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

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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