Once upon a time the term ‘current affairs’ had an unambiguous meaning. Current affairs programmes were essentially programmes about politics or issues with a strong political content. On shows like Compass and Gallery we talked to and about politicians and political issues. Compass was documentary in style, film rather than studio, not unlike TV1’s Sunday programme today; Gallery, on which I made my name as a ‘fearless interrogator’ of those in power – a novel concept in those days – had both studio and location items, but the live studio interview, primarily with politicians, was the programme’s trademark feature.
If you check out the backgrounds and ages of the people who complain that there are no ‘real current affairs programmes’ on TV anymore – people like me – you’ll probably find that they’re in their sixties or older and that they come from the school of ‘serious’ current affairs, which essentially means long studio interviews with politicians or lengthy studio debates between politicians. Being entertained was relevant to those viewers only insofar as the disembowelling of politicians was entertaining and new. Our early heroes were Robin Day and David Frost; today we bow down before HARDtalk’s Stephen Saccur and… I can’t think of anyone else. ‘Discursive’, a long word for ‘long’, is our preferred description of the sort of interviews we approve of, so that excludes Campbell Live, the late lamented.
Close Up and pretty well everything else masquerading (our word) as ‘current affairs’ on the telly. ‘Serious’ is our other favourite word which is why Seven Sharp does not and cannot qualify in our philosophy as a current affairs programme. Those people are having far too much fun. Giggling and current affairs are incompatible. Can you see where I’m going with this? Can you detect a change in the air? Well, you’re right. You see, I’ve come to accept that there’s been a recent redefinition of what we mean by ‘current affairs’, a more inclusive, more democratic interpretation of the term. And that it’s a good thing. ‘Current affairs’ is no longer exclusively about politics, no longer confined to the ‘serious’ or ‘discursive’ studio interview or lengthy documentary.
Current affairs’ now includes anything that is of general public interest though not necessarily in the public interest. It was Seven Sharp that produced this epiphany in my thinking. You’ll find my excoriation of the programme, both before and after it went to air, elsewhere on this site. But I keep catching the beginning of the show, staying to the end and – bless me father for I have sinned – enjoying it. Seven Sharp has been described as ‘current affairs light’ but ‘palatable’ might be a kinder term. And there’s room for palatable current affairs just as there’s room for serious current affairs. No-one wants an exclusive diet of meat and two veg. The occasional hamburger is a good thing. So here’s my more inclusive take on some of our current TV ‘current affairs’ programmes.
Seven Sharp: The three-header is uncomfortable. The presenters don’t seem entirely at ease in their roles or secure in what’s coming up next. Jesse Mulligan’s scripted humour is less entertaining than Greg Boyed’s unscripted and often acerbic asides. Ali and Greg are both competent interviewers and the show is an easy watch. But thought I love him like the brother I never had, I really don’t want to be lectured for half an hour by Fair Go Kev on the evils of ‘cash jobs’. Campbell Live: Simply superb. John’s advocacy on behalf of the victims of the Christchurch earthquake, Hekia Parata’s school closings and amalgamations and the Novopay debacle should qualify him for a knighthood preferably well before the Grim Reaper comes to call. But the programme and its host can sometimes be a little bit preachy.
3rd Degree: After the horrors of the first episode, this has emerged as quality current affairs. The film stories have been superb, most notably Paula Penfold’s piece on the clearly wrongful (and dodgy) arrest and 20-year imprisonment of teenager Teina Pora for rape and murder and Guyon Espiner’s informative and visually entrancing story on what Tuhoe plan to do with their $170 million dollar treaty settlement. But neither the two-header set-ups nor the two-header interviews work. The set-ups look fake and two-header interviews preclude real follow-up. And where’s all that take-no-prisoners interrogation that we were promised in those ridiculous promos? Nowhere so far. Sunday: From plastic pollution of our marine environment to an interview with a compulsive teenage car thief to a surprisingly entertaining profile of Steve Carell – reliably solid and entertaining current affairs. Just half an hour too short.
Q & A and The Nation: For the serious current affairs aficionado with a keen interest in politics. Both shows are marginalised on Saturday and Sunday mornings reflecting the networks’ lack of confidence in the ability of this sort of programme to rate. Pity. Both shows are also really good, though Q & A’s panel can’t hold a candle to the brilliantly entertaining media review segment at 8.50 on the Sunday version of The Nation. Both the Saturday and Sunday versions of The Nation are hosted by the superbly talented Rachel Smalley who also does all the interviews. Native Affairs: I haven’t seen Maori Television’s award-winning Native Affairs, since Mihingarangi Forbes took over hosting the programme from the incomparable Julian Wilcox. One the best current affairs shows in the country, Native Affairs has been sadly neglected by viewers who wrongly assume that its focus is purely on Maori issues. And its title doesn’t help.
And finally a question from me to TV3: what’s with John Campbell standing to present Campbell Live and Duncan Garner and Guyon Espiner standing to present 3rd Degree? Can’t you see that the poor fellows, used to sitting behind desks, don’t know what to do with themselves? Campbell has one leg permanently crooked and looks as though he’s ready for a hip replacement, and the other two are all over the place. All three are sit-down, lean-in presenters and interviewers, a posture which creates a feeling of intimacy with their interviewees and their viewers, not to mention allowing John to showcase his now famous camera turns. You can’t do any of that when you’re marooned in the middle of nowhere. I’ve no idea who thought of this daft idea, but please, do everyone a favour and let the poor chaps sit down.