Brian Edwards Media

Old Time Music Hall from New Zealand Television News


Many years ago, when I was running the television modules at the AUT,  I invited Tom Parkinson, former Head of Entertainment with TVNZ and one of the driving forces behind TV3, to give a guest lecture to some of my senior students. I assumed he would talk about Light Entertainment, but his theme was the remarkable similarity in structure between network television news and the  old time  music hall.  It was mostly about placement: where in the programme you put the starring acts (major stories), second tier acts (less major stories), intermissions (commercial breaks), comedy acts (funny stories), high wire acts (dramatic stories), pre-intermission acts (teasers),  heart-warming acts (human interest stories) and so on.  ‘Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.’ It was a fascinating lecture and the exactness of the analogy was remarkable.

I don’t think it was Tom’s intention to suggest that the actual content of the television news bulletin should be the same as the content of a music hall bill, but I’m starting to feel that that is where we are inexorably going. Our news-reading duos increasingly look like comedy double acts.

‘I say, I say, I say, Wendy, what’s taller than an elephant but shorter than a mosquito’s eyebrow?

I don’t know, Simon. What is taller  than an elephant but shorter than a mosquito’s eyebrow?

Why, this exclusive, One News report from Tim Wilson live at the White House of course, Wendy. Take it away, Tim!

Silly? Well yes. But we are now seeing the most relentless trivialisation and cosmetic enhancement  of news, current affairs and information programmes that I can recall in those 50 years of New Zealand television that we are supposed to be celebrating.

I was reminded of this by Cameron Bennett’s decision to leave TVNZ in the face of proposed changes to Sunday which will apparently include his replacement as the programme’s frontman by a gaggle of other correspondents.  Reporting on Bennett’s decision, the Herald’s John Drinnan wrote:

‘There is also speculation at TVNZ that Breakfast co-host Pippa Wetzell may take over as Sunday presenter when she returns from maternity leave next year – a front role similar to Alison Mau’s on Fair Go.’

An apt comparison, for just as Kevin Milne, recently voted New Zealand’s second-most-trusted person, has been the doyen of television consumer reporting, so Cameron Bennett has been the undisputed doyen among  the medium’s foreign correspondents.  If the speculation Drinnan refers to is correct, then both men are to be replaced by very beautiful and, I hasten to add, very talented women.

So what does it matter? It matters because few presenters can bring to the programmes they host the gravitas, authority and field experience which Bennett has brought to Sunday.  Only TV3 newsreader and  60 Minutes presenter  Mike McRoberts can be considered in the same league.

But gravitas, authority and field experience no longer command a premium among Television New Zealand programmers. On the contrary, they  are seen as old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy values  which have been superseded by the junk food ethos  of the advertising world – new and exciting, bursting with flavour,  easily digested sound and picture bites, the McNuggets of modern TV news and current affairs.

Most of us old fogies thought it had gone about as far as it could go. But we were wrong.  I’m told that the average sound bite on television news is now less than seven  seconds.  So-called ‘current affairs programmes’ like Close Up and Campbell Live which once squeezed three items into their 22 minutes of air time, now shoehorn in four or  five, their hosts regularly  expressing sorrow that they’ve ‘run out of time’.

As Janet Wilson recently observed, how you look has become more important than how much credibility you bring to the job. And there is precious little credibility in the news bulletins of either TVNZ or TV3. What television news should be – the  unembellished recital of facts, of what has happened at home and abroad over the previous 24 hours  – simply no longer exists. Not only is the network news on both channels suffused with unsignposted  editorial comment; not only do the field reporters seem to believe their reports exist more for the entertainment  of their good mates Simon and Wendy, Hilary and Al, than for the enlightenment of us the viewers; not only are the opinions  of bystanders, neighbours, children and assorted passers-by treated as informed comment;  not only does the promotion and teasing of the channel’s upcoming programmes  qualify as legitimate news; not only has real research been replaced by 50 cent text-in polls; not only is inane banter between the members of the ‘news family’ considered a sine qua non of every bulletin; but I have the distinct suspicion that tattooed on the inside of the eyelids of every member of the One and Three News teams is the motto: THE NEWS MUST BE FUN!  But sadly, from a journalistic perspective, the news at six on both channels has degenerated into little more than tragic farce.

As for Sunday, one of the few programmes that took the time to report on stories at length and  in depth, it will be less without the presence of Cameron Bennett, just as the flash, all singing, all dancing, new and improved Fair Go will be less with the eventual departure of Kevin Milne. Some hosts, you see, are inseparable from the warp and weft of the programmes they present. 

I know – time for a cup of cocoa and a lie down, Granddad!

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  1. This calls for Duncan Garner intervention! Or maybe not.

  2. Brian,
    Interesting comparison with music hall. I think long term this shorter/sharper/fluffier approach is self defeating in a world where people choose their news, rather than have it wash over them.

    Here’s a good example of how when an online news organisation chose to go long and detailed, rather than the conventionally popular short and fluffy, they were overwhelmed with demand.

    Here’s the Nieman link on the success of Slate’s long form journalsim.

    I think TV will be more successful in a MySky time-shifted world when it goes long, in-depth and aims for quality.

    This desire to do anything to keep short attention spans and stop channel flicking is essentially pointless as viewers get the technology to choose their time and place.

    I think free to air television needs to prepare for a time-shifted world and think about business models to support it.

    This eventual race to nano-second editing and endless ‘coming up nexts..and so far we’ve seen…’ (see any of the US shows to get a feel for this) will eventually end in TV swallowing its own tail.


  3. This is nothing new. When TVNZ made the move away from british accents, commentators lamented the end of an era, the downgrading of the news etc. Now it’s a move to new media and entertainment-style news that’s got people up in arms.

    Ratings. It’s all about ratings.

    Cameron Bennett is a fine journo. Years of experience, mana and dignity. Pippa, as lovely as I’m sure she is, can move a magazine. That’s what matters at the moment, right or wrong.

  4. Like you I am soooo over it all! Everytime I hear during the news that the soccer will be screened live on TV1…blah blah blah, or that Q&A is on Sunday or that Mark (Look!) Sainsbury is going to interview someone who is the centrpiece of some programme to screen soon, I scream at my poor wife in rage and frustration.

    Not to mention the editorial nonsense. Take tonight’s news. Is a back down “humiliating” or “embaressing”. Well humiliation is an objective thing arising from observation of the condition of the persons concerned. Is John Key humiliated? Don’t know but I do know it is not a state conferred by commentary. Except on our news where the readers editorialise with gay abandon and confirm once again where the power lies in the system. Irritates me all so much….

  5. Ha! you all get time to watch the TV news (whatever its quality or its set agenda might be) while busy mothers rarely get to even hear the nano second headlines and never get to read paper!

    So after a long draught of news (of any kind good or bad) Twitter has been a breath of fresh and informative air.

    Now I can chose my news sources from a vast of array of credible sources, traditional, new media, specialist bloggers, conservative, liberal niche and sometimes just quirky.

    It is all about reaching out connecting and catching my attention -even if I follow a particular source you still need to get my attention.

    It took your third twitter headline to get me.

    It is so empowering!

    Thank You.

    • It took your third twitter headline to get me. It is so empowering! Thank You.


      It is so empowering!

  6. I agree with Bernard Hickey .Now we just need to find a local Media Baron with sufficient forsight to establish it.

  7. “THE NEWS MUST BE FUN!”. And So It Came To Be.

    From memory, that was Bill Ralston’s reformist catchcry, when he took over the helm at TV One News. Rightly or wrongly, he was the genesis which brought about the change in the mindsets as to how the news was supposed to evolve into. The upshot being: so much “fun” is had by all, that, we’re being served up a veritable feast of bonhomie-formatted news, replete with the in-house folksy name-calling — “Jimmy”, “Sav”, “Wenders” etc. Think, that is bad? Well, just hark back to the entrée which was dished up, earlier; with the ridiculousness, of Judy Bailey being canonised as our “Mother of the Nation”. If you ever subscribed to that fatuous reverential moniker, what we’re getting, in comparison, is real highbrow stuff. Be grateful.

    I would have liked to be enlightened by Bill Ralston’s viewpoint, on Janet’s blog. Would, he have been conflicted by way of presenting a sharp counterpoint? Or, would he have given the all-knowing affirmative nod of his head, by his own complementary and “complimentary” — he doesn’t want to be eating takeaways — exposition. Janet appears to be railing against a paradigm — that, her very own hubby was the architect of.

    Ralston came to be head of news, by virtue of being Ian Fraser’s protégé; a fanboi, so to speak. Fraser, was a competent enough interviewer. But, as a Leader, Innovator, Reformer and Inspirer of People — he never got past the first few pages of: “CEO Made Simple”. He was abjectly, hopeless. As with his predecessors — Ross Armstrong and Neil Roberts. All these guys were “Yesterday’s Men”. Roberts, brought back John Hawkesby — by hitting Long’s Eject button — thinking, he was really going to deal to TV3. We all know what an expensive disaster that turned out to be. It cost TVNZ a fortune, and almost cost Hawkesby his mind.

    Ralston set out to boost his ego — vicariously — by dabbling in Media Personality Creation, by paying an eye-watering salary to the Frog-in-the-Throat One. Is it any wonder, Helen Cark called, “Time Out”, to stem the profligate wastage at TVNZ? Think, she was thrilled to compare what she was earning — as PM — to an auto-cue Monday-Friday 6PM newsreader? And, is it any surprise — that, Clark started imposing managerial restraints upon TVNZ by way of the profit-robbing Charter? It was her way of bringing TVNZ to heel.

    Friends, if you vent your disquiet upon the news content and format, together with its current crop of reporters and presenters, you are misguided. What we have, now, are the progeny — the faithful adherents to their forbearers’ catechisms. Learn to like it.

  8. For withering critique of modern TV news and its handling of the Moat gunman tragedy, check out Charlie Brooker at the Guardian…one of the best TV critics in the world (IMHO)

    “Moat was so enraged by this kind of coverage, he threatened to kill a member of the public for each inaccurate report he came across, like an extremist wing of the Press Complaints Commission. The police requested a news blackout on stories relating to Moat’s private life. Soon the rolling news networks were reduced to filling hours of airtime with speculation about what kind of campsite he might have built. To make this seem exciting, they’d yabber that “the net” was “closing”, or read out exhaustive lists of how many the guns the police had.”


    • For withering critique of modern TV news and its handling of the Moat gunman tragedy, check out Charlie Brooker at the Guardian…one of the best TV critics in the world (IMHO)

      Great stuff. Thanks.

  9. BE says: “… their hosts regularly expressing sorrow that they’ve ‘run out of time’.”

    To any politicians reading: you will get my eternal respect, maybe even my vote, if you respond to this irritating (and time-wasting) line, as follows:

    “But I have not run out of time. I know that I am accountable to the viewers / voters, and so I am quite happy to stay here and answer more questions. If, dear host, you do not wish to ask any more questions, but prefer to move on to an item about a pet tortoise in Pukekohe who moves its head in and out of its shell in perfect time to a selection of Abba hits, then I can’t stop you. But be aware that I will continue to make decisions which significantly affect New Zealanders’ lives, and if those decisions and the decision-makers are not properly scrutinised, that is your choice, not mine.

    Now, what is your next question?”

  10. yes, tv news is pretty dire,which is why in common with many people I depend on the print media. old time music hall?beyond that really,approaching pure vaudeville.
    a massive bombing in iraq or a lethal ambush in afganistan rates 15 seconds – no context whatsoever – while feelgood stories along the lines of a class of primary schoolchildren in the coromandel nursing a one legged duck back to health rates at least five minutes.
    and why the obsession with the weather? most of us only want to know if it will rain tomorrow.instead we get an opening roll of drums before the news even starts, a mid term update on big city temperatures(!)and five more minutes at the end. dumbing down? it has sunk far lower than that. nor should personnel changes surprise us.
    after all,in music hall didn”t pretty faces always count for more than substance?

    • and why the obsession with the weather?

      That’s a very good question. I’m told that the weather forecast is actually the most watched thing on television. After all, it’s relevant to all of us. That is one of the reasons why it has traditionally been placed at the end of news bulletins – to hold on to the audience beyond the sports section. So this is a pretty clever ploy. You tease the forecast at the start of the bulletin, but without actually giving away what will happen; then you summarise what happened today in the middle of the bulletin and tease again to the actual forecast at the very end. It may drive us all nuts, but they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work. Cynical eh? Or just clever promotion?

  11. As a former student at the AUT, I remember the lecture from Tom Parkinson very well. In the early 1990s it seemed things were as bad as they could be – now, as you point out, it’s even worse.

    IMO one reason things are worse is increasing acceptance of underlying logics of promotion in the media “businesses” – very little can’t be framed so it performs an “advertising” function (as you point to with the weather teasers; another example is cross-promoting a network’s programmes within the news). So what might look like journalism on the surface also acts as a kind of advertisement, even if it gives us some information on the way. The simple idea of providing people with information in and of itself doesn’t get a look in.

  12. Stop watching this cringe-inducing nonsense that they try to pass off as news and get your info/analysis from the internet and what is left of radio NZ. And hope that enough other eyeballs voting in a similar fashion effect the ratings. Forlorn?

  13. Brian, equally disturbing, to me, is the hint in John Drinnan’s column that news reporters are moonlighting in PR on the side. Is it possible that the ‘unsignposted editorial comment’ has been bought and paid for? Pecuniary interest disclosure might be an interesting idea.

    • Brian, equally disturbing, to me, is the hint in John Drinnan’s column that news reporters are moonlighting in PR on the side.

      I don’t think unsignposed editorial comment has been bought and paid for. Drinnan is referring to interviewers running media training courses for people they either are or are likely to be interviewing on their programme. That practice is widespread and clearly invites conflict of interest. Former clients of Sean Plunkett told me that they were surprised to find the interviewer was just as tough on them after the training as he had been before. In one sense that’s reassuring, but it indicates that the clients expected to be treated more favourably in view of their ‘special relationship’ with the interviewer.

  14. I appreciate your response, Brian, and accept your viewpoint. However, for journalists to protect their integrity as the independent carriers of fair, balanced and accurate information, without fear or favour, surely a the ‘disinfectant of daylight’ in the form of up front and open disclosure is the answer? It would be a first, from my recollection.