Troubled times for TV current affairs as TVNZ chops Sunday in half
The dumbing down of New Zealand television shows no sign of abating with news that TVNZ’s flagship current affairs programme Sunday is being chopped in half to make way for New Zealand’s Got Talent.
The award-winning hour-long show will be reduced to half an hour during the anticipated 13-week run of NZGT in September.
Veteran television news and current affairs producer Phil Wallington describes the move as “a disgrace”.
“What they’re doing with Sunday shows a complete contempt for their audience.
“It also shows they don’t have any commitment to current affairs apart from entertainment current affairs programmes like Close Up, which is the worst thing of its kind on television.
“I mean, Mark Sainsbury is the most hopeless interviewer – he pleads for people to agree with him.”
Media commentator Brian Edwards is also critical of TVNZ’s decision to pare back Sunday, describing it as “the thin end of the wedge”.
He says it raises questions about the long-term commitment of TVNZ to weekly current affairs programmes.
“Sunday is a very strong current affairs programme. It offers a lot of variety and the stories are very good.
“But the simple reality is that, the more ratings drive what we see on television, the more this sort of thing is going to happen.
“There is simply no incentive any more for the networks, which are so ratings and revenue dependent to do this sort of programme, “ he said.
The evisceration of Sunday follows hard on the heels of the demise of TVNZ7 and the slow death by a thousand cuts of 60 Minutes at TV3.
The rot set in at 60 Minutes 18 months ago when TV3 slashed the iconic programme’s budget by 40% and then, more recently, indicated it would not be renewing its contract with CBS to continue the show next year.
All of which raises the possibility that there may be no in-depth, prime-time, weekly current affairs programmes on TV3 or TV One next year, leaving the genre largely to the award-winning Native Affairs on Maori TV and TV2's tabloid offerings on 20-20.
Of course, both broadcasters are dismissive of such a scenario, with TVNZ pledging to return Sunday to its normal format once NZGT finishes its run, and TV3 promising to replace 60 Minutes with some sort of home-grown product.
But the sceptics among us, who have worked in the industry, know full well that television executives have an attention span that is considerably less than a commercial break and anything could happen.
Mr Wallington, for one, is not holding his breath.
“I just don’t think these programmes are going to be around long term, and there’s no good reason for them not to be.
“They can be made to rate – they just need to sharpen up their ideas and go out looking for original stories rather than looking at the big lurid crime trial or whatever it may be.
“Sunday is the worst in this regard. The team is getting long in the tooth and typecast.
“Janet McIntyre is the angel of death – it’s always murder, mayhem and everything else.
“They’ve lost the plot and should be doing original and interesting stories which really affect Kiwis.”
Mr Wallington says the decision to slash Sunday reflects the diminishing influence of the head of news and current affairs at TVNZ.
“They’ve managed to hire a succession of lightweights from Australia and the latest incumbent is another one.
“What’s happened with Sunday shows he doesn’t hold any sway with the executive committee of TVNZ."
It is a far cry from the halcyon days of television current affairs, when Brian Edwards ruled the roost on Gallery, the ground-breaking programme that set the template for what we see on our screens today.
The show, produced by Des Monaghan, was the making of Dr Edwards, and consistently rated in the top 10 programmes, often coming in at No 1.
Admittedly, there was no competition in those days, but it was indicative of the public appetite for no-holds-barred current affairs programmes that left no stone unturned in their quest for the truth.
Forty years later the exciting era which Gallery and Dr Edwards ushered in looks set to be drawing to a close with 60 Minutes and, perhaps, Sunday, now on death row.
Dr Edwards believes it could be make or break time.
“It’s never going to come right until the government or whoever decides that we really ought to have a non-commercial, free-to-air channel.
“60 Minutes and Sunday are programmes I never fail to watch.
“Basically, they are part of the democratic process – any programme which informs the electorate about significant social and political issues is providing a service to democracy.
“If you take them away then you’re undermining democracy, and it’s a very sad commentary that this sort of thing is happening.”