Monday, March 5, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


So we can be sorry for people who live in totalitarian regimes and who can access only the regime’s propagandistic version of the news. But our own news services are open, unbiased, factual and thoroughly trustworthy.


Here’s a scenario that unfolds regularly at our home.

We turn on the evening news at 6pm, slightly before or after we’ve begun eating dinner. Every evening we have this incurable optimism. Our na├»ve hope tells us we’re going to find out the important things that are happening in the world.

When the first ad break comes, we flick over from TV ONE to TV 3 to get a few seconds of ad-free viewing. Sometimes we’re lucky, the ad breaks aren’t coordinated, and we can watch TV 3’s news until their ad break begins. Then we flick back to TV ONE. Occasionally, we’ve been able to ad-dodge our way through a whole bulletin like this. But only very occasionally. Advertisers aren’t stupid and know the havoc that remotes can wreak on their viewing numbers. So it’s almost compulsory to view ads in the news hour.

As our thumbs facilitate our interactive viewing, we’ve been able to size up the quality of the bulletins we’re getting.

On TV ONE, there’s that performance of not giving one definitive and straightforward weather forecast. Instead, at the front of the news sits a quick teaser about the day’s weather situation (we already know, so why tell us?). Halfway through the news, we’re told what the days temperatures were across the whole country (who cares?). These are ways of taunting us without giving us what we really want to know, which is a reliable forecast of tomorrow’s weather.

For this, we have to wait until the end of the bulletin, which means sitting through the sports stuff. The weather is used as bait to keep us tuned.

And have we really been presented with the important things that are happening in the world?

Let’s write a volume on the subject. In fact let’s join all the others who have written shelves of volumes. TV news is a shaped commodity, built around the personalities of the autocue-readers, tailored to fit the ad breaks, filled with teasers and promos, favouring the photogenic-but-trivial over the important-but-dull.

Don’t get me started on all the advertorial – those stories about rock stars who are about to tour, or music that’s about to be released, which are just PR served neat.

Restrain me if I start ranting about the human interest stories. “Feel-good” news is not news.

If it bleeds, it leads” is one thing, but we know there’s something wrong when the only time we get foreign news is when there’s a juicy clip of protesters being shot in Syria, a building burning in Athens, a scuffle caught on CCTV.

Analysis? Forget it in an age when “in-depth” means “slightly more than 40 seconds”. 

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. If free-to-air news is this bad, why do we bother watching it? Why don’t we go to one of the news-dedicated pay channels or, better still, look up the BBC on the net?

Actually, we do do these things sometimes, but I did mention our incurable optimism, didn’t I? I still have this idealistic notion that there should be a free-to-air national broadcaster giving a real evening news bulletin.

I used to have a fantasy in which I had unlimited power over New Zealand broadcasting.

As Minister-for-Life of Broadcasting, I would revoke the licence of any network that did not give at least one half-hour of ad-free news in prime time.

Heavy fines would be imposed if there was not a comprehensive 5-minute weather forecast, giving the best meteorological prediction for tomorrow’s weather, at both the beginning and the end of the bulletin, but outside the dedicated half-hour.

Sports news would not be considered news. The network would be free, of course, to have a half-hour sports round-up following the news half-hour, but not pretending to be part of it.

And, of course, I would appoint a special board of assessors to judge whether something was really news or just PR. Stories on the music, film and entertainment industries in general would have to be reported in a separate programme, where the network would be free to present them in any way they liked.

There might be a few niggling misgivings about Freedom of the Press when my master plan goes into action, but it should create a national news report that focuses on the real stuff – politics, economics, international relations, science, natural disasters, real conflicts. In short, news.

It’s going to happen one day, of course.


  1. I couldn't agree more. I always thought it interesting that after the newreaders say "Good evening" they proceed to let us know why it's going to be depressing instead (not just the bad news but the political bias, attempts at wit and banter and then junk-mail commercials pouring into the living room every 7 or 8 minutes)
    One nauseating bit of their predictable format is the fluffy 'animals and/or art' wedged into the last couple of minutes. Let's all lighten up at something inconsequential. This just reinforces what Peter Wells once pointed out, that there is an unbridgeable gulf in this country between the spiritual/artistic culture and the dominant materialist one.

  2. Have you not figured it out yet?
    The news on television is, by definition, entertainment. If you want to know what is going on in the world, listen to the radio or look at some decent news websites like the BBC online, or The Guardian. Surely you would only watch the news on TV if you were interested in being entertained by the "world famous in New Zealand" presenters?

  3. Reinforcing news as entertainment, Tv 3 chose their presenter solely because he looks like Pierce Brosnan.