(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Evening Standard, July 7.)
Television is not a big part of my life. I watch the TV3 News most nights, having failed in an attempt to conquer the habit. The evening news bulletin is an addiction that’s almost as hard to shake as nicotine, and only slightly less damaging.
But apart from that, I’m generally content if I get just 30 minutes of satisfying viewing in an evening. This I usually manage, thanks to programmes as diverse as the stalwart Country Calendar, Father Ted (currently being re-run for the umpteenth time) and The Big Bang Theory (though the latter, like many clever American comedy series that start full of promise, is already wearing thin).
The paucity of my viewing experience is demonstrated by the fact that many of the hit shows of the past two decades passed me by completely. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a complete episode of Seinfeld or Friends. I know nothing about cult shows like Lost and The Wire apart from what I’ve read about them, and I can’t tell one American crime show from another.
The only episode of Shortland Street that I ever watched right through was the very first, though bits that I’ve seen by accident since then suggest it’s a pretty well-made programme of its type; and though I’ve looked in on the highly successful Outrageous Fortune from time to time, I’ve never been temped to persevere.
There’s a swag of programmes I refuse to watch on principle, including America’s Next Top Model and anything with the word “survivor” in the title.
In recent weeks, however, I’ve been forced to pay a lot more attention to television because I’ve been filling in for the regular TV critic for The Listener , Diana Wichtel, while she was overseas.
I’m still trying to work out whether not having previously been a compulsive viewer was a blessing or a curse in this role. Naturally I would prefer to think that any disadvantage I might have suffered was at least partly offset by the fact that I came to the job with a fresh pair of eyes.
So, after 10 weeks of watching as much TV as I would normally consume in six months, what are my impressions? In no particular order, they are as follows:
● Public service television, aside from Maori TV, was effectively dead and buried long before the current government announced it would abolish Labour’s well-intentioned but ineffectual charter. But then we all knew that anyway.
● The choice of programmes on Sky TV (which The Listener kindly arranged for me while I was filling in) is so great that it’s like trying to drink from a firehose. Much of it is junk, of course, but only the pickiest viewer can’t find one or two programmes a night worth watching.
● It’s no surprise that Sky has trebled its market share since 2000 and now has 800,000 subscribers, or that TVNZ’s market share over the same period has declined from 40 to 25 percent. TVNZ, traditionally the dominant player, has driven viewers into Sky’s arms by relentlessly dumbing down its programming.
● Serious current affairs programmes like Q+A (TV One) and The Nation (TV3) attract pitifully small audiences, but in scrutinising the processes of government and holding our political leaders up to the light, they serve a vital purpose in creating an informed democracy. If one accepts that free-to-air television has an obligation to fulfil this function (as newspapers do), then these programmes deserve better than to be ghetto-ised in godforsaken timeslots.
● The only free-to-air channel that consistently conveys a sense of “New Zealandness” is Maori Television, which helps explain why an astonishing three-quarters of its two million viewers are non-Maori. Maori TV has energetically seized some of the ground vacated by TVNZ.
● While the dominant public broadcaster bombards its viewers with freak-show programmes about grossly overweight people and women with unnaturally large breasts, Maori TV is quietly producing important current affairs programmes like the recent one about the deprived Taranaki town of Waitara, whose 6000 inhabitants – a large proportion of them Maori – have been denied a sewage treatment scheme while their district council spends up large promoting New Plymouth as one of our most vibrant, visitor-friendly cities. The item was entitled Taradise Lost, a play on New Plymouth mayor Peter Tennent’s fondness for referring to his province as Taradise, but I would have called it Taranaki’s Dirty Secret.
● Some of the most absorbing programmes on television are ones that arrive without any fanfare. At its best, Who Do You Think You Are? – in which well-known figures explore their ancestry – was fascinating. And I stumbled entirely by chance on a charming series called American Pickers: not a programme about bluegrass music, but one in which antique collectors fossick in out-of-the-way places for fascinating items of Americana.
● Forced to choose between Close Up and Campbell Live, which slug it out nightly on one of the toughest fronts in the ratings war, I usually opt for the latter. Close Up’s Mark Sainsbury is a thoroughly decent and capable host but the deciding factor, for me, is John Campbell’s mischievous sense of fun. Campbell and his crew have obviously decided that if the show is on borrowed time, as is sometimes speculated, they’ll at least go down enjoying themselves.
● I often despair at the quality of the TV news but can’t quite bring myself to forego it, due to the nagging fear that I might miss seeing something important. I choose TV3 in preference to One for a range of reasons, but principally because it’s less driven by gimmickry (that silly wall-sized touch screen aside) and not as cloyingly ingratiating with its audience. I don’t want Simon, Wendy, Bernie, Sav and Jimmy to be my friends; I just want them to tell me what I need to know. But TV3’s news has its faults too – among them a tendency to pander to a young demographic group with non-news items that are of no interest, and possibly even incomprehensible, to the older age group that forms the core news audience. And both channels are notable for the disproportionate number of telegenic young female reporters whom one suspects have been chosen largely on the basis of their looks.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of reading to catch up on.