Cracker by Damian Christie

TV is Dead? Not yet, Chicken Little.

In the newspaper on the weekend, Herald columnist and editor of The Spinoff Duncan Greive asked whether TV is dead.  Actually the only question was found in the headline – “Is this the death of TV?” as the subheading answered “television has lost out to the Internet", then later, “television’s not coming back”.  (The same article on The Spinoff is titled “Good News: TV is dead”, which confirms what some have long suspected about many TV reviewers and their feelings towards the medium).

A week or so ago, I was at the release of the New Zealand on Air audience survey information.  It was certainly interesting reading, and as Greive notes, for the first time, television as a medium has been overtaken by the Internet.  Well, sort of.  On a weekly basis, TV still reaches more people than online video.  

On a daily basis it’s the opposite, at least for younger people.

But this argument is overly simplistic.  Television vs the Internet.  These are just video delivery mechanisms.  TVNZ, YouTube, Facebook, Stuff, The Spinoff – these are platforms, under which in some cases there are channels, on which there are programmes.  Bear with me if this seems obvious, I’m getting to a point.  Back to the NZOA data though, here’s how a channel by station by site comparison looks.

Things are changing, that much is also obvious.  Even in the decade or so I’ve worked in television, the numbers have dropped.  What used to be an average rating for a show would today be an unbelievable win.  Prime time shows on major channels are now content with getting the eyeballs of a single digit percentage of the total population – few shows get into double figures.  “Wins” are now counted by looking at Share: Did our show get a bigger share of whoever’s left watching television than the other lot did?

By his own admission on various occasions, Greive wants a slice of that sweet sweet funding pie, and why not? My disclaimer – I don’t have any TV shows in development, but I wouldn’t say no, and I have various web series in development, but none are currently NZOA funded – although again, I wouldn’t turn it down. 

The problem is, “television has lost out to the Internet” is a false dichotomy. As much as its streams are broken down into mechanisms, NZ On Air doesn’t fund ‘television’, it funds programmes. And while I’m sure everyone reading this loves niche programming, one of the legal requirements (s39(b) of the Broadcasting Act) is it must take into account the potential size of the audience. 

So instead of simply saying “let’s give all this money to the Internets”, what programmes would you fund, and where would they go to reach a large audience?

The most obvious places to start would be nzherald.co.nz or Stuff.  Huge daily reach.  And while inroads are being made – I’m looking forward to seeing Kirsty Johnston’s doco series filmed in a South Auckland school – people aren’t yet going to those sites to watch non-news video, at least not in any reasonable proportion to the ostensible audience size.  There has been the odd exception – I’m *told* Anika Moa’s interview series hit 100,000 on some episodes, which will be more than it’s likely to ever see on Māori Television (I hope I'm proven wrong, but even the award-winning Native Affairs peaked around 20,000 viewers), even with a name change.  

Ratings for most video views aren’t published like television, and it's commercially sensitive, so it’s hard to go on anything other than anecdote and conjecture a lot of the time.  But the figures I have been privy to are almost always underwhelming.  So while television is declining, there’s still a gulf between most mainstream TV audience numbers, and most New Zealand online-only video content.  One episode of One News last week got a 17 in the 5+ demographic.  That’s 730,000 viewers, if you believe the system.  Westside, on TV3, 200,000 for one episode, on television - i.e. not including On Demand.  13,000 people watched my old show Back Benches last week.   That’s niche TV right there, we always knew that.  But even to reach that niche figure you’d have to combine the audience from the last twenty videos from The Spinoff (assuming no overlap on any of those videos).  The places people go to read, and the places people go to watch, are often not the same thing.

So where are the big online video audiences?  VOD, perhaps.  It’s worth noting that some content made for broadcast television ends up there too (and sometimes on YouTube as well) - and maybe having a solid plan post-broadcast should be an important part of funding from now on.

There are some YouTube channels with a huge reach – but take away the make-up demonstrations and gamer content and the field narrows considerably – or fund them and watch the outcry.  Notably in announcing a new partnership with YouTube, NZ On Air has specifically excluded ‘demonstration’ or ‘lifestyle’ videos.

Things do need to continue to change, and having watched the development of NZ On Air’s digital funding, change has been the only constant.  There have been early mistakes, adjustments, and increases in the amount and types of funding along the way.  And most recently, that shots across the bow to television networks – if someone else can offer the eyeballs, then we'll give that television funding to someone else.

Television may die as a transmission method, but that doesn’t mean that the TV channels will die with it – and despite their shortcomings, the broadcasters are still adept at delivering a large audience to a finite number of shows.  Younger people might be tuning out, but quarter of a million of them  (aged 18-49) still tuned in to watch a porn flick about the Auckland property boom last night.  Just like that market, talk of a crash is still just wishful thinking.

[Comments are closed for this discussion - take it to Twitter, folks.] 

61

Breaking the Silence

Last night I was invited to moderate a panel for the launch of Shaun Hendy’s new book, ‘Silencing Science’.  Shaun is a scientist, a science communicator and Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence hosted by the University of Auckland.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been increasingly working in the field of science communication – with the Science Media Centre I have been travelling around a wide range of science conferences, running an express media training programme.  It’s what I call ‘white hat’ media training, in that the aim isn’t teaching people to avoid questions in favour of talking points, but simply to help the scientists explain their science better to the general public.  And in the express programme, each participant gets just twenty minutes from start to finish, and ends up with a 90 second video, which are collected here.  

It’s been a wonderful time, from Antarctic science to entomology, nanotechnology to geography… so many great stories, fascinating research about things I’d never heard of.  It’s made me want to devote more of my time to getting the word out about scientific research in New Zealand, and science in general.  It’s also alerted me to some of the issues science communicators face, which is the basis of Shaun’s book.

The forces which lead to science being ‘silenced’ are both external and internal to the science community. From Government pressure on scientists not to scare the public by highlighting aftershock risks in Christchurch; attacks on public health scientists such as those outlined in the Dirty Politics leaks; commercial confidentiality; to pressure from the scientists themselves as well as their peers, not to rock the boat, speak outside of their immediate expertise, or risk criticism.

It’s nothing new.  The book 'Merchants of Doubt' (the author of which I interviewed on Public Address Radio a while ago now) shows the same playbook has been running from the tobacco interests of the 1950s through to the softdrink and oil companies of today. And I’m sure if freshwater ecologist Mike Joy had challenged the Muldoon Government he would’ve come off with much the same anti-intellectual response he received from John Key, comparing an academic’s opinion to that of a lawyer. Which possibly means even less the more we know about Mr Key’s lawyer.

What is new is the increase in reliance on commercial funding; the pressures Universities place on academics to publish; and the changing nature of the media, where scientists are most likely to find a platform.  Just this week we have heard about the axe hanging over RNZ’s “Our Changing World”, which has prompted the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman to lobby for the show’s continuation. 

Specialist science reporters are on the critically endangered list, meaning often the person entrusted with today’s climate change news is the same writing yesterday’s Bachelor article.  As a reporter, I’ve personally been handed a science story in the morning on a topic I know nothing about, with the expectation there will be a two minute piece on air at 6pm.  A piece which one hopes hasn’t made too many factual errors, or been unwittingly captured by the wrong interests, or tried to create balance in an issue where an overwhelming majority has found consensus (climate change, for instance).  I’ve always taken great pains to try and get things right – and I don’t think any reporters set out to be wrong – but you don’t know what you don’t know, and in science, that’s a lot.

'Silencing Science' considers what role our scientists should have in society.  Should they simply present the public and the politicians with the pros and cons, the available evidence, then step away from the decision making process? Or should they advocate a view, like Mike Joy, and use what they know together with a value judgement, and push back against those who stand in the way of good decision making?

I’ve often said, half-jokingly, that given some of the people we have run the country, I’d be quite happy being ruled by a benevolent wise council of elders. And over the past couple of years on this science communication journey, I’ve met a number of people who I think would qualify. 

[EDIT: A number of people have been talking about John Oliver's take on this issue from just last week, so here it is. Thanks Bob for the link]

23

IT'S ALIVE

For the past few years, actually, the whole decade I’ve been working in television, the narrative has been the same – traditional media is fucked.

 The story has taken different forms over the years.  There’s been seemingly continuous restructuring at organisations like TVNZ and the New Zealand Herald (“restructuring” must be the greatest euphemism there is in the media world).  We’ve had the death of serious current affairs show, the rise and fall of TVNZ 7, funding cuts, mergers and acquisitions… I’m not telling you anything new here.

 To survive in this landscape has made me increasingly feel like a cockroach in a nuclear winter.  I’ve seen people with far more talented and experienced than me throw in the towel, take early retirement, or move to Comms. Unable, or simply unwilling to adapt, as the sea of shit levels rise around them. 

 Today I wanted to tell you one positive story.  A few years ago I had an idea, which I kept working on, and eventually launched – a website called YOURS.net.nz (first “urs.net.nz”, you know, for kids, smh), and thanks to the new domain rules, now simply YOURS.nz.

 Well today sees the launch of YOURS TV.  Like the website, it’s a youth-focused show with user-generated content.  The trick being, our users are some of the most wonderful and incredibly talented students in the country.  Young film makers, reporters, camera operators, editors, graphics, animators – just wow.  I’ve just watched our final edit of the show before it gets sent to TVNZ On Demand for upload and release, and it’s great.  No, it’s no substitute for in-depth current affairs (although we have a few hard-hitting stories in the pipeline), but I’m really proud of the effort, and envious of the talent of those young people who have helped put it together.  For them, they get the opportunity to come up with their own stories (the editorial decisions are largely theirs), interview people they wouldn’t normally meet, and have it distributed via the biggest TV broadcaster in the country.  And I pay them.

 The show is on TVNZ On Demand.  No, there’s no traditional broadcast slot, and I’m quite happy with it that way.  I had a conversation recently with a journalism teacher, who when I spoke of the show being “on TVNZ” kept correcting me with “well.. it’s TVNZ On Demand”, as though that was something of which to be ashamed. That teacher, who supposedly knows something about new media, is the only one who should be ashamed, for reasons that are best summed up in this Facebook thread from one of the show’s contributors:

Best of all, we’re the only local TVNZOD-only show, which makes us something of a novelty, and means lots of support and special treatment from TVNZ.  I’ve had nothing but support from TVNZ ever since the 2 minute coffee meeting with Head of Content Jeff Latch, which basically went “Jeff, have a look at this video from my website contributors” – “It’s great – let me know what we can do to help.”

AUT have also come to the party with some funding, and we get  to use the fantastic studio facilities up there – our talent is a mix of high school and tertiary students – the very fact these ones have put their hand up puts them ahead of 99% of their peers in my books. 

And the whole thing is made possible with a Digital grant from New Zealand on Air.  Everyone gets paid for working on the show, which is really important to me - I remember even as a fairly well-established writer, the number of start-ups trying to get me to do stuff for free - one even said "we're not paying people until we make a profit".  I'm not going to be getting rich any time soon, but I’m a bit closer to my dream of being able to work full time doing things I really care about.  The media landscape might resemble the post-apocalyptic opening from Terminator 2, but scurrying amongst it today, I am a happy little cucaracha.

If you have anyone in your household who fits the audience (13-20ish), and particularly anyone who might have something creative to contribute, please get them to check out our first episode.  Even with all the hard-work and imperviousness to radiation, we won’t survive without an audience.  THANKS.

Absolute Genius: The New Paul Henry Show

For the past couple of years, as part of my teaching at AUT, I’ve given a lecture called “Writing for Television News”.  It was adapted a few years ago from notes from a lecture that I believe Mike McRoberts had given prior to that. Philip Sherry probably wrote the damn thing 40 years ago, and like whatever the non-racist name for Chinese Whispers is these days, it probably bears no resemblance to whatever it was when it started.

The point is, writing for television is quite different than writing for radio.  The former already has pictures, it doesn’t need them to be painted.  A combination of pictures and words can be used to say much more in a shorter space of time (I’m talking about news theory here, obviously television can also say very little for a great deal of time, as anyone who’s sat in front of a Kardashians marathon can attest). 

 A simple example of words and pictures combining: A voiceover reads “The Auckland Council is looking at selling a number of key assets”, while showing a picture of the Airport, the Museum and Motat.  In radio, you’d have to include the names of those assets to give the same meaning.  At a more basic level, I can introduce someone with the line “but not everyone agrees” and then cut to a statement from Dick Quax, who has a key (which is what we call the name and title that flashes up on screen when someone talks).  On the radio, you’d have to say “but not everyone agrees, including Auckland Councillor Dick Quax”.

Then there’s some things that will never work on radio. A dog on a skateboard. A death-defying extreme sport stunt. Highlights from Fashion Week. Things that listeners of RNZ are probably quite grateful for avoiding.

Where am I going with this?  Am I going to teach the broadcasting syllabus one blog post at a time?  No.  I’m pointing out that if you’re looking at starting a new breakfast TV show, making it also work for radio is no mean feat.  Which is exactly what Mediaworks is coming to grips with as it prepares to launch the new TV3 and Radio Live breakfast show with Paul Henry. 

I can’t say for sure that it was ever intended to begin when most such shows resume this year (about this week), but it’s definitely not now. An acquaintance at TV3 says it’s posing a few challenges (that’s a polite paraphrasing), and will be more like April or May.

Like most of you, I’m guessing, I’m not particularly excited to see or hear from Paul Henry.  His “I’m amazing” shtick is more tedious than offensive, although the marketing team at Mediaworks seem to be loving it so much that they’ve adopted it as a recruitment tool.  Although to be fair, when I think “tool”, Paul Henry does spring to mind.  In the past, I've defended at least his abilities - I’ve seen him do very good interviews, interesting journalism, marred by the occasional tosspot outburst.  That ratio has long since turned on its head.

But regardless of what Mediaworks or Paul Henry might think, this isn’t all about him.  A multi-platform breakfast show will employ dozens of people, and many of them will be good, hard-working people.  I know some of my former students will be among them.

So if it’s possible to tune out Henry, even for just a minute, I’ll be fascinated to see if, and how, a TV show that’s also a radio show will work.  There aren’t any great examples I can think of from overseas.  The closest thing we have here is when Radio Live plays the TV3 news at 6pm, and that’s a good example of how it doesn’t work: dramatic pictures not speaking for themselves, nameless interviews, invisible sports highlights and a vacuum where isobar maps should be.  At least (I’m told), on the new breakfast show(s), the news breaks will be split into separate radio news and TV news bulletins. 

It’s not hard to arrive at the opinion that rather than a brave step into a dynamic multi-platform environment, Mediaworks aren’t instead simply  giving up on Radio Live.  Marcus Lush hasn’t made any substantial inroads into Newstalk ZB’s breakfast audience, why not save his (by all accounts, considerable) salary and get two for the price of (by all accounts, a considerable) one with Paul Henry?  At the same time pare back the over-resourced late night Paul Henry Show into a more modest late news show (cheap presenter, no co-host, no special reporters), the bottom line looks better, the company looks more attractive to a potential buyer, etc.  

I can only think in the same situation, if TVNZ had decided to scrap its failing late night show, breakfast show and (if we had a radio arm) a breakfast radio show, the NZ Herald wouldn't have gone with a similar line as the one  attributed to (a very misinformed) Brian Edwards, that "MediaWorks was capitalising on Henry's late-night television success".  I presume "Crisis at State Television" would've been more the angle.  

As a journalism teacher and maker of television, I find any shift in the media landscape interesting, and a genuine effort to create a multiplatform show on a major network particularly so. I'm really curious.

 If it works, and I genuinely hope for those journalists employed there that it does, it might be time to rethink that lecture on writing for television.  Maybe I’ll invite a guest lecturer instead, some genius from the Paul Henry Show. No, not that one.

[EDIT: I tend to assume people know these things, but for the record, I work on a casual basis for TVNZ News & Current Affairs, and co-host Back Benches on Prime TV]

New Year, New Post.

I was a bit disappointed to realise, on December 30th, that 2014 would pass without me finishing a single book.   I picked up a copy of Steve Braunias’ election collection, Mad Men, but even its slender spine defied my belated efforts. 

Likewise, I’d barely written a word all year.  A few blog entries (I’ve never been prolific, for sure, but that’s a new low even for me), no magazine articles or columns or anything.  For some reason, unable to read or write.  Practically, if not literally, illiterate. 

December 31st being a traditional time for setting unrealistic expectations for the year ahead, I resolved to do more of both these things.  To write regularly, like I’m doing now, and to try and knock off a book each month or thereabouts. Though The Luminaries (still unread, on my bookshelf) might have to count as two or three of those. 

What went wrong in 2014, I ask on your behalf, like so many annoying politicians setting up their own questions (“Could we be doing better? Of course. Are we working to improve the economy? Yes. What sorts of things are we doing?”).  Yes what went wrong?  Well nothing really.  Our second child turned up in May, a little fella named Eddie who is an absolute joy, and what little time was left went to work, the rest of the family, and occasionally, sleep.  Rather than reading, I’d drift off in front of a comedy show, laptop thudding to the ground more often than not.  (Still works, other than the delete key. I've just learnt to never make mistakes…) 

Last year I subscribed to the New Yorker too. I’d get guilty looking at the pile of unread issues, but tried to at least dedicate my weekly flights to Wellington for Back Benches to reading them – in the past I would’ve worked my way through a book, but  I fucking love the New Yorker, and even if I only read 1 in 4 mags, the relatively cheap annual sub (about $120 I think?) is money well spent, and I couldn’t recommend it more. 

I’d meant to write a number of times during the election campaign.  But it was all so damned depressing – not the outcome per se, but the fact that most “normal” people I spoke to (ie those who don’t have Twitter accounts and get their news from the TV or an actual newspaper) weren’t particularly exercised by the Dirty Politics affair simply because they always thought politics and politicians were like that anyway.  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, there’s a reason why MPs are down there with journalists among the least trusted professions, but working alongside so many back bench MPs, I think I’ve generally had a more optimistic view of the people I’ve gotten to know. I say “generally” – I mean there have been some completely c**ts too. 

The other thing I’d meant to tell y’all is that my student media site, YOURS.net.nz, is launching a TV show, through TVNZ On Demand.   It will feature the best content submitted to YOURS.net.nz, as well as content commissioned from young people around NZ, a magazine show mix of news, reviews, interviews, arts, music, entertainment, social issues and so forth.  If you have young (13+) people in your house, let them know, and if they’re content creators, let me know!  We kick off in March (thanks NZ On Air, as well as TVNZ for backing me).   

If we do get off the ground on schedule, we’ll probably beat the new Paul Henry Breakfast TV and radio combo show being put together by Mediaworks – from what I understand it won’t see the light now until April or even later.   I’ve got some thoughts on this show, but rather than use all my ammo in this first post, I might try and save it for a bit more detailed consideration in the coming weeks. 

Don’t be surprised if comments aren’t enabled for my posts.  While I think there are some really good discussions on PAS, there’s also been some shitty ones, ones that have put me off contributing here, and I know have seen others leave in the past.  Just because we don’t call each other pinko commie twats like they do on other blogs, doesn’t mean it’s always a “safe space”, or even just a nice place to be.   If you really wanna talk about something, I’m on Twitter @damianchristie 

…Speaking of ‘safe space’, what’s crawled up Twitter’s arse and died in the past weeks?  Arguments over God-knows-what (even by Twitter’s usual standards), people locking up, leaving… What I find weird is that people – and I’ve done it here myself – attribute it to Twitter somehow.  Like it’s universal, when actually all of our accounts are a unique combination of people we’ve chosen to follow. And you only have to look at the trending hashtags to realise that most people aren’t arguing about safe spaces and mansplaining and privilege and marginalisation and so forth, they’re discussion how much they love One Direction and/or the cricket.  So how did I end up in this humourless, needlessly argumentative chamber? 

Sometimes I think Twitter would be better if you could just turn off the comments too.