The story began: “Television NZ bumped Prime Minister John Key from its prime-time current affairs show so it could feature former All Black Robin Brooke saying sorry for groping a teenage girl. Prime-time current affairs show?” Well, as I’ve said before, Close Up isn’t a current affairs show and neither is Campbell Live. Both are magazine programmes which occasionally feature topical stories. Their brief is to retain as far as possible the audience which they inherit from their channel’s 6 o’clock news, sport and weather package, which to a large extent determines the channels’ ratings for the rest of the evening. So the content has to be largely tabloid – that is to say catering to popular taste. So nothing can be too long, nothing can be too mentally demanding and absolutely nothing can be boring. Political commentator Joe Atkinson coined the term ‘morselisation’ to describe New Zealand television’s treatment of news and current affairs issues. What viewers want, so the channels believe, is information that is served up in bite-sized chunks. So Close Up and Campbell Live can’t be current affairs shows in the sense that Panorama in the UK or Q&A here are current affairs programmes. And we really can’t blame them for not doing what they’re not allowed to do. It isn’t even the channels’ fault. The privately owned TV3 and the state-owned TV One and TV2 all have the same brief from their owners – to deliver audiences to advertisers. So it you really want discursive, in-depth examination of social and political issues, your options will be to turn to Radio New Zealand, Sky, the print media, a few programmes on TVNZ7 including Media 7, and Q&A on Sunday morning.
So if you were the producer of Close Up and you had to choose between an exclusive interview with a former All Black in which he explains and apologises for his actions in groping a teenage girl’s bum and genital area, and an interview with the Prime Minister about his just-delivered State of the Nation speech, given your brief, which would you choose? John Key on tax or Robin Brooke on being a naughty boy? The former All Black of course, because this is in every sense of the term ‘a sexy story’. If it’s viewers you’re after, go for that. And here’s a little bit of evidence. I’m a strong advocate of quality television particularly in the field of news and current affairs. I go on about it ad nauseam. And I have a serious interest in politics. Thanks to MySky we record each night’s news on both channels as well as Campbell Live and Close Up. From the promos, I knew what was going to be on both 7 o’clock programmes on Tuesday. I watched the Robin Brooke interview first. Why? Because I was more interested in finding out how he would handle the interview (very well, I thought) than I was in how John Key would handle John Campbell questioning him on tax. The human interest story left the political story for dead. And if John Campbell had had the Robin Brooke exclusive, would he have given it priority over the PM and tax? You betcha! The programme even bought a clip of the interview from its rival, so that they could tease it later in the show. That’s showbiz folks.