Brian Edwards Media

Who won, who lost in the first television leaders’ debate? I name the biggest loser.

 

Well, I won’t keep you in suspense. It wasn’t Goff. And it wasn’t Key. It was you and me – the voting public. We were conned by Television New Zealand into thinking that for an hour-and-a -half last night the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition would debate the serious issues that confront this country, the channel’s Political Editor, Guyon Espiner, would keep order and, by the end of the 90 minutes, we would all be better informed.

We should have learned from history not to trust that promise. Television New Zealand has never treated the Leaders’ Debates as anything more than an entertainment. Its remit to sell audiences to advertisers, its suspicion that viewers are fundamentally uninterested in politics, its conviction that the attention span of the average television consumer is seven minutes tops and its paranoia about doing anything that might bore that viewer into switching channels, all contribute  to the entertainment ethos that drives the Leaders’ Debates.

‘Debates’ is of course a misnomer. A real debate requires an extensive exchange of views between the parties. Three or four minutes on a topic, some part of that time spent in an undecipherable cacophony of moderator and leaders talking at once, cannot be called a debate. But that is precisely what TVNZ wants and the programme is structured to ensure that result. 

A 90-minute programme does not of course comprise 90 minutes of content. A standard commercial half-hour has about 22 minutes of programme material. So a commercial hour-and-a-half will have no more than 70 minutes of content.

Into this 70 minutes last night, TVNZ managed to squeeze the following ingredients:

  • Mark Sainsbury’s opening and closing;
  • Guyon Espiner’s topic introductions and questions;
  • John Key’s and Phil Goff’s responses on at least 15 different topics. (I didn’t count.)
  • Sainsbury’s interviews with Jon Johanssen and Claire Robinson during the breaks;
  • Questions from Fran O’Sullivan, Wallace Chapman and Shane Taurima;
  • Viewers’ questions;
  • A text poll.

 It can’t be done.

And it wasn’t done. In almost every case, the so-called ‘debate’  between Key and Goff had to be cut off mid-stream or earlier, leaving the issue not merely unresolved but barely touched on.

Respected  Media and Communications scholar Ernest Hess-Luttich called this sort of exchange ‘pseudo argumentation’. As it happens, this is precisely the form of entertainment that TVNZ wants from its election debates – political leaders squabbling to no purpose.

We were at least spared the bedlam of audience shouting and abuse which occurred during the first of the Clark/Brash debates in 2005 when a senior TVNZ network executive appeared in the studio during the first commercial break to encourage the 50:50 National/Labour audience to ‘rark up’ the leaders with even more shouting and abuse.

I don’t want to get too precious about this, but doesn’t an organisation called ‘Television New Zealand’ have an obligation in an election year to provide its audience with proper forums for discursive political debate rather than programmes based on the entertainment ethos of a Punch and Judy Show? TVNZ clearly thinks it doesn’t. I find that shameful.

As to who won, I leave that to you. It seemed to me that it was pretty even.

, , , , , , ,

43 Comments:

  1. “…doesn’t an organisation called ‘Television New Zealand’ have an obligation in an election year…”

    It did. Until the Government removed it, earlier this year by statute. Now it has no more obligation than Sky TV’s Food Television.

    BE: Yes, but I really wasn’t thinking about a statutory obligation, more the obligation of a responsible television network, still widely regarded as ‘the state broadcaster’ and carrying the name ‘Television New Zealand’.

  2. Forgetting the entertainment aspect and dealing with what we were presented with, this is my five cents worth that I added on Stuff this morning….

    “I found Phil Goff more credible in what he had to say than John Key. He appeared more passionate in his beliefs too, while Key took on almost a look of innocence, that he can do no wrong. I cannot bring myself to trust Key, and I fear his agenda may be closer to that of Roger Douglas in the 80’s than they’re letting on.”

    No matter how hard I try, I really do not see consistent substance in what Key has to say – not just last night, but over the last couple of years. Last night I was really impressed with Goff.

    But the election should be much more than just who the leaders are. I am so pleased that Labour has chosen to focus on the issues and policy, whereas National is focusing on their rock star. Lets hope the voters are not so fickle.

    John Stokes

  3. John Key was well prepared, at the lectern he had several sheets of paper, we saw him shuffle through when the leaders were told a particular topic was coming. I suspect he a had a neat summary of the government policy and a well honed barb for the Labour policy. He used these rather effectively, one example was the Capital Gains Tax – he suggested anyone using their home for any business would pay the tax, and that Phil Goff was hiding that. Even under pressure he still manages to keep smiling which counts for a lot, i guess people judge a performance more on the body language than the words said.

  4. “it has no more obligation than Sky TV’s Food Television.”
    I reckon Food TV could do a way better job.
    In cooking (and eating) much is revealed about a person.

    I agree Brian – I came away from the “debate” with nothing other than more questions and a feeling of being ripped off. Trying to shovel that many topics in that time frame was a travesty.
    It was hyped up with “this is when swinging voters decide” notions. I reckon there will be even more people left swinging after that piece of lightweight bum fluff.

  5. TVNZ showed how low their so called high ground in current affairs is, all it needed was a cameo from old peoples-Holmes and it’d would’ve been complete.
    Espiner is a lightweight and who cares what commentators think, more from the leaders less of the ‘experts’, let them joust and volley to show us what they’re about.
    TVNZ’s approach mirrors their content, fluffy, unengaging and a disservice to viewers.
    I’m against all SOE sales except TVNZ, it’s of no value anymore. Maori TV holds the high ground and Beatson on stratos is still a masterclass in interviewing.

  6. I couldn’t agree more. The marketing mandarins rule, they think they know what rates and what doesn’t. Anything of real substance is carefully avoided. The viewers, particularly in the most prized “key demographics” are treated as flighty morons with the attention span of the proverbial gnat.

    One surprising aspect of this phenomenon though is that things are quite different in the spiritual home of commercial TV, the USA. They have a tradition of civilised and dignified political debates that continues to this day. I am really not sure what accounts for the difference.

  7. You’ve noted all the reasons I didn’t watch it, Brian and then some.

  8. It gets worse. Not only was the debate a failure, for the reasons Brian states, but there’s precious little else to come.

    In the past, there have been lengthy interviews with the party leaders (e.g. Kim Hill, 2005, half an hour in prime time on One). Now there’s nothing.

    There have been debates on specific topics, without the leaders (e.g. the finance spokespeople, in 2005, again on One).

    I have been racking my brains to think of any election campaign in New Zealand, or any campaign in any comparable democracy, where the political issues and people were almost absent from the prime time schedules (please don’t say Sunday at 9 a.m., that’s a sop at best). I can’t think of any time or place worse than here and now, and so would like to give TVNZ 2011 the coveted award of the “Worst Major TV Channel in the History of Television and Democracy.”

    Any other contenders before they get the gong? Suggestions welcome!

  9. Brian, the interesting thing for me was the poor body language of J K when Phil Goff was venting. Jk could benefit from some media coaching. Could be a job there Brian.

  10. It failed on both counts because it also happened to be un-entertaining.

  11. I felt that Guyon Espiner’s inexperience showed through and when the camera panned to him as the leaders were having a stoush his face almost vibrated with ardent hope and despair at the same time. Hope that they would do something that made the show more entertaining while he was at the podium, despair that he might look like he couldn’t control them.

    For some reason however NZ Media seem to think that NZer’s find the elections interesting enough to actually take time out to watch Leaders debates. I mean to say on TVNZ tonight they showed a family in West Hamilton, with two parents and children that appeared no older than 10 watching the debate. Please! In what fantasy world do they think we live in.

    I believe people who watch the debates are people who have already made their mind up and want to see their opinions reinforced. You will see and hear what you want to see and hear and find reasons to make excuses for any poor performances.

    Billboards probably have more impact in forming people’s decision for those that remain undecided..all the rest is pr and hype.

  12. “Yes, but I really wasn’t thinking about a statutory obligation, more the obligation of a responsible television network, still widely regarded as ‘the state broadcaster’…”

    I appreciate that’s what you meant, and my point is that surely that’s a little naive.

    Now that TVNZ has been told by the Government – its key shareholder – that its only obligation is to return a profit, and as much of that as possible please, so on what basis should it do anything else? Just because Air NZ is the national carrier, do you expect it to offer discounts to seniors, or those on the benefit? No. It’s a completely commercial enterprise. So why would TVNZ do anything other than what it perceives will maximise profit? Other than some nostalgic wish, I don’t know how you could expect anything else?

    TVNZ has changed. The old dog hasn’t just learned a new trick, it’s turning tricks.

  13. @simon g – for the same reason I suggest Brian needs to rethink his views on TVNZ behaving exactly as it is being told to by its shareholder – can you honestly say that TV3, being an equally commercially driven entity, is not worthy of at least sharing that prize?

  14. What happened to the “worm” and other scientific devices that provide an objective measurement on performance?

    The commentators (political experts) TVNZ employed did not seem impartial.

  15. I agree with you, Brian, and I have simple solution for people who face this dilemma: Get rid of the TV!

    I didn’t watch the leaders’ debate, because I have no TV. And it’s much more fun just reading the disappointed comments the morning after.

  16. @DamienChristie. the debate was hopelessly run and is typical of tvnz,s view that it’s audience is stupid and the best result from anyi debate is to find a 10 second clip for its following news bulletin. Most people want to know why a policy is being proposed and be told by its proponent why they think it is a good idea, that’s the whole point isn’t it of the program. Your 20 something’s that run the commercial side of things might not have twigged that 40 something’s have a heck of a lot more disposable income.
    the debate was a debacle and makes TVNZ look like Comedy Central and their rate card should reflect that.
    And as for AirNZ well they spent a huge amount of money flying people for free out of Christchurch and they sent in their staff trained in grief counseling to the coast. TVNZ unlike most corporates seem to have lost sight of who they are and should probably be the first SOE put up for sale.

  17. “I believe people who watch the debates are people who have already made their mind up and want to see their opinions reinforced.”

    I tend to agree. I suspect many of the so-called swinging voters didn’t watch the debate, are not interested in such programmes, and will not vote come election day.

    JC: A recent study has shown that while swinging voters take little notice of political reporting and analysis, they not only watch the debates but often make voting decisions on their perception of the leaders’ performances. The reverse applied to committed voters. The findings surprised most politicos, and I suspect it’ll surprise some academics as well.

  18. I am amazed that anyone expected anything diferent. I did not watch since I had to wash my hair and I knew it would be 90 minutes of my life wasted. From what I have heard the only thing missing was a line up of dancing worms in frilly underwear.

  19. May I commend you to a place of contemporary, relevant, in-depth & insightful election discource: http://www.greens.org.nz/greenroom

  20. Agree with much of the above. Oh for a Robin Day ! We do have a couple of people who could do the job, Kim Hill or Linda Clark, but they are probably not glamerous enough for TV1. I would like to add a point on asset sales and public/private partnerships which is rarely mentioned but is the clincher for me.under such arrangements the said organizations know that they are able to make risky decisions with impunity. The government or local authority in nearly every case will pick up the pieces because they cannot allow National Airlines or power companies to fail. Guess who pays the bill when these people are let loose on the stock market casino. I was privatized with British Telecom in the late eighties and yes it happens.

  21. @Mark

    “He used these rather effectively, one example was the Capital Gains Tax – he suggested anyone using their home for any business would pay the tax, and that Phil Goff was hiding that.”

    I suspect had Goff been given the time to answer which he wasn’t, his answer would have been to point out it is fair to apply CGT to the portion of a home that a person has been claiming in their company taxes as a business expense, and that part of the policy has never been hidden. If they don’t want that % of their home to be subject to CGT then they can elect to not claim usage as a tax deductible cost to their business.

  22. Damien versus Brian. Brian was reflecting the old fashioned expectation of a quality national broadcasting service. An alien concept for your generation I feel Damien.. Anyway, good luck with finding a new channel and time slot for BackBenches. I can’t believe how you rolled over and bowed to govt decision to can Tvnz7. Media censorship is in Aoteatoa. – believe it.

  23. Jeez Damien, TVNZ’s history but never mind lets move on eh ? The govt still OWNS TVNZ, and it can instruct it to behave like a public broadcaster if it wishes .. there’s a political choice been made, its not a force of nature at work here. New Zealand needs a public TV broadcaster – end of story. Maybe that’s “naive” , but if so then all the other western democracies share that condition.

    RNZ the last bastion – and now the Nats are slowly killing that organisation by freezing funding – and i hear the PM won’t even front up to their election debate ! Now that’s naive.

  24. If you’re looking for long-form interviews, I highly recommend Otago University’s Vote Chat.

    So far Bill English, Grant Robertson, Peter Dunne and many others have appeared for one hour, commercial-free interviews.

    http://www.youtube.com/user/OUVoteChat

  25. “We do have a couple of people who could do the job, Kim Hill or Linda Clark”

    Hmmm, well Hill would need to keep her hear on, unlike in her interview of John Pilger when she threw a childish tantrum. As for Linda Clark, she is a lightweight. I still recall her interview of “Nathan”, who falsely accused Peter Ellis of sexually abusing him. Clark showed a lack of professionalism during that interview, and RNZ were caned by the Broadcasting Standards Authority for even broadcasting the one-sided interview.

  26. The question of lying by politicians arose in that “debate.” Close Up advertised an examination of that issue last night as a follow up. That should be interesting I thought. Huh. Trivialised by a pop song on”Liar, Liar” and the issue? Not bluddy likely mate!

  27. Its a pity that John Campbell has been excluded as an interviewer. Some of his serious interviews far outweigh Espiner or Sainsbury. Maybe that is why Key refuses to front up on TV3.
    Julian over on Maori TV has also done excellent political interviews. He asks good questions then leaves the audience to assess.
    Maybe the paucity of in-depth political discourse and its probable effect to the detriment of democracy, should be an Election issue?

  28. {JC: A recent study has shown that while swinging voters take little notice of political reporting and analysis, they not only watch the debates but often make voting decisions on their perception of the leaders’ performances. The reverse applied to committed voters. The findings surprised most politicos, and I suspect it’ll surprise some academics as well.}

    I am sure that that is true if such voters commit to voting on election day. But we know that almost a quarter of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote at the last election. I would rather swinging voters didn’t vote if their main reason for voting is that the party leader seems like a nice guy. :)

  29. I’m soooooo over NZ television barely caressing topics in the news before cutting it short for a commercial break or boring “filler”. I would LOVE to see a show with some in depth, lengthy discussion on things like the election. So frustrating.

    NZ Television Drinking Game: Sit down with a bottle of your favourite spirit in front of any news related show and drink every time someone says “I’ll have to stop you there” or “We’ve run out of time”… you’ll get plastered.

  30. 30

    Bandar Seri Begawan

    The posts here, match the content of the programme, itself: Dull as dishwater.

  31. @DamienChristie. the debate was hopelessly run and is typical of tvnz,s view that it’s audience is stupid and the best result from anyi debate is to find a 10 second clip for its following news bulletin. Most people want to know why a policy is being proposed and be told by its proponent why they think it is a good idea, that’s the whole point isn’t it of the program. Your 20 something’s that run the commercial side of things might not have twigged that 40 something’s have a heck of a lot more disposable income.
    the debate was a debacle and makes TVNZ look like Comedy Central and their rate card should reflect that.
    And as for AirNZ well they spent a huge amount of money flying people for free out of Christchurch and they sent in their staff trained in grief counseling to the coast. TVNZ unlike most corporates seem to have lost sight of who they are and should probably be the first SOE put up for sale.

    +1

  32. ““…doesn’t an organisation called ‘Television New Zealand’ have an obligation in an election year…”

    …begs the question: why is anyone even WATCHING TV1 or TV2?

  33. “Maori TV holds the high ground and Beatson on stratos is still a masterclass in interviewing.”

    Beatson is on Stratos bec ause he can;t gete agig anywhere else. Old school, doddery, irrelevant – like David Frost on Al Jazeera.

  34. “We do have a couple of people who could do the job, Kim Hill or Linda Clark”

    Or Wendy Petrie.

  35. “Maori TV holds the high ground and Beatson on stratos is still a masterclass in interviewing.”

    Beatson is on Stratos becasue he can’t get a gig anywhere else. Like David Frost on Al Jazeera. Nobody cares.

  36. Dont forget Mary Wilson,another politicians nightmare.

  37. Before TVNZ decided that an Australian soap, something to do with cooking and crying, would attract a bigger audience than “Coronation Street”, roughly 520,000 watched “Coro”. Way Hey! The audience for the leaders’ debate pap was 402,000. (See http://www.throng.co.nz.) Does this tell us anything about the teenagers running our national televison broadcaster? Or what?

  38. @ Bandar

    Want to raise the tone then? Come on. Show us what you are made of.

  39. The Press Leaders 2 hour debate in Christchurch tonight was much closer to viewable. A superior format to TV1. Great watching.

  40. 40

    Bandar Seri Begawan

    @ Number Eleven

    Why bother? You don’t have the intellectual acuity to understand it.

  41. If we’re going to keep score;

    ABs: 8
    French: 7
    Key: 1 (The Press debate)
    Goff: 1 (TVNZ debate)

    Interestingly, the myth-making about Labour’s “fiscal incompetance” seems to be National’s “weapon of choice” during this election.

    Yet, a bit of online research soon reveals a curious fact: NZ does well under (non-Rogernomics) Labour Governments – and fares poorly under (non-Muldoon) National governments.

    The evidence is quite stark: http://fmacskasy.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/labour-the-economic-record-2000-2008/

    It’ll be interesting if the Labour strategists can address National’s myth-making tactic.

  42. “Jeez Damien, TVNZ’s history but never mind lets move on eh ? The govt still OWNS TVNZ, and it can instruct it to behave like a public broadcaster if it wishes .. ”

    Um, yeah this was my ENTIRE point. I’m not applauding TVNZ or the debate or anything, certainly not, and I agree with a lot of the points here. I’m saying that the Government has INSTRUCTED tvnz to act the way it is, i.e. as a fully commercial enterprise. It has INSTRUCTED tvnz not to act like a public broadcaster in the traditional sense of the word. And therefore none of us should be surprised.

    Personally, I wish the Government would do precisely the opposite of what it has done. As for rolling over regarding TVNZ 7, I assume you’re talking about TVNZ rolling over, and not me personally, because I for one have been fighting for the channel (or at least the shows) to continue.

  43. And @Philip – as someone who quit working on Close Up to go and make ‘old school’ intelligent public service style programmes such as my show ‘Hindsight’, of which I’m very proud, I respectfully suggest I know a hell of a lot more about making quality public service television than you do. As the saying goes, know me before you judge me (or lump me in with my generation. I’m nearly 40 you know…)