Cheapened by gimmickry and the cult of personality
Something’s not right here. I’m watching a 1 News item about Prince Charles being implicated in an international tax dodge and the reporter is TVNZ’s own Chris Chang.
The story originated in Britain, but Chang would have recorded his voiceover in TVNZ’s Auckland newsroom. It will have replaced a voice track supplied with the original item by the BBC. But why?
Are we really expected to believe that a journalist sitting in New Zealand, with no specialist knowledge of Prince Charles or his dodgy investments, is in a better position to tell us what’s going on than someone close to the action?
Of course he isn’t. But this deception is routinely practised by our state-owned television network. Almost nightly, TVNZ takes overseas news items and gets its own journalists to record a voiceover.
It’s dishonest, because it pretends TVNZ’s own staff have done the hard yards when in fact they’re piggy-backing on the work of correspondents overseas.
You could argue that it’s harmless, but it’s dishonest all the same – and entirely unnecessary. So why does TVNZ do it?
I suspect that it’s all about promoting TVNZ’s own journalists as ‘‘names’’ – celebrities, you might say – whom we are encouraged to regard as our personal friends.
It’s just one example of the many ways in which TV news bulletins have been cheapened by gimmickry and the cult of personality.
Even in the digital age, when consumers of news have a veritable smorgasbord of options, the 6 o’clock news remains crucial in locking viewers in for the evening.
1 News remains the mostwatched free-to- air programme and TVNZ constantly tweaks it to ensure it retains our loyalty.
The debasement process was set in train decades ago when someone decided it would be a good idea to have two people, rather than one, reading the news.
The tandem male-female newsreading team is now such an entrenched practice that we no longer think of it as peculiar. But reading the news requires only one person, as radio and most respected overseas TV networks demonstrate. Two is pure gimmickry.
Now, let’s move from the merely irritating to the ingratiating.
TVNZ newsreaders and reporters have clearly been instructed to encourage us to think of them not as detached, competent professionals doing a serious, important job, but as our chums.
It’s the Friendly News with Simon and Wendy, with Dan the Smiling Weatherman providing the warm-up act.
This sense of easy familiarity is reinforced by the way the newsreaders address reporters when they appear live. Jessica Mutch is ‘‘Jess’’, sports host Andrew Saville is ‘‘Sav’’, and so on. They’re our pals.
We see it too when a reporter such as Paul Hobbs, one of TVNZ’s most favoured journalists, appears on screen. He often gives the impression that he’s less concerned with providing an authoritative report than with establishing a smiley empathy with viewers.
This approach can be traced back 20 years or so, to when an American consultant was brought in to retrain TVNZ’s journalists and newsreaders.
His message, which TVNZ management heartily endorsed, was that viewers had to become more emotionally engaged with the news. They had to feel it on a more personal level.
Brian Edwards memorably called it the coochie-coo news. Some journalists couldn’t bear it and quit rather than undergo what they called ‘‘potty training’’.
What else bugs me about 1 News? Well, there’s the nagging suspicion that some reporters are hired for their looks rather than their ability.
Then there are the ridiculously brief sound bites from interviewees – sometimes just three or four words. Is TVNZ worried that our attention span can’t cope with a complete sentence, or is it a way of making the news seem fast-paced and dynamic?
There’s also the ridiculous emphasis on reporting ‘‘live’’ from the scene of a story, even when the event being reported took place hours earlier and the ‘‘live’’ report adds nothing.
It’s made worse when the reporter is not up to the challenge of speaking live to the camera, as is often the case.
And don’t get me started about incorrect captions – indeed, often no captions at all, so that you’re left to guess the identity of the person on screen.
Standard practice, on TVNZ at least, is not to identify the speaker the first time he or she appears. You have to wait for a second appearance before you learn who it is.
Again, why? Perhaps TVNZ thinks we’ll be so curious to learn who it is that we won’t stray to a rival channel. Who knows how the TVNZ corporate mind works?
My point is this: News is serious stuff. It deserves to be treated with respect, not gussied up with floss and tat better suited to a travelling circus.
In the 1920s, the BBC famously required its radio newsreaders to wear a dinner jacket, even though no-one saw them. Over the top? Yes – but at least it showed that the BBC saw the reading of the day’s news as an occasion of some gravitas.