, a show which I would imagine TVNZ would shoot down.
   I remember early-morning broadcasts of ETV on TV1, which probably wouldn’t fly now, but it was something untried and earned a following (something, incidentally, Prime could learn about—whenever a show earns a following, it tends to cancel it).
   TVNZ might like us to think Wood, Gregory, Dallow et al are stars, but they forget a simple fact in entertainment: they ain’t stars because they say so, they ain’t stars because TVNZ says so. They are only stars when we say so. And funnily enough, we haven’t.
   However, we might say John Campbell is one, even if he does not swear on TV as much as he does in real life, and Carol Hirschfeld is the most glamorous anchor to ever grace our islands’ screens. They have won us largely because they, and Canwest, have not rammed either one of them down our throats in a desperate attempt to convince us of how brightly they shine. Seems to speak rather well to our Kiwi mentality, when you earn your standing.