Brian Edwards Media

Killing Boston Legal

Many years ago I had a heated debate with Neil Roberts who was then Head of Television at TVNZ. The debate was about standards, about quality, about good and bad programmes. Neil’s view was that there was no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ programme. The terms were essentially meaningless. There were programmes that people liked and programmes that people didn’t like. It was purely a matter of individual taste. ‘Standards’ were arbitrary and personal with no objective validity. ‘Quality’ existed solely in the eye of the beholder.

There is logic to this argument, just as there is logic to the argument that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are themselves entirely subjective concepts, that nothing is inherently good or bad. But you can’t live like that. You end up with anarchy and social collapse.

And other than ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’, Roberts’ approach makes judgements about television programmes impossible and conversation about their merits or lack of merits futile.   

The same could be said about every form of criticism, from food to the arts. Nothing good or bad. Everything just popular or unpopular.

ALL ABOUT RATINGS

My argument with Neil was really about ratings. Commercial television – the only form of television we’ve ever had in New Zealand – is all about ratings.  To survive and hopefully make a profit, you have to sell audiences to advertisers. The more people watch a programme, the more the advertisers will pay. ‘Popular’ programmes earn more than ‘unpopular’ programmes. So it makes sense to put popular programmes on at times when lots of people can watch, and ‘unpopular’ programmes on at times when fewer people can watch. Commercial TV for dummies!

Lord Reith, the apostle of  independent public service broadcasting and first Director General of the BBC, believed that television should ‘inform, educate and entertain’. He put them in that order or priority. Commercial television has rather different priorities: 1) to entertain;  2)  to inform (but in an entertaining way); and 3) at all cost to avoid anything that smacks of ‘education’.

‘Entertainment’ is the key word in commercial television. To be popular, programmes must entertain. All programmes. Not just programmes billed as entertainment, like soaps and sitcoms and reality shows and quiz programmes and movies and cop dramas and sport, but news and current affairs programmes as well.

News? Well yes. In fact the news has to be the most entertaining, the most popular programme of all, because it’s on at the start of ‘peak time’ when there are more viewers to sell to advertisers than at any other time.

THE COOCHIE COO NEWS

Almost 20 years ago I contributed a chapter to Margie Comrie and Judy McGregor’s excellent little book on the news media in New Zealand – Whose News?. My chapter was entitled The Coochie Coo News. Referring to the advent of competition from TV3 in 1989,  I wrote:

‘If Television One was to compete successfully for revenue and survival in an already over-stretched advertising market, the news not merely had to rate, it had to convincingly out-rate the opposition. The bottom line was that news must entertain as well as inform.

‘One Network News bulletins thus took on the character of soap opera. The news was no longer a dispassionate recital of the day’s events at home and abroad, but a dramatic and frequently melodramatic presentation of the good, the bad and the ugly. The language of the news was charged and decorated to enhance dramatic effect. Items with no common theme were artificially linked with commentary to create the impression of a story-line. As sands through the hourglass, these were the days of our lives.

‘A by-product of the entertainment ethos was the abandonment of in-­depth coverage of all but the most world-shattering events. The presumption that the average viewer has an exceptionally limited attention span and can only take information in short bites produced a terror among news editors of boring their audience and losing them to the other side. To avoid this, items had to be short and superficial.

‘And the news itself ceased to be a collection of ‘stories’ and became a single story, the nightly episode of an ongoing serial in which exciting things happen and terrible things happen and wonderful things happen and happy endings are de rigueur. The Continuing Story of…’

It’s worse now.  Much worse.

As for ‘current affairs’, with the exception of Agenda, now renamed Q & A but still marginalised at 9 o’clock on Sunday morning, there isn’t any. Neither Close Up nor Campbell Live merit being called ‘current affairs programmes’. They are magazine shows which sometimes, but not always, include one topical item.  And everything is once over lightly.  If Close Up and Campbell Live had a catchphrase it would be, ‘Sorry, we’re running out of time.’ So complex or demanding issues are out. Seven minutes on the international financial crisis, then seven more on Barbie’s 50th birthday.

Much the same can be said of Sunday, 60 Minutes and 20/20, longer magazine programmes with a heavy emphasis on ‘human interest’ stories.

THE UNASHAMED ELITIST

I’m itching to talk about standards and quality and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ programmes, but in the minds of commercial television programmers these are not just meaningless terms, but words that brand you as elitist, snobby, old fashioned, fuddy-duddy. You become understandably nervous about using them.

Well, in the modern lingo, I’ve decided to ‘take ownership’ of my elitist views. Commercial television can never offer a diet of quality programmes, because in order to maximise its audience, it has no choice but to cater for the lowest common denominator in popular taste. It has to appeal to the masses whose taste, not to put too fine a point on it,  is in their bums. Which explains almost everything we see on TV2 and TV3 and much of what we see on TV1. Peak-time, free-to-air television in New Zealand is dominated by unrelieved and largely mindless entertainment and infotainment.

It’s the unrelieved nature of the diet that really bugs me. My judgement may be elitist, but my viewing habits aren’t. I watch and enjoy a lot of mindless entertainment myself, from Dancing with the Stars to Desperate Housewives to Supernanny and, yes, The Graham Norton Show on UKTV.  My favourite programmes are sitcoms, I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of The Simpsons and my wife has recently caught me watching reruns of The Benny Hill Show.

Nothing too demanding of the taste buds there, nothing heavy, nothing that requires too much chewing. Tasty bite-sized chunks. Chicken McNuggets and fries. I like Chicken McNuggets and fries occasionally. But  what I really crave is a balanced diet, with the occasional Scotch fillet and fresh vegetables. I’m never going to get that from commercial television, at least not at normal meal times.

So I’m driven into the seductive arms of Sky, where on the same night I can choose between Hard Talk on BBC World, a biography of the great English historian and broadcaster, AJP Taylor on the Documentary Channel, and all the news, current affairs, history, wild life, arts and yes, entertainment I can swallow. At a hefty price.

So just how do you recognise a quality programme? In much the same way as you recognise a quality meal – by the sense of enjoyment you have during it and the sense of satisfaction and enrichment at the end.

KILLING BOSTON LEGAL

Of course it would be nonsense to suggest that there are no quality programmes on commercial television. There are. But the influence of advertising goes beyond catering almost exclusively for the jaded  taste buds of the hoi polloi. News, current affairs, comedy, magazine, information, light entertainment programmes and soaps  can all cope reasonably well with commercials, because their content can be segmented without unduly affecting their integrity or the viewer’s enjoyment.

But the presence of saturation advertising destroys  narrative programmes, whether movies or television dramas. And the channels and the advertisers know it. So they suck you in with 20 minutes of programme before the first break.  Then, once you’re hooked into the story, they begin to increase the frequency of the ad breaks. Not content with dishing up populist drivel for most of the evening, they’re killing Boston Legal and the few other quality programmes they have on their schedules. Yes, I said ‘populist drivel’ and, yes, I said ‘quality programmes’. I’m right on both counts.

Neil Roberts was a hugely talented and creative person. I suspect he didn’t really believe that there was no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ programme. After all, as we elitists like to say, that’s just crap.

[You can see the elitists slug in out with Broadcasting Minister, Jonathan Coleman on this edition of Media 7.

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14 Comments:

  1. Brian,

    I utterly agree with you aboutthe quality (or lack thereof) of television news and current affairs, but the same can be said about newspapers don’t you think? I very rarely have the opportunity to watch TV news, and wouldn’t expect to feel ‘up’ with current issues even if I did. But based on my quick scan of the NZ Herald over morning coffee, I feel equally ignorant of what’s going on in the world and NZ, let alone what’s really important. What is to be done?

  2. Thanks, Liz. What is to be done? Complain loudly.

  3. I am amazed-I thought that this was State television as YOU wanted it! Crammed full of programmes like Piha Rescue and Border patrol that show how dianamic and useful the governments departments really are!
    Most of New Zealand is watching SKY where you have a real choice and the commericals are not so thick that the programmes, such as they are, are ruined and made incomprehensible.
    Sell state TV and give people a real choice!

    • Well, Roger, about half of New Zealand, including me, is paying to watch Sky. and it isn’t cheap. As for Piha Rescue, there are only so many times you can watch some idiot being dragged from the sea before it becomes deadly dull. At least on Border Patrol there’s a bit of human drama. Selling state TV probably wouldn’t make all that much difference at the moment, since it’s already mostly commercial crap. But you would have a wider choice of commercial crap which is apparently what you want. However, we’re in total agreement about the ads.

  4. Well said Brian. In the UK the BBC sets the bar high for all the other broadcasters raising the quality level all around. Viewers used to its lack of adverts wouldn’t tolerate the NZ tv level of commercial intrusion on the other broadcast channels. Excellent news programmes like Channel Four News also benefit from that commercial channels special government remit and funding arrangement. The BBC’s raising the tone is also ,I believe, the reason why the UK’s Sky News isn’t more like Fox News(thankfully).
    I believe quality state broadcasting is essential in creating a diverse broadcast environment,but if TVNZ’s role is to be a purely a commercial-ratings-chasing one, it does become hard to justify its continued state ownership. But then that’s probably the National government’s agenda.

  5. Dear Brian
    Your reference to”Boston Legal” seemsa little obscure. If Iam correct, your implication is that the series has run its course. The celebration of difference and the modern resonance of the “Trial” subject matter made this sunset series a joy to behold.

    • Yes, you’ve misunderstood me, Judy. I meant that the saturation advertising within the programme was ruining it for viewers. I share your view that Boston Legal is a seminal piece of television. However, I think I’m right in saying that the present series will be the last.

  6. We couldn’t agree with you more Brian. We are watching less & less TV as the ads drive you crazy after a while, though TV6 & 7 are sometimes OK.
    I have emailed the Minister of Broadcasting twice complaining about some aspect of programming, but one just gets the automated response saying they will take note. What else can we do?
    Also many New Zealanders going into retirement don’t want the added cost of Sky. The older market is totally ignored as well, obviously we are of no use to the advertisers!

  7. “It’s worse now. Much worse.”

    I concur. It does feel a little like minitrue is relaying a dubious decrease in the chocolate ration.

    I stopped watching TV as an experiment in June last year, and now I never use the dusty thing in the corner. I will watch TV shows, but I watch them on youtube, on demand from channel sites, or on dvd. This way I am more active in what I consume, I press play on the viewing of my choice, whether that be old bbc comedy or the odd piece of mindless rag, rather than just having the passive noise on in the corner all evening.
    I am not harried by hoards of hawkers trying to ply me their wares (usually in the most maddeningly inane way possible, as if to say “if we can’t beat them, let’s irritate the buggery out of them”).
    I am also much more aware of time, how I fill it and how it fills me.
    I still feel quite aware of current affairs, I get my information largely from various internet sources. I try to form an actively gathered grasp of what’s going on. It’s like living on a wee self-sufficient farm.

  8. With respect to Lord Reith, I firmly believe the man was wrong. It’s people implementing his views that have killed our television in this country.

    My theory is that advertising, via ratings, has driven what we get to see on tv during the peek hours for years. Quality don’t enter int’ it! (to steal a little from Monty Python.)

    When the tv ad sales rep goes to see the MacDonalds marketing person, they have to promise a certain number of viewers per dollar spent by McDonalds. The only way the tv company can deliver this is to schedule a type of show they have shown before, because they have the ratings evidence from previous shows of that type to back up the promise. This explains why we seemed to get game show after game show in the late 80/90s and why we get reality shows and “survivor” knockoffs ad nauseam now. The potential audience for the next “new” show is easily calculated.

    It gets worse, because now tv show producers can’t “sell” their show to the network unless they can prove how many people will watch it. Anyone with an original idea is doomed, and their show idea canned.

    If the producers can find some way to convince the network to take a risk, unless there’s evidence the show will pull X-numbers of viewers, it will get relegated to the off-peak hours – witness some of the wonderful arts shows of recent times, buried late on a Sunday night. In these slots, there’s no chance a new idea will get a large audience (maybe TIVO will save us here?) and the network gets to say “I told you so!”

    If we want good quality public television – we should sell off TV2, and make TV1 non-commercial and entirely state-funded. We are too small a country to afford more than one tv station, and using the commercial model just isn’t working, as can be seen in your remarks about Neil Roberts Brian, and comments here by chezpayne and others.

  9. Watching UK TV here in Devon I wouldn’t be so sure about saying the BBC is a bastion of quality, paying millions of pounds so folk like Jonathan Ross can make lewd comments to a bunch of celebrities every week I could do without.

    • Watching UK TV here in Devon I wouldn’t be so sure about saying the BBC is a bastion of quality

      Well, not everything is going to be wonderful, not even on the BBC. But oh for a channel without ads!

  10. If only our priorities were 1. Inform, 2. educate and 3. entertain in that order… if only.
    I can’t watch TV, the advertising makes me want to kill myself and the cat stuck up tree stories or even the beaten to death yet somehow still superficial stories on the news are intolerable.