My Life in the Bush of Hosts: A Week of SevenSharp
It's 6.30pm, Monday February 4, and I'm about to watch the first edition of TVNZ's new current affairs programme, Seven Sharp. I'm going to do this for a week, roughly. Some people watch the start of the journey and take to the Internet to be pithy. I am a man of commitment.
I want to stress that I'm not here to bury anything, turf up gossip about the TVNZ News and Current Affairs Department or make fun of poor tie decisions. In short, I'm not here to be a dick. The prospect of half an hour more of current affairs has to struggle to be a total net negative, right? And for people to be upset now – considering that four months ago we were hearing rumours of a 7pm show featuring Paul Henry and Pippa Wetzell – I mean, it's like we've all dodged a bullet only to complain of rolling an ankle in the process. I'm not doing it live like Golden last year, because I would die. But like I said in that slating, it's also not fair to judge something by the first episode. A few observations I jotted down before I got started:
- I'm not that bothered by Jesse Mulligan being a 'comedian' – this gets brought up with Calvinist zeal as if every person is trapped in their chosen occupation with a paralytic deadbolt predestination, even though he finished a law degree and clearly has some current affairs nous. For a moment, I questioned his involvement with the Labour Party (certainly, if he is/was a member, he needed to drop that for the time being) but then I stopped and thought: A: what responsible producer will let him rep hard for the Labour Party in his content or commentary for a moment; B: a public figure who may or may not be taking the piss half the time is (depending on your view) either an apposite or terrible mouthpiece for the Labour Party; C: it doesn't matter anymore, nothing matters, because one of the most listened-to breakfast radio news hosts in New Zealand doubles as the MC for the Prime Minister's State Of The Nation addresses. Much as I enjoy talking about this stuff, I think we're done here.
- I hope there's no Holmes deification (Looper-style future update: I was right!) Doesn't matter what you think of him – it would be rank cowardice to hitch your bold new wagon to the current mawkish outpouring: “We all know that 7pm on TV One is a very, very special time...especially right now. Thanks for being with us.” Imagine! Gag.
- The analogous model for SevenSharp is an Australian news/light-ent panel format called The Project. It does the “two guys, a girl, some current affairs and some lols” schtick too, and since its 2009 debut it's been treated as somewhat of a prime-time flagship for the privately-owned Ten Network, recently expanding to a full hour from 6.30. Ross Dagan, who lasted a year as TVNZ's News And Current Affairs Director before announcing his departure in January, had been Ten's Sydney-based director of news during The Project's development and launch. John Drinnan's NZ Herald interview with Dagan in May 2012 gives a good precis of the state of the Auckland newsroom, even before SevenSharp's predecessor, CloseUp, was canned.
- In October 2012, Network Ten announced it would lay off dozens of newsroom staff and journalists. Although the channel's main news hour still consistently outrated The Project, the cheaper-to-produce talkshow currently remains untouched. Some strategic food for thought as we go on.
You've already heard a lot about this, none of it good. “It had better get better, and fast,” critics warned. Well, yes it should, it's effectively a pilot. Contra all those first episodes of TV shows that aren't Twin Peaks where a viewer can sit back and say “Perfect, don't change a thing. Keep it at that level constantly and I'll keep coming back for more.”
But, first observations: surreal, grinning Greek chorus style vibe from the trio of Greg Boyed, Alison Mau and Mulligan. Not really given their own moment to shine (apart from a quite-good bit on the Labour Party internecine strife, which Mulligan is made to present as some sort of initiation rite), they awkwardly alternate sentences to introduce and debrief each story. It's like a primary-school production where six kids take turns delivering lines that could have come from one character's mouth, just to give everyone a limelight. It's hard not to make this stilted. What will they do when something serious and bad happens?
It actually appeals to me that they start with the worst kind of fluff-piece, if only because it's good to manage expectations. Anything that SevenSharp does from here on out will be a qualified quantum leap in maturity relative to that time Heather Du Plessis-Allen went into John Key's private office and discovered he didn't have real flowers (“...but real water!”, he guffaws), that he eats out of a tin at 3am, and that he wanted to propose a toast to the success of “Sharp Seven”. In a landmark half-hour of chilled-out entertainment, he's at pains to make himself the David Brent.
We get some weird editing (for the first, but not the last time) back to stuttery footage of the Prime Minister meeting Obama that feels like watching Tim And Eric on jittery, dog-worming speed. Though the story mentions that the parliamentary rec rooms are accessed by “both sides of the house, and a lobbyist”, it never takes this further. It's still strangely edifying compared to the audience Twitter and Facebook replies that we get next. Let's be real and acknowledge that these real-time responses aren't anything new or scary, but they're still narcissism and not dialogue. However, SevenSharp's habit of presenting them in fluoro boxes, with cartoon marker felt font, spelling mistakes included, conducts a tone argument before the smarmy elitists at home (hi) even need to make it.
Speaking of tone: after the parliamentary jaunt we revert to a brutally serious account of a PTSD-afflicted veteran of the Afghan War. His decisions killed innocents. He tells himself he made a difference. A year ago, he attempted suicide. As part of his recovery, he's overcoming ongoing anxiety attacks by going for a skydive. Even by the standard of NZ current affairs reporting, this is an abrupt tonal shift. The veteran's story and its context are worth hard appraisal, the kind of 50 minute-treatment the Inside New Zealand series used to regularly do.
Here, we get a cackhanded 'but seriously' where Mau, Boyed and Mulligan tell us that it's okay for men to ask for help with depression. And if the first person you try won't listen to you, ask someone else. Although some men do it too much, especially the effeminate ones who live in Grey Lynn. At some point in this mess, the show's banter goes from “oof” to legitimately dangerous. A URL in Comic Sans along the bottom for an actual mental health agency wouldn't have gone astray.
An interview with American easy-listening performer Josh Groban (no, I don't know him either) follows and it's kind of what you expect. It's the most even-keeled moment here, but considering NZ 7pm current affairs shows have ended with a celebrity interview as the last segment for over 20 years now, it's an easy one to get right.
“What just happened?”, I text Rosabel at 7.31pm. She is effusive because she thought I was the official SevenSharp Twitter account and I had just favourited one of her tweets. I conceal my deceit and sit there trying to process everything. Any question of giving up here is moot. I'm in for the week.
Nihilist's Delight: SevenSharp introduce their interactive 21st century model with a live online poll. Users are asked to select who should escort the Prime Minister onto the marae on the coming Wednesday: Titewhai Harawira, Ani Taurua or...Nadia Ostapchuk. Mulligan, a comedian good enough not to use six-month old jokes, visibly deflates. “That first question is a little joke by our producers.” Mau purses her lips. Very little.
The hot-potato line exchange (“Quip!” “Even-handed statement.” “Quip!” - the ever-stately Mau doesn't seem to get any quips, really) continues. Getting over last night's nerves, the three are almost assertively convivial, trying to force the gags over the edge. It's still like young people's theatre, only being performed by a travelling Youth Pastor Group. You half-expect someone to show you a picture of the flying fox they had at last year's Primal Camp, then exclaim “get involved!” There's one good moment when Boyed is likened to a Gerry Anderson creation, but it remains a strange proceeding.
The first item - methanol-laced drink deaths in Bali – is pretty interesting. A representative from the Bail Travel Agencies Association tries to underplay the issue, and when pressed (“isn't one death too many?”) appears to trail off. There's a quick cut. It seems like a 'gotcha' for about ten seconds, until you stop and realise that that's a pretty sinister way to edit an interview – especially given that we hear him being informative later on. The trio presents a moral afterward. Unfortunately, that moral is “try to pay a bit more for your alcoholic drinks when you're on holiday”. As directed to a population largely characterised by its binge-drinking and spendthrift when abroad.
Second item is on a recreational nudist named Andrew, and the cognitive dissonance threatens to tear me in two. On one hand I can tell this is an overt ratings ploy, but on the other I refuse to give a shit or pass judgement about how people choose to spend their downtime or indulge their particular kinks, so it's also just another story to me. There's some vague interrogation of competing rights and quotes from a High Court case on “intent to offend”, and the whole thing takes a more enlightened tone then “haha, look at these people”. In counterpoint is the exquisite homoeroticism of Andrew's frustrated neighbour - “Every time I hear a lawn mower, I have to look out the window...to make sure it's not him.” The longing!
The last thing on Richie McCaw? See Josh Groban last night. This is the light-ent news equivalent of macaroni cheese. I don't care, but it can't really be done wrong.
Tuesday is competent rather than cataclysmic. Most gallingly, there's not really a feeling that this is any different to an average episode of Close Up. In the inevitable biopic of his life, there'll be a scene where Mark Sainsbury (as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) watches the nudist feature in a motel room, rain on the ranch slider casting mottled patterns over his face. “I could have done that. I COULD HAVE FUCKING DONE THAT.” He smashes a bourbon bottle against the plywood bedside drawer.
Hoffman at his casting call for CloseShave: The Sainsbury Story.
Nihilist's Delight: SevenSharp visit Karen from Stokes Valley. Even seeing her in her small lounge and old clothes, no one involved can seem to stop smirking at the idea that 20 dollars might be a significant amount of money to some people.
You can do Waitangi Day coverage right. I believe. I want to believe. I believe it starts by not soliciting and publishing the anonymous opinion of the public re: Waitangi Day under any circumstances, sure, but I believe all the same. Not satisfied with their Monday poll, SevenSharp returns to the wonder well by asking viewers to submit their “Tweaty”, a hashtagged 140-character precis of the nation's founding document. Everyone around me starts making this sound.
Otherwise, though, Waitangi Day is represented through Queensland's community of Maori expats commemorating the day, sending a reporter to the Kawhia Kai Festival, and Temuera Morrison talking about his new film, Mt Zion. The tone is super-light – but I think this is a Good Thing, and I also think, this decision, consciously or not, is political.
Hear me out. I know that important events mandate sober and serious coverage, but Waitangi Day is consistently fed to us as the depersonalised spectre of activists (who apparently grow like mushrooms overnight to suddenly rear their heads on this most special of days) agitating and gnashing their teeth as a pretty uncomfortable pair of hierarchies play out their tense ceremony. Cameras seek the smallest note of discord. It's used as the pretense for people like Paul Holmes and Rodney Hide to get on their bully pulpit, attack Maori and smear Vaseline on the lens of history.
It's prosaic, sure, but SevenSharp's decision to show Waitangi Day for what it often is – New Zealanders of all colours and stripes having picnics, barbecues, sleep-ins, and a good, warm day – actually feels like a comparatively brave and responsible one. Especially given that inflated and misrepresented conflict and spectacle, rather than images of people enjoying themselves, are the usual ratings M.O. It's not essential at all (there's a particularly crap and weird bit where we get POV shots of the presenters eating Kawhia delicacies live), but for the first time I start feeling an ounce of human kindness toward the show. Apart from:
“Division. Racism. Historical. Irrelevant. Outdated. #tweaty” - @artisticlizshaw
“Whats (sic) done is done...flick the chips off your shoulders and move on.” - Heather of Facebook.
“Vast sums of money spent unnecessarily on legal expenses.” - Carmel, also a resident of Facebook.
Albatross-like, we still get to see that cracking first episode poll every night on the splash screen for SevenSharp's website. It's like the show's been branded with its initial shame.
The editing, meanwhile, is conspicuously weird. The first slot of the night is maybe the most Daily Show thing they've attempted – examine a provocative idea (in this case, that banks are effectively generating a surfeit of credit and easy loans from thin air, and that this is a real house of cards), make it relatively simple to follow and get a couple of engaging interview subjects. The structure is incredibly sound but holy shit, what an onslaught. Time-lapse photography, jump cuts, some really slow stop-motion animation, and Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet blaring over the top. I'm thrilled and impressed that SevenSharp are trying to cover this in any way, and I appreciate the need to make it move along at a clip, but the results feel like something halfway between Tinto Brass's Caligula and Brass Eye. (Later, a feature on the private art collection of Coast to Coast founder Robin Judkins manages to tip me into full on reefer madness).
And immediately after that feature on banking: “Now, we could have had any number of economists in to discuss the yin and the yang of what we've just seen, but we'd rather know what you think!” Fuck this. No. You need to close the loop on this one. Can't we have both?
The other substantive feature, on the drive for small and sustainable housing, is decent though. The editorial tone, as it was for Tuesday's naturalists and Don and Sue of Positive Banking, is commendably respectful, and the architectural push for closer communal spaces isn't treated like some fringe or absurd idea. Coherent editing I can live without, but intellectual curiosity, which the show is starting to exhibit, is a must. Also they interview Aaradhna about her new record deal at the end and she is beautiful, but they wasted time making the audience trip balls in Judkins' house and so she's bluntly cut off for Coronation Street at 7.30 sharp. I can't understate how disrespectful this is. It's a performance, it's not wallpaper. You wouldn't do it to your interview subjects, so don't do it for her.
Probably the best ep of SevenSharp so far, though that ending brings home the bitter taste of commercial imperative, of how rule-and-timebound even its bolder moments are going to be.
Nihilist's Delight: Because they didn't bother getting any economists in and you can't get an immediate in-person response from Carmel on Facebook, Greg Boyed is left to mount an apologia for the financial sector on his lonesome to mark time. “A Ponzi scheme just depends on faith; this depends on people wanting to have a house.” Oh, alright then.
Gotta get down on Friday.
After allaying all concerns about how foreign banks conduct themselves in NZ, Greg Boyed has absconded on his fifth day at work to train for the Coast to Coast, giving tonight's mise en scene an uneasy “elimination round” feel. Two people actually handle the lightning-round chuckles a little more naturally. I laughed out loud when, contra Australian sportsmen, it was confirmed that there was no sign the Black Caps were using performance-enhancing drugs (cue highlight reel of their recent shockers).
Second item is my kind of experiment – is it more dangerous to drink and drive or text and drive? I've always wanted a current affairs show to show me what happens when you consume a litre of probiotic yoghurt then a bottle of antibiotics (what wins?! who will do this with me?), but this will have to do for my Friday fix of hard science. They've tried to blur out the beer logo but we can exclusively report that the female reporter is drinking Beck's. Thanks Beck's, you watery monolith of piss. Highlights: some mammoth s-bombs. Lowlights: Last time I checked, everyone tries to check their phone in traffic or at the lights, not speeding through a tiny gauntlet between plastic cones so I question the test's real-life relevance. Also, stern disclaimers aside, the moral of the story is apparently that you're still a pretty safe driver when you're drunk. A viewer poll determines that texting and driving should be sentenced as harshly as a DIC. Quoth Mau: “I wouldn't be tempted to whip it out at the lights, so to speak”. Um.
That was daft, but the last bit on a short night is about Rob Hamill's visit with the Rainbow Warrior to the Auckland Islands. I sit up. “Learning!” It's okay, though – and I appreciate that the penultimate thought on the night (the last is a 'R.I.P Holmes' that's pleasingly understated) is Hamill's on the implications of offshore drilling in NZ.
Nihilist's Delight: I'd just got back from a run and got one of those really terrible cramps watching this because I didn't warm down properly.
A hyper-awkward pilot, at least one moment that plumbs the depths of human misery each night, a herculean effort to pack a lot of heft into tiny portions, some pretty modest attempts at interactivity, good-natured banter, a couple of decent chuckles. A lot of improvement. Is it any good?
I enjoyed following the response to SevenSharp's first couple of nights unfold on Twitter, but a lot of it seemed to be devoted to joking about how mis-targeted its social media preoccupation, jumpiness, and crayon Quantel scheme was. It's not mis-targeted, and a lot of this seems predicated on the assumption that places like Twitter remain the preserve of a bunch of tech-savvy early adopters. Sure, you've still got that reasonably prolific and entertaining (if sometimes snobby) core, but there's a middle ring of bores who tweet ad infinitum about project management and pecha kucha, and then there's everyone else. Taken as something that's having to aim wider and go more populist, some of these stories and angles were remarkable.
On the other hand, I'll get it out of the way now – Mulligan and others talked up SevenSharp's potential to be a sort of NZ Daily Show. Apart from the practicalities – The Daily Show is on US cable television, doesn't screen at 7pm, and has a prospective audience of millions – other format distinctions mean this isn't a goer.
If you actually sit down and watch The Daily Show, a third of it is a sort of Mediawatch-style collage and straight-to-camera rhetoric, then another third is a pre-edited out-and-about feature and before it closes with an in-studio interview. And surprising amounts of time are filled up with beats, pauses and reaction shots. Things to take away from this: everything works to a formula. SevenSharp can't replicate that formula, because they have different ingredients and couldn't source some of the ingredients anyway. Though I do wonder why we're deathly afraid of silence in our light television, whether a globalised social dread compels New Zealanders to see themselves represented as 'on' all the time when they're a more nuanced and taciturn bunch.
SevenSharp is still ungainly and jittery, but it's made leaps and bounds in five installments. I don't remember the last time I saw a nightly news turn it around like this over the space of a week, but there's the rub. I never watch a 7pm nightly news show for a week. I don't have any friends that do. Now, I'll probably revert to my habit of viewing bits and pieces by word of mouth, though when I do it's still likely to be the sustained advocacy journalism and (relatively) long features on Campbell Live. If SevenSharp comes back to debt and housing, if it slackens its pace for a second and lets a battle of words unfold, will I change my preferences? Absolutely. Will I add to the evening viewing figures? No.
There's a wider question at hand, which is why these networks are so tied to the 7pm race to the bottom. If there's not a clear follow-on from the news hour – if viewers aren't being asked to sit through four weather updates to see an in-depth investigation of the news item at 6.15 – then why does it need to be wedded to the early evening like this, with all the constraints that carries? Surely not tradition, because we're meant to talking about commercially savvy media gurus here.
Ultimately I know my one big wish – that someone has faith in a post-watershed hybrid of Media3, Eating Media Lunch, and the old 7pm model that returns modest success for a modest investment and doesn't compete like-for-like for the same diminishing viewership. But it's not as pressing as my one big worry – that our state broadcaster looks at its news hour and looks at its 7pm slot a year from now, runs it all through the accountant, and pulls a terminal Network Ten all of its own.