TVNZ exchanges current affairs for a mess of pottage at 7pm

Seven Sharp presenters Greg Boyed, Alison Mau and Jesse Mulligan

I think it was my good friend Joe Atkinson who coined the term ‘morselisation’ to describe what began to happen to news and current affairs programmes in this country from around 1989 when real competition for viewers and the advertising dollar arrived with the launch of TV3.

The term reflected the view of television executives that viewers had a limited appetite for serious current affairs programming and could only handle information if it was served up to them in bite-sized chunks.

News items consequently got shorter; the 15-second sound-bite shrank to 5 seconds; and long-form interviews were relegated to the advertising-free viewer wasteland of Sunday morning.

If you were so ungenerous as to point any of this out, the executives would remind you of Holmes and later Close Up and Campbell Live, top-rating current-affairs programmes which they broadcast in prime time.

My own view was that these were actually magazine programmes with a heavy emphasis on ‘infotainment’, not least in the confrontational styles of their host/ interviewers.

The norm for these shows was to have three items in each 30-minute programme. 10 minutes per item – sounds not too bad.

But if you take out the commercials you’re left with about 22 minutes. And at least another minute for titles, end credits, the host’s opening and closing etc.  That’s a generous 21 minutes which happily divides by three into 7 minutes per item.

Now I can tell you that you can ask quite a lot of an interviewee in 7 minutes. But what is almost impossible to do is resolve a contentious issue in a 7-minute interview.

What is totally impossible to do is to reach any form of resolution in a 3-header – host/proponent/opponent – debate on a contentious issue.

Which is why the late lamented Mark Sainsbury was compelled to wrap up most of his debates with the words, ‘I’m sorry, we’ve run out of time.’ He hadn’t actually  ‘run out of time’ at all; his masters had simply chosen to allocate only one third of the available programme time to the debate, leaving 14 minutes for the de rigueur human interest story and the item on the world’s longest sausage roll. Bite-sized chunks, you understand.

It now turns out that these were actually the good old days. Close Up is to be replaced by Seven Sharp. It’s probably unfair to review a programme which has yet to be broadcast, but the omens really aren’t looking good.

First, the programme space is to be shared by three presenters, not occupied by one. I’m a huge fan of Ali Mau; I think Jesse Mulligan is brilliant; and Greg Boyed is an interviewer. But Ali, Jesse and Greg all together, sharing 22 minutes of…. Well, goddammit, of what?

I’m indebted to the Herald’s John Drinnan who has fossicked out some of the answers:

‘… a marketing source said the show would be built around short, sharp segments and be heavily oriented towards social media such as Facebook and Twitter… A marketing source said that while Close Up was broken up into three segments, Seven Sharp might have up to eight short “bites” or segments with up to five people on the panel.’

Warning! Smaller bite-sized chunks may leave some viewers hungering for something more substantial.

But can we really trust an unnamed ‘marketing source’? Here’s what TVNZ Head of News and Current Affairs, Ross Dagan, had to say:

‘Seven Sharp will reflect the day’s events with smart thinking, different viewpoints and plenty of laughs along the way.’

He added that the content would not be a continuation of stories from One News which were best covered in the news hour. The programme would have a ‘conversational tone’ similar to the Holmes show, and its focus would be on current affairs and would include interviews.

To summarise: Three presenters, panel of five, eight short bites, smart thinking, different viewpoints, plenty of laughs along the way, nothing that was on the news, conversational tone, focus on current affairs, will include interviews.

Confused? Well no more confused than the show’s hosts who, according to one TVNZ insider, reported by Rachel Glucina less than a week ago, ‘still have no clear direction about the show.’

Well, I think I can help them there. On a night when there are ‘eight short bites’ you will have 2.75 minutes per short bite in which to pursue any of the ingredients listed above including focusing on current affairs and conducting interviews, ‘in a conversational tone’ of course.

Oh hell, let’s call a spade a spade. You won’t be on a current affairs show at all. TVNZ has abandoned even the remnants of current affairs it had at 7 o’clock in favour of a light entertainment show. Time to brush up on the old soft-shoe-shuffle perhaps?

As I write this, the Herald is running an on-line poll asking readers which television programme they’re likely to watch at 7 o’clock. It’s totally unscientific of course, but so far the votes are running as follows: Seven Sharp 7%, Shortland Street 14%, Campbell Live 18%, something else 21%, ‘I’ve got better things to do than watch TV at that time’ 40%.

Most of that 40% are lying of course. But I’m pretty sure Campbell Live will be the big winner out of all this. And justly so. John has brought no-holds-barred,  campaigning, investigative journalism back to our screens. He should have no competition from this mess of pottage.

Media trainer and commentator Dr Brian Edwards blogs at Brian Edwards Media

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28 Comments & Questions

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What a joke TVNZ current affairs is becoming.

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TVNZ has been a complete joke for a long time and the like of Holmes and Sainsbury are pygmies in interviewing technique. The 40% are probably just bending the truth a little, probably watching the opening minute and, if judged a waste of time, doing something more useful. If Intel, as rumoured, is to launch a pay per channel TV service hosted in The Cloud it is difficult to see how TVNZ will become anything apart from a weather service, which at least has talented presenters.

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I am one of the 40% in the NZ Herald survey. My reality is that, when I watch the news (My-Sky'ed so I see it when I want, and fast-forward through the ads) I check the promo for the 7pm show. If there is something there I want to watch, cue My Sky, and again fast-forward to the specific article and delete the rest. Over the past 18 months, a 7pm current affairs programme has been viewed in that manner twice. The rest is wasted time.

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I used to switch to QI on Prime at 7pm, but I see it is no longer there. Much too erudite for TV audiences, I guess.

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Dear Brian,

I do sympathise with your view regarding the demise of reporting news and current affairs into small illegible and short manageable sound bites; but can I suggest that if you venture into any mall around NZ you will understand the reasons why this downward evolution in news and reporting has taken place.

Take the opportunity to sit as a conscientious observer near a food hall in a mall and observe the following scenario: at some point its guaranteed that you will spot a grossly overweight woman heading in your general direction (i.e. to the food hall) in a T-shirt emblazoned with the word SEXY or PORN STAR wearing shorts that are so cut off they allow you to lip-read as she walks while the protruding legs (or pork sausages disguised as legs) make her looks like she is smuggling popcorn under her skin, slumbering towards you in a gait that is familiar in any mall around NZ and can only be described as the “welfare shuffle”.

As you sit and wonder at this 200kg colossus seemingly defying the laws of gravity shuffling towards you, the mind naturally wanders to the question “who the f**k can afford to feed it; when suddenly from out of nowhere three obese children aptly named as Sapphire, Harley and Chardonnay emerge from the shadow of the shuffling “mothership”.

Equally surprising is the emergence of her partner Nigel, the part-time cage fighter who works behind the counter at Repco whose only assets are his tattoos and a 9-year old Nissan Skyline into which he has poured every spare dollar that his obese “Porn Star” partner Raquel did not manage to commandeer though the drive through at KFC.

As you observe this emerging majority of New Zealand humanity (sic) you may wonder what does this have to do with demise of reporting news and current affairs; well Brian, Nigel and Raquel are it; the reason why reality shows, junk food, smoking, obesity are triumphing in NZ and why this emerging majority in NZ society has an understanding of worldly affairs (and geography) driven only by their connection to online games like Mindcraft, Tokyo Jungle and Assassins Creed, rather than true current events.

The only way to again create a utopia of citizens concerned and interested about actual reporting of news and current affairs is to device a socio-economic nuclear bomb that every year wipes out the bottom 10% of the population; only then will we raise the conscious awareness of NZ towards news and the reporting of current affairs.

Cheers

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Seven Sharp sounds like the perfect opiate for the masses you describe. No doubt Harley, Chardonnay and Saffy will reference its pieces in their NCEA essays.

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Hey, Jono, you didn't work alongside Al Bundy, in his shoe store, did you?

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Mate, that comment is worthy of a page to itself. Everyone thinks it... Jono tells it like it is.

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I have to disagree. I will accept Chardonnay but the other two kids would be called Serenity and Nevaeh (where it is explained that this is heaven spelled backwards at every available opportunity in a manner such that you feel you are expected to gasp in awe at the wit and intelligence of the parents).

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Can someone please break this comment down into manageable bites?

Thanks very much.

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Should be a ratings winner, with this anodynic trio being mentored by the doyenne, herself -- the inimitable Suzanne Paul.

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Panel of five, fast paced, witty . . . sounds a bit like a half hour version of "The Five" on Fox.

I don't see how this will work, on Fox there is a full hour (minus ads) and five full time hosts with sometimes a guest, and the hosts are of a far higher quality than these three. They don't follow a dedicated news hour, and being American have a lot more and varied topics to talk about. Somehow I don't think it will work with such a small time frame, and interviews would be far too short to be worthwhile including.

Fox pulls this off, very well in fact, somehow I don't think TVNZ can do the same.

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I had hoped 7 Sharp would ditch the human interest stories and run more hard hitting news stories that are informative and objective for the electorate. Then I heard who the hosts were.

Sounds as though they're trying to put a Breakfast-style show on at 7pm.

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Totally agree. New Zealand journalism is a joke. There are so many massive issues in New Zealand, however, TVNZ treats the public like idiots forcing a diet of trivia. Thank goodness for Skyand the ability to get Australian news, the BBC, CNN and Bloomberg.

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Perhaps you should understand what "top rating" means. Campbell certainly isn't. In fact, it's TV3's biggest problem and they'd be better off dumping it. And that's ignoring its outright dishonesty where they never let the facts get in the way of their preferred slant on the "news".

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Who gives a sh*t. Serious informative current affairs died a long time ago. Even the corpse (Close Up) has stopped smelling. It's all just fluff and infotainment. Television isn't even very relevant any more. If you want to find out about what's happening in the world, you go online - not that I imagine many really care. They'd rather sit and vegetate in front of some vapid, moronic reality show or sitcom.

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TV is there only to entertain and no matter how slanted it is to try to bring about so-called current or socio-economic issues to public awareness will fail. Even the India gang rape is becoming entertainment now.

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I see that Prime has moved The Crowd Goes Wild to 7pm, so that probably gives a pointer to the style of chucklefest TV One is aiming for.

Perhaps each segment of Seven Sharp will be limited to 140 words!

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And every time another Aussie commercial head of news and current affairs comes along it gets further dumbed down, controlled really, of course, by the TVNZ marketing department and the Key government's patsies on the board.

The Herald survey on the new Seven Sharp says it all. Dagan better clear his desk quickly and exit NZ before they hold him to account. Or has such a notion of accountabilty to viewers also been ditched by TVNZ?

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Well, you're on the money there, Richard. Dagan's "resignation" was announced yesterday.

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News on a broadcast channel? How quaint!

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Seven Sharp. How come there's no "D" or "G" in that title wording? TV can use the "F" word, the "C" word, the "S" word but it daren't use the "D" or, god forbid, the "G" word as it drags itself down to its lowest level in this latest decade.

Gotta have standards, you know.

Yes, of course, I'm talking about the words "Dumb" & "Gum". What words did you think I was talking about?

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Three presenters, panel of five, eight short bites, smart thinking, different viewpoints, plenty of laughs along the way, nothing that was on the news, conversational tone, focus on current affairs, will include interviews. Sounds like a bland copy of 7 Days. Not good.

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This is one asset that should be sold off.

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Shut your eyes tight and imagine, really, really hard, that there's a Walter Cronkite, Diane Sawyer and a Dan Rather in the making here.

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Why not just run The Project with Hughesy and Carrie Bickmore and be done with it? It will be funnier.

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I'm also one of the 40% who doesn't watch any TV at 7. Why Brian thinks we may be lying, I'm not sure. I know a lot of people who watch minimal TV now.

What we do watch is almost exclusively on mySky, excepting occasional live sport or BBC/CNN news (and it's certainly not habitual, honest!).

Current affairs and local news comes largely from National Radio and the web. National Radio is still a beacon in dark pool of local broadcasting. That is, until this government manage to cut its funding to a point it can no longer sustain itself, no doubt.

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