Analysis: The Campbell Live Debate – A Considered View

I’ve signed the online petition which effectively invites TV3 to abandon its intention to replace Campbell Live with what we now know will be a stripped soap-opera made by Julie Christie’s former company Eyeworks.

What has to be acknowledged straight away is that TV3 is a private company and under no obligation to continue producing a prime-time television programme that is losing ratings and therefore revenue. The channel cannot be asked to produce Campbell Live at a loss or to give it preference over a potentially higher rating programme in the same time-slot.

The dilemma here arises from the fact that Campbell is a public service broadcaster working for a private television network. The fault here lies not with TV3 but with the failure of successive governments to provide New Zealanders with a true public service television channel.  While Campbell continued to rate with TV3’s youngish target demographic, his position was relatively secure. The show, which the channel advertises as “New Zealand’s leading current affairs programme”, has been around for a decade. Not a bad run in anyone’s books. But, under the private broadcasting system, once viewers begin to turn off a programme, its host is likely to be shown the door.   

None of this in any way changes the fact that John Campbell is a superb broadcaster and that to replace his programme with a soap opera will rightly be seen as further evidence of the dumbing down of television programming in New Zealand that has been going on not for one decade but for several.

Why then have I signed the petition? In essence because I see Campbell Live as something more than a television show. Campbell is a change-agent. He has changed the lives of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of New Zealanders for the better, and he has been responsible for changes to institutions and the law that have made New Zealand a better and more just society. That’s one hell of an achievement. And it is a legacy which must not be lost.

That legacy includes:

The extraordinary work done by Campbell on behalf of the citizens of Christchurch during and since the Christchurch earthquake. That work continues until the present day with Campbell acting as a tireless advocate and champion for people still effectively homeless and battling the EQC and their insurance companies for just settlement of their claims.

The extraordinary work done by Campbell on behalf of New Zealand teachers during the Novapay debacle.

The extraordinary work done by Campbell on behalf of Kiwi teachers and children threatened by school closures or amalgamations.

The extraordinary work done by Campbell in raising huge amounts of money for KidsCan to provide breakfast, shoes and raincoats for underprivileged New Zealand schoolchildren.

The “Wish For a Smile” programme, changing the lives of kids with crooked or ugly teeth.

The banning of legal highs, a blight on so many young lives, which was almost entirely brokered by Campbell.

The “caravans of hope” which Campbell used to give often distressed Kiwis the capacity to vent their frustrations directly to the nation.

And, just this week, the abandonment of the iniquitous “zero hours contracts” by a majority of the country’s major fast food companies. Again, entirely Campbell Live’sdoing.

You can probably think of several I’ve missed.

Campbell the saint? Campbell the peerless broadcaster? Well, no. That is not the picture I’m trying to paint. Recently aspects of John’s on-screen persona have begun to grate with me and may have begun to grate with others, a possible reason for the programme’s declining ratings. His tendency to gush, his saccharine, mawkish delivery, his over-the-top expressions of happiness , joy and gratitude to his viewers – it’s all a bit too much. On more than one occasion recently I have felt the urge to put my finger down my throat. And that ain’t good!

So what’s to be done?

I think the petition is a good idea, though it has of course no legal status of any sort. But it will at least serve to put TV3 on notice that dumping Campbell for a soap opera may not be entirely sensible.

And if indeed thousands of people do sign the petition, those same people better remember that TV3 will be most impressed by improving ratings. Deserters will have to return to the fold.

And finally, political parties wanting your support  at the next election must be put on notice that a genuine public service television channel is a sine qua non for getting your vote.

Oh, and one more thing: It takes at least a year to get a new soap opera to air. So the question arises: will that be a year’s grace for Campbell Live or will something else take its place? Don’t ask me!

Media trainer and commentator Dr Brian Edwards posts at Brian Edwards Media.

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