Saturday, July 23, 2011

Karl du Fresne: The changing TV landscape (sorry, media ecology)

“Appointment viewing” is the fashionable television industry term for programmes that people can’t bear to miss. Readers of a certain age will remember when the entire nation stayed home to watch shows like The Forsyte Saga or Upstairs, Downstairs. It was even said that borough councils changed their meeting nights to avoid missing an episode of The Avengers in its “Mrs Peel, we’re needed” heyday.

Back then, television was still something of a novelty and we had only one channel, meaning everyone watched the same shows and talked about them the next day. In an unexpected way, television served as a national unifier. It was as if we all shared one big living room.

So what programmes, if any, deserve to be described as “appointment viewing” these days? For reasons that elude me, Dancing with the Stars and the ghastly Master Chef New Zealand attracted huge audiences.

More recently, a certain type of viewer has been captivated by Downton Abbey on Prime. This costume drama was obviously intended to evoke fond memories of the golden age of British television, but you can almost see the keys protruding from the actors’ backs as they go through the motions as predictably as clockwork toys.

Friends of mine enjoyed it thinking it was a clever spoof, and were taken aback when they learned it was meant to be serious. (In fact Downton Abbey has itself been spoofed, wickedly and brilliantly, in a BBC production called Uptown Downstairs Abbey, viewable online at You Tube and starring such luminaries as Joanna Lumley, Jennifer Saunders and Kim Cattral.)

I can think of only three programmes that I make a point of watching, and as it happens, they're all local. One is Caravan of Life, which I stumbled on by chance a few weeks ago while waiting for the Saturday night news.

Caravan of Life is the sort of show New Zealand does very well. The presenter is journalist and former Good Morning host Haydn Jones, who trundles around the countryside in a 1960s Ford Falcon towing a vintage caravan. Yes, I know it sounds gimmicky - the sort of thing Te Radar might do. But the car and caravan are as far as the gimmickry goes.

Jones has a gift for seeking out ordinary New Zealanders - “characters”, in Kiwi parlance - who lead interesting lives. What’s more, he has the rare knack of being able to make them relax and reveal themselves on camera. His own style is engaging and whimsical without being forced or contrived.

It’s disappointing but hardly surprising that TVNZ, which relentlessly promotes appalling, exploitative British programmes about pathetic fat people, hasn’t done more to draw attention to this modest little gem.

My other appointment viewing is in the TV ghetto zone of Sunday morning, when I watch TV3’s The Nation and TV One’s Q&A back-to-back. Both are good but I’ve decided I prefer The Nation, hosted by Sean Plunket. It’s a no-nonsense, no-frills current affairs programme that typically includes a solid, thorough investigative segment on a current issue (last week it was asset sales; the week before that, farmer resistance to proposed environmental laws that over-ride property rights - both first-class reports by journalists I‘d never heard of.)

Q&A is flashier and more stagey, to the extent that I sometimes have the feeling that the format gets in the way of the content. But the interviews are searching and tough, and like The Nation, it offers us the opportunity to size up our public figures in a way that’s impossible from fleeting soundbites on the news.

It’s hard to imagine now, but programmes like these once screened in prime time. What’s more, people watched them. Current affairs interviewers - Brian Edwards, Simon Walker, Ian Fraser - were the aristocracy of New Zealand television. Gallery in its day was appointment viewing, though we didn’t call it that. Television took seriously its duty to inform as well as to entertain.

But the television landscape (or “media ecology”, as academics like to call it) has irrevocably changed. The multiplicity of channels now available means that no one broadcaster or programme can command the nation’s attention. The audience is fragmented and as channels proliferate, particularly on Sky, competition for premium programme content intensifies and acquisition costs escalate - all of which puts pressure on the free-to-air channels, which (unlike Sky) have no subscription income to cushion them.

The notion of the public service broadcaster survives in the form of Radio New Zealand, but otherwise it’s in peril. TVNZ is in the process of being released from its obligations under the public service charter introduced under Labour. Its sole objective in future will be to return a dividend to the government (not that viewers will notice much difference, since the charter was largely ineffectual).

Programmes like Q&A and The Nation are made only because they’re funded by the taxpayer through New Zealand On Air. And they are at the mercy of TVNZ programmers, who show what they think of serious current affairs by consigning them to a Sunday morning timeslot when only the truly committed will watch. Now that really is appointment viewing.

Yet the champions of public broadcasting haven’t entirely given up hope. They point out that although nearly 50 percent of New Zealand households now subscribe to Sky, on a typical weeknight 78 percent of eyeballs still watch the free-to-air channels. This suggests New Zealanders remain wedded to traditional mainstream TV even when Sky offers them a choice of 110 channels.

In any given week it’s likely that seven or more of the 10 most popular programmes will have been on TV One. In the week June 26-July 2, for instance, the four top-rating shows were Country Calendar, One News, Fair Go and The Food Truck - all on TV One. Only Shortland Street, on TV2, cracked TV One’s stranglehold on the top 5.

What’s more, six of the top 10 programmes were New Zealand-made. TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis acknowledges that “New Zealanders love their local content”.

Figures like this give heart to a small group of academics, broadcasters and television producers who are fighting a rearguard action to protect what’s left of public television in New Zealand. But the outlook is bleak and neither the political nor the commercial environment are encouraging.


Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with most of what you say, but our free to air current affairs presenters' impartiality seems to be sadly lacking.
The program I watched of Sean Plunket's interview with John Key looked shamelessly like a party political broadcast or a preamble to an episode of 'This is Your Life'.
Unfortunately over recent years we have flirted with corruption to the point where we no longer raise our eyebrows in disapproval, but just shrug the shoulders in apathetic acceptance.

Bernard Robertson said...

In England the control centre for the National Grid has to watch Eastenders every evening, because as soon as the credits come up, which varies in time by a minute or so either way, there is a huge spike in demand as millions of kettles are switched on and they have to buy electricity from France using the cable under the Channel.