The wider issue is television itself. Television does not deal well with complexity. This is particularly the case with commercial television which subscribes to the view that the average viewer has a short attention span, is easily bored and likely to reach for the remote within minutes or possibly seconds of the first hint of tedium appearing. Commercial television executives have assessed the attention span of the average viewer at a maximum of seven minutes, less if the viewer’s interest is not frequently stimulated.
In the areas of news and current affairs that stimulation generally comes in the form of conflict: the reporting of conflict in the case of news; and actual conflict between antagonists in the case of television current affairs. Third Degree’s ‘The Vote’ provides a classic example. As did the Campbell/Key debate. However unpalatable, this view of things is probably more or less correct. Commercial television viewers do bore easily and will desert a channel that does not offer them excitement. Such desertion leads to declining ratings and loss of advertising revenue – the commercial television executive’s nightmare. The discursive (big word for ‘long’) examination of significant social or political issues simply does not fit the commercial broadcaster’s agenda. So programmes like Campbell Live and Seven Sharp, which play in prime time, are normally made up of three segments with a combined duration of around 22 minutes.
I’m told the average sound-bite in a commercial news bulletin is now around five seconds. Programmes which do attempt to take a more in-depth look at social and political issues – such as The Nation and Q & A – are deliberately marginalised by commercial television executives to the audience wastelands of early Saturday and Sunday morning. This is all familiar territory to anyone interested in commercial television broadcasting. But the problem of presenting and debating complex issues on television goes beyond ratings pressure and time allocation. Complex issues require not merely time for exegesis and debate, but time and opportunity for the viewer to assimilate what has been said and to reflect on it. Neither commercial nor non-commercial television can meet those requirements. Only the printed word or its on-line equivalent can allow us to assimilate and reflect on information and ideas entirely at our own pace.
This is essentially because the reader controls the information exchange process while, with television (and radio), the broadcaster controls the process. Consider how you read your newspaper: You pick it up and look at it when and where you want; you can read it now, later or not at all; you decide, normally from the headlines, which items interest you and which don’t; you determine the order in which you will read those items; if an item is complex you can read it as often as you like in order to understand it; you can take as much time as you want to assimilate and reflect on what you’ve read, whether news or opinion; and you can return to the original article at any time of your choosing. It’s true of course that the publisher of the newspaper pre-selects the items to put in the paper. That is also true of the producer of any television news, current affairs or documentary programme. But from the moment you pick up the newspaper you control the process.
I’m aware of course of the existence of MySky and a variety of other ways of recording and replaying television programmes. But all these methods require cumbersome rewinding and fast-forwarding of the televised material, while the printed text allows virtually instant access to the paragraph, sentence or line you want to re-read. Television viewing, in contrast, is an essentially transient and ephemeral experience. This is not to say that television has nothing to offer to our understanding of scientific, social and political issues. On the contrary, its narrative or story-telling strength is fundamental to the documentary and has the capacity to open our eyes to the world around us. In the political arena, television provides incontrovertible evidence of the truth of the old saw that a picture is worth a thousand words. Its ultimate power lies in the close-up. In this respect I like to quote the doyen of British television interviewers, the late-lamented Sir Robin Day:
“When a TV interviewer questions a politician, this is one of the rare occasions, perhaps the only occasion outside Parliament, when a politician’s performance cannot be completely manipulated or packaged or artificially hyped. “The image-maker can advise on how to sit, or what hairstyle to have, or on voice quality. But once the interview has started, the politician is on his or her own. “Unlike a politician’s platform speech, or a politician’s article, or a politician’s TV address, an interview on television is one public act which is not in the hands of the advertising men, the pollsters and propagandists, the image-makers, the public relations experts or the marketing men. “In a TV interview, provided there is time for probing cross-examination, the politician cannot be wholly shielded against the unexpected. The politician’s own brain is seen to operate. His or her real personality tends to burst out. Truth is liable to raise its lovely head.”
This is why Russell Brown’s comment that the Key/Campbell debate was ‘a study in media training’ annoyed me so much – because it displayed such abysmal ignorance of the media trainer’s inability to instruct his client in the art of deceiving the viewing public. There is no such art. Why not? Precisely because, as Day observes, in a television interview, ‘The politician’s own brain is seen to operate. His or her real personality tends to burst out. Truth is liable to raise its lovely head.’ That is nowhere more true than in New Zealand. We’re a media-savvy lot in Godzone, not easily fooled. So at the end of the Campbell/Key debate we probably thought that Key won but was a bit too silver-tongued to be entirely credible, and Campbell lost because it meant too much to him.
But were we any closer to understanding the significance, for good or ill, of the GCSB Bill? I very much doubt it. Too complex. Too hard to take in or even remember the arguments for and against, put by Key and Campbell. A transcript you could read at your leisure, at your own pace, might have helped. But ideally you’d need to read the Bill itself and preferably a range of arguments advanced by those who support and oppose it. And you’d need time to assimilate and reflect on what you’d read. Television doesn’t offer you that luxury. You’ve barely caught your breath when it’s time for The Block or Dog Squad. So is it really the case that television does not deal well with complexity? Or is it perhaps that we don’t deal well with television?