I’ve been doing something over the past couple of weeks that surprises even me. I’ve found myself watching the TV One news again. And what’s even more surprising is that it’s not too bad. Perhaps I’m going soft in my dotage.I gave up on One’s news years ago, repelled by the touchy-feely presentation style (which began way back with Judy Bailey), the silly gimmickry (the tandem newsreading technique, which goes back even further, still strikes me as absurd, as does the more recent fondness for live crosses to reporters who could just as easily be in the studio), the preposterous jargon (as in “Lisa Owen is across developments”), the promotion of celebrity reporters (step forward, Jack Tame) and TVNZ’s obvious preference (Jack Tame notwithstanding) for young, attractive female journalists over older, more experienced hands. All this drove me into the welcoming arms of TV3, whose style by comparison was restrained and sensible.
But bugger me, everything seems to have been reversed. It’s TV3 now that habitually overcooks everything, while One seems to have reverted to a more sober, no-nonsense form of presentation. There seems to have been a subtle but important shift in One’s news values. More of the stories we’re seeing each evening are about matters of substance rather than froth. It no longer seems to be assumed by the news editors that viewers have the attention span of goldfish, or are incapable of dealing with stories about serious issues. What’s more, some of those attractive young females, given the chance to relate the news without gushing and simpering, have shown they’re capable of a lot more than merely looking decorative.The turning point for me came when I switched on 3 News the night both channels led their bulletins with that painful interview with the parents of the Weekes triplets, who died in a Qatar shopping mall fire. It wasn’t the interview itself that repelled me – as far as I can tell, the content was pretty much the same on both channels – but the mawkish tone of Mike McRoberts’ intro, which seemed designed to milk the tragedy for all it was worth (and I say that as someone who has generally admired McRoberts). A story like the deaths of the Weekes triplets doesn’t need embellishment. Viewers don’t need to be given a cue as to how they should respond emotionally. It’s an insult to them, and to the Weekes family.
That emotionally manipulative style of news treatment used to be One’s domain, and it pains me to see 3 News adopting the same meretricious techniques. But it comes on top of other aspects of 3 News that have perturbed me, such as the aggressive, highly opinionated reporting style of Patrick Gower and former political editor Duncan Garner and the increasingly frequent, gratuitous and often loaded throwaway lines from newsreader Hilary Barry. It seemed 3 News had decided it was no longer enough merely to report the news; it had to take an assertive, even provocative, position. Well, Fleet Street operates that way too, and it doesn’t seem to have earned itself much public respect.So now I’m watching One News again, and while there are still aspects of it that grate (Wendy Petrie always reminds me of those girls at school who weren’t terribly clever but always sat at the front of class, took part in everything and were eager to impress the teacher), it’s currently by far the better of the two options at six o’clock.
What’s behind this change? Well, it seems more than a coincidence that it’s happened since TVNZ acquired a new head of news and current affairs, Australian Ross Dagan. I can only conclude that Dagan has presided over a partial reversion, at least, to old-fashioned, no-frills news values. Blessings upon him, if that’s correct.My tentative conclusion that we have Dagan to thank for the improvement was reinforced by New Zealand Herald media writer John Drinnan’s column yesterday, in which Drinnan revealed that Dagan is reviewing the use of American news consultants Frank Magid and Associates.
A consultant to TVNZ for 20 years, Magid has had a huge and baneful influence on how One presents the news. It’s generally accepted that he’s behind the frothy, populist approach and all the accompanying fatuous gimmickry. As one anonymous TVNZ news executive told Drinnan, Magid-style bulletins are all about the sizzle, not the sausage.I rejoice at the prospect that Magid, under whose guidance the TV news came to resemble something only marginally more edifying than a Wild West medicine show (and whom Drinnan reckons costs TVNZ $1 million a year), is about to get the heave-ho. Perhaps there is a God.