20/20 TELE­VI­SION

Ji­hee Junn on TV’S role in this year’s gen­eral elec­tion.

New Zealand Marketing - - Contents -

THE 1975 gen­eral elec­tion was an elec­tion of firsts. It was the first elec­tion shown since the ar­rival of colour TV, the first elec­tion cov­ered by two com­pet­ing TV chan­nels (TV One and South Pa­cific Tele­vi­sion) and the first elec­tion to usher Robert Mul­doon—ar­guably the coun­try’s first ‘made for TV’ politi­cian—firmly onto the screen.

In essence, 1975 was the first ever elec­tion in New Zealand’s his­tory to be strongly in­flu­enced by the medium of tele­vi­sion. For the next nine years, Mul­doon went on to pro­ject his bullish yet un­de­ni­ably en­ter­tain­ing style of Prime Min­is­te­rial gov­er­nance onto the nation’s screens, with other charis­matic and dy­namic per­son­al­i­ties, such as David Lange, John Key and Win­ston Peters, step­ping in front of the cam­era in the en­su­ing decades.

From that point forth, pol­i­tics and TV have re­mained in­ex­pli­ca­bly linked in a com­plex mu­tual em­brace, and this year’s 2017 gen­eral elec­tion is prov­ing no ex­cep­tion. And while the re­mit of po­lit­i­cal cov­er­age on TV ex­tends well be­yond the tri­en­nial elec­tion cy­cle, the in­tense and pro­longed me­dia at­ten­tion given to pol­i­tics dur­ing this pe­riod means that cam­paigns work ex­ten­sively to com­mu­ni­cate their mes­sages us­ing the best means pos­si­ble.

Much has been made of Face­book and Twit­ter’s role in keep­ing the mod­ern elec­tion ball rolling, but time and again, po­lit­i­cal par­ties have scram­bled to the coun­try’s big­gest net­works to get their own slice of the TV pie. And that’s not just down to the tra­di­tional na­ture of pol­i­tics and its still awk­ward em­brace of new me­dia forms (think Bill English and his self-pub­li­cised ‘walk-run’ rou­tine). With 3.5 mil­lion New Zealan­ders aged 5+ tun­ing in to watch TV every week, tele­vi­sion re­mains one of the most ef­fec­tive mass medi­ums out there to reach a wide and di­verse au­di­ence quickly and ef­fi­ciently.

Dur­ing the last elec­tion in 2014, TVNZ’S head of news and cur­rent af­fairs John Gille­spie says the net­work ex­pe­ri­enced a 5-6 per­cent in­crease in view­er­ship for its 6pm news hour, with num­bers some­times go­ing up as high as 7-8 per­cent. Be­yond its reg­u­lar pro­gram­ming, TVNZ’S lead­ers de­bates also emerged as some of the net­work’s high­est rated pro­grammes of the year with a reach of more than a mil­lion, an av­er­age au­di­ence of more than 600,000 and an au­di­ence share of 36.2 per­cent. TVNZ’S first lead­ers de­bate this year be­tween new lead­ers Bill English and Jacinda Ardern pro­ceeded to ex­ceed th­ese num­bers, with reach in­creas­ing to well over a mil­lion, and boast­ing an av­er­age au­di­ence of just un­der 800,000 and an au­di­ence share of 48.8 per­cent.

Richard Suther­land, head of broad­cast news at New­shub, also cites an in­crease in view­er­ship for Me­di­a­works dur­ing the elec­tion pe­riod. He’s seen sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ments in the per­for­mance of its 6pm bul­letin over the last two and a half to three months, with the chan­nel’s best rated bul­letin co­in­cid­ing with the launch of the new Labour Party cam­paign in late Au­gust.

“I think our au­di­ence and share is up roughly 10 per­cent com­pared to ear­lier this year, so we’re very happy with the way the num­bers are track­ing and we be­lieve a large part of that is be­cause of the po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment we’re in and the cov­er­age of it that we’re do­ing,” he says.

“TV does a lot of the heavy lift­ing around what we need to do to get the news cov­er­age, and then we slice and dice the ma­te­rial that we gather in many dif­fer­ent ways in or­der to reach a wider au­di­ence.”

Th­ese spikes in gen­eral view­er­ship are im­por­tant be­cause while elec­tion strate­gies have be­come in­creas­ingly fo­cused and seg­mented with the ar­rival of more so­phis­ti­cated modes of analysing the pub­lic, de­creas­ing lev­els of party loy­alty and in­creas­ing lev­els of voter volatil­ity have meant that mass tar­get­ing re­mains one of the pre­ferred meth­ods for po­lit­i­cal par­ties dur­ing New Zealand’s short but in­tense cam­paign pe­riod.

A SHARED CUL­TURE

Other than the fact al­most every sin­gle house­hold in New Zealand owns a TV set, the ques­tion re­mains as to why au­di­ences, both young and old, still flock to the medium for their elec­toral fix. One rea­son could be at­trib­uted to the in­her­ently com­mu­nal na­ture of both tele­vi­sion and pol­i­tics, with the for­mer of­ten

TV does a lot of the heavy lift­ing around what we need to do to get the news cov­er­age in and then we can slice and dice the ma­te­rial that we gather in many dif­fer­ent ways. – Richard Suther­land

lo­cated in a house­hold’s shared liv­ing space and the lat­ter by way of its nat­u­ral ten­dency to spark dis­cus­sion, de­lib­er­a­tion, opin­ion and de­bate.

Com­mu­nal view­ing also oc­curs as a re­sult of the live na­ture of many po­lit­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant events, such as break­ing news bul­letins, 6pm news hours and for­mally or­gan­ised elec­tion de­bates. Such events repli­cate a sim­i­lar ef­fect that live sports gen­er­ates, sig­ni­fy­ing a dis­tinct dif­fer­en­tia­tor TV has over other con­tent forms such as SVOD or so­cial me­dia which of­ten play out as atom­ised ex­pe­ri­ences.

“There’s an in­her­ent drama on the TV screen with those set piece plays, es­pe­cially with break­ing news events,” says TVNZ’S Gille­spie. “Peo­ple will turn to TV news in droves, tun­ing in to find out what’s go­ing on.”

“Big events and TV do have that power, and even dif­fer­ent TV news slots cater to dif­fer­ent ex­panses. We know that gen­er­ally, a late news bul­letin is more of a solo ex­pe­ri­ence, whereas the 6pm news or morn­ing news is more of a fam­ily or flat event. So the medium still has power to pull dur­ing the day. It’s still quite an emo­tive and for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence…and I think politi­cians know that.”

Gille­spie touched on the idea again in light of TVNZ’S im­pres­sive view­er­ship fig­ures for the first lead­ers de­bate of 2017, call­ing the event “a big TV mo­ment”.

“In the coun­try’s liv­ing rooms, pubs and bars, peo­ple were riv­eted by the de­bate. It was a gal­vanis­ing event for so many New Zealan­ders.”

The emo­tive power of tele­vi­sion was per­haps best cap­tured in the weeks lead­ing up to the event. The de­ci­sion to ap­point Mike Hosk­ing as the mod­er­a­tor led to some­thing of a de­bate be­fore the ac­tual de­bate, with var­i­ous an­a­lysts and mem­bers of the pub­lic weigh­ing in on whether he was the right choice. This was in part due to the enor­mous star power of Hosk­ing, but also be­cause the pub­lic re­ally cares about th­ese TV de­bates. Over 70,000 peo­ple wouldn’t sign a pe­ti­tion if they thought a medium was ir­rel­e­vant. Hosk­ing, of course, went on to show why he was se­lected, putting in a tough and fair per­for­mance. It will be some time be­fore we stop hear­ing ref­er­ences to his open­ing line, ‘Bill English, why are you los­ing?’.

A MAT­TER OF TRUST

New­shub’s Suther­land says the emo­tional draw of tele­vi­sion con­tin­ues be­cause view­ers search for fa­mil­iar­ity and trust.

“As an au­di­ence, when you look at pre­sen­ters, you feel like you know them even though you don’t. You have an emo­tional con­nec­tion to th­ese peo­ple in a way that other medi­ums don’t al­low,” Suther­land ex­plains.

“So what­ever peo­ple might say about jour­nal­ists, they trust cer­tain brands. There’s been all this dis­cus­sion around fake news for the past 12 months or so…[but] there’s some­thing about a trusted brand like New­shub that makes peo­ple feel like they can watch it and know they’ve got the real story.”

But it’s not just the prob­lem of fake news that plagues dig­i­tal forms of po­lit­i­cal cov­er­age. In New Zealand and over­seas, so­cial me­dia plat­forms such as Face­book and Twit­ter have of­ten been ac­cused of be­ing ‘echo cham­bers’ for peo­ple’s pre­con­ceived be­liefs, with po­lit­i­cal mes­sages more of­ten than not fall­ing on the eyes and ears of the con­verted. And while more than 2 mil­lion New Zealan­ders are said to use Face­book every month, just 33 per­cent state they use it for keep­ing up to date with news and events.

On the flip­side, Twit­ter acts as a more po­lit­i­cally ac­tive plat­form with a num­ber of prom­i­nent politi­cians, jour­nal­ists and talk­ing heads all tak­ing part in the site’s lively con­ver­sa­tion. But Twit­ter in New Zealand is a bub­ble, with the site boast­ing just 368,000 lo­cal users in 2013 ac­cord­ing to Ad­corp. And while more re­cent num­bers around Twit­ter us­age in New Zealand are harder to find, the site’s global de­crease in new users sug­gest lit­tle has changed since then.

When it comes to be­ing a trusted yet fa­mil­iar source of in­for­ma­tion, Suther­land cites New­shub’s po­lit­i­cal edi­tor Pa­trick Gower as a prime ex­am­ple.

“Paddy Gower is a brand. He’s a trusted brand. He’s a known brand in a way that he wasn’t when he was in the print medium,” he says. “[Al­though] Paddy was a very good jour­nal­ist as a print re­porter, the dif­fer­ence is that ev­ery­one knows who he is now be­cause he’s been on TV.”

“That’s the thing about TV: It’s where you build a brand. Ad­ver­tis­ers can build a brand on TV and we as jour­nal­ists and news pre­sen­ters can build brands as well.”

PRE­PAR­ING FOR A ‘YOUTHQUAKE’?

While Gower’s dis­tinct brand of re­port­ing res­onates with New Zealan­ders of all back­grounds, Suther­land says his cut through with view­ers in the 18-39 age bracket proves par­tic­u­larly strong; an age bracket tra­di­tion­ally as­so­ci­ated with no­to­ri­ously high lev­els of po­lit­i­cal ap­a­thy (in the 2014 gen­eral elec­tion, just 49 per­cent of 18-28 year old turned out to vote).

“I would wa­ger that there are few other po­lit­i­cal edi­tors in this coun­try that are as well known in the younger de­mo­graphic as Paddy. He’s got a very strong brand be­cause of his TV work,” he says.

“There’s a lot of talk about young peo­ple turn­ing off TV, but when I look at the view­ing num­bers for the 18-39 de­mo­graphic, our 6pm bul­letin more of­ten than not wins that times­lot be­cause we have a very strong and loyal younger au­di­ence.”

In an effort to lever­age Gower’s clout with the youth de­mo­graphic, New­shub took a mul­ti­plat­form approach by launch­ing its new on­line se­ries, Ticked Off, ear­lier this year. The show helps view­ers get up to speed with the lat­est in New Zealand pol­i­tics, with 20-year-old newly minted re­porter Mitchell Alexan­der at the wheel while Gower helps out in the pas­sen­ger seat.

Over at Maori Tele­vi­sion, the chan­nel has also taken great strides to en­gage not just its usual Maori view­er­ship, but its younger view­er­ship as well. Its mul­ti­plat­form cov­er­age sees the net­work host­ing its own de­bates, polls and live news sto­ries from a per­spec­tive that dif­fer­en­ti­ates it­self from the coun­try’s main­stream net­works.

“Maori Tele­vi­sion is the only net­work pro­vid­ing de­bates of the seven Maori elec­torates and the only me­dia polling the Maori elec­torates, and the re­sults have been keenly fol­lowed by main­stream out­lets,” says Mara­mena Rod­er­ick, head of news and cur­rent af­fairs at Maori Tele­vi­sion.

“From ex­pe­ri­ence, we know that vot­ers con­sider de­bates im­por­tant in elec­tions and good in­di­ca­tors of where can­di­dates stand. The is­sues that af­fect Maori are the same is­sues that are im­por­tant to all New Zealan­ders. Our point of dif­fer­ence is our style of cov­er­age.”

Rod­er­ick says that one of the key goals for the chan­nel’s cov­er­age is to fo­cus on the thou­sands of young Maori who make the effort to en­rol but don’t make it to the polling booth. To do this, the chan­nel has cre­ated spe­cial ex­cerpts on each elec­torate from a youth point-of-view, put de­bate can­di­dates through a ‘Beat the Buzzer’ chal­lenge be­fore tack­ling them with tough ques­tions and is set to give stage to a spe­cial youth panel on elec­tion night where par­tic­i­pants will be able to share their views both on-air and on­line.

“We’re ac­tively en­cour­ag­ing young au­di­ences by in­ject­ing per­son­al­ity back into pol­i­tics,” says Rod­er­ick. “It’s a far more en­gag­ing approach for both the politi­cians and au­di­ences.”

TVNZ has also been mak­ing a con­certed effort to cre­ate space in its cov­er­age for more youth-ori­ented elec­tion is­sues. Most no­tably, the net­work an­nounced it would be hold­ing its first ever Young Vot­ers De­bate hosted by Break­fast host Jack Tame which is set to be streamed on 1 News Now and broad­cast live on TVNZ Duke. Ear­lier in the year, TVNZ Duke also be­gan air­ing a late night po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary show called Ban­ter, mod­elled on pop­u­lar Amer­i­can fran­chises such as the The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and Full Frontal with Sa­man­tha Bee.

“It’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see how the turnout for young vot­ers might im­prove on 2014 and 2011, which were both ter­ri­ble,” Gille­spie says in light of the me­dia’s more con­certed ef­forts to fo­cus on youth. “Over­seas, we’ve seen th­ese ‘youthquakes’ like in the Bri­tish elec­tion, which made a huge dif­fer­ence. Whether that hap­pens here or not, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Ul­ti­mately, what­ever hap­pens in this elec­tion— whether ‘Jacin­da­ma­nia’ sweeps Labour to power or a ‘youthquake’ re­ally does shake up the re­sult— one thing’s for cer­tain: all eyes will be glued to the TV screen.

credit: Getty Im­ages

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