Cracker by Damian Christie


Send in the Clowns

There's been a lot of talk these past few weeks about the imminent demise of TVNZ 7.  I've stayed away from saying too much about it – many of those against the decision have more or less covered my thoughts, and obviously with my snout deep in the TVNZ 7 trough, it's hard to even pretend I'm in the least objective about the decision.  But there's also increasingly a fair bit of misinformation floating about, in some cases just misguided, in others I think more deliberately (or at least recklessly) inaccurate. 

The disclaimer then, such as it is needed: I have worked for TVNZ 7 since the outset. I started off on Back Benches (and helping out a bit on Media 7 in the early days), and I continue as co-host on the former. I now also have my own show (mine in the sense that it's my concept, and I write and produce it, but it's made in-house by TVNZ), called Hindsight. I also work as a writer/producer on Q+A, which screens on TV ONE, and is funded by NZ On Air's platinum fund. 

On a personal, financial  level, the loss of TVNZ 7 will no doubt affect me. I will still (presumably) work on Q+A after TVNZ 7 finishes mid-2012. Back Benches and Hindsight may or may not migrate to another channel; I'm not holding my breath or counting my chickens. But, personally, that's telly. My first ever job at TVNZ ended two weeks after it began, when the show I was contracted to work on – the late edition of Flipside – was cancelled. I hadn't even received my first paycheque. That was a shock, but it taught me two things – never expect any job to be there in a fortnight, and there's always another job waiting. Well, that's been true for me anyway, I moved immediately to Flipside (day), then Sunday and then Close Up, before starting at TVNZ 7. Seven years now, not bad given the shaky start. So personally, I'm not so worried about next year. After four years of Back Benches, I might've been looking to move on anyway. 

So if you will, take that on board and try and assume that my thoughts aren't entirely based on the state of my back pocket, when I say I think the demise of TVNZ 7 is a real shame. A shame because after three and a bit years, the channel is really starting to hit its stride. And it means something to be people who watch it. Travelling around the place (for the Back Benches Summer Tour, for instance) or even just going into town on the weekend, people often say how much they love not only the show, but the channel. "It's the only channel I watch any more," that sort of thing. I'm not pretending for a minute it's more popular than TV3 or TV2 or TV ONE, just that the sort of people who watch it seem a lot more passionate about it than other views.  A bit like say, the bFM or National Radio listener. People don't get really passionate about The Breeze or ZM. 

TVNZ 7 is without a doubt less popular than those other channels. It has almost zero promotion and a budget to match. It doesn't appear in listings in newspapers or The Listener. And the programmes aren't your usual commercial fare. 

In an editorial this weekend, the Herald showed its usual love of beating up TVNZ – I'm told that every time they put TVNZ on the front page, sales jump by a few percent and they're a commercial enterprise, so it makes sense. But whoever wrote this particular editorial could do with a wee lesson on comparing apples with apples, when referring to the "mere 207,000 viewers a week that it attracts."

This really is television for minority interests taken to extreme. By way of contrast, TVNZ's One News attracts 600,000 viewers each and every night.

Can you spot the issue here? You can't compare daily and weekly viewship, because obviously these aren't unique viewers. ONE News doesn't have 600,000 people watching one night, then 600,000 completely new people the next. It's viewership isn't 4.2m people per week. It's probably more like 2m. But the point of the Herald editorial seems to be simply to pick one high figure (and ONE News is obviously one of the highest you can pick, twice that of 3 News) and compare it with a relatively low one (although 200,000 people? I'm stoked).

I could, for example, say "More people watch TVNZ 7 each week than read the Herald on a daily basis". And that would be true, but just as wrong. Likewise "about the same number of people watch TVNZ 7 each week as watched Campbell Live on Friday." 

Equally – and equally unsurprisingly – inaccurate was the figure someone forwarded to me which Whaleoil pulled out of his rectum last week in a post about the demise of TVNZ 7 entitled "Good": 

I was at Back Benches last night and over­heard some “con­nected” peo­ple talk­ing about their very secret viewer num­bers. Less than 6000 peo­ple watch Back Benches. More peo­ple read my blog on any given day, includ­ing Christ­mas day than watch Back Benches.

Where do I start? First, the TVNZ 7 viewer numbers are "very secret" because no-one actually knows what they are. A non-commercial channel, TVNZ 7 doesn't have ratings as such, because ratings only exist so networks can work out how much to charge advertisers. Second, I was at Back Benches last week too, and no-one 'connected' was there, other than the usual BB staff, none of whom have any more clue than I do. Third, it's "fewer", not less.

What makes this ironic is that even believing Back Benches only has 6000 viewers, it didn't stop Mr Slater running up and bawling (not for the first time, either) to both my producer and my co-host about how I don't like him (wah-wah) and won't let him on the show (boo-hoo) and that my fellow Q+A Producer Tim Watkin and I have a secret conspiracy against him appearing. I find this hilarious: There's nothing secret about it – sorry to say Cameron, but devilish good looks aren't enough. Personally I prefer those – from all sides of the political spectrum – who can take part in reasoned debate without turning into a slobbering inaccurate mess of ad hominem attacks, such as last week's:

"Pinko troughers Damien Christie (sp) and Rus­sell Brown will have to find other ways to fund mas­sive extensions to their houses."

Well I'm hardly going to leave my new Merc out in the rain, am I?  But even more ironic (like, Alanis Morrissette would be preparing for a comeback of epic proportions if only she knew) is this response after Michael Laws gave him a serve:

 "If he wants to increase his rat­ings by bash­ing ben­e­fi­cia­ries, peo­ple with Asperg­ers and peo­ple with depres­sion and rooting hook­ers on top of that then so be it. If he can’t debate the facts and instead have to resort to per­sonal attakcs (sp) then, again, it says more about him than it does about me…. [I’m] just point­ing out that he is a cock and can’t debate on facts just personal abuse." (emphasis added)

Anyway, I dare say I'm preaching to the choir.  But then Richard Harman (former producer of Agenda, now the recipient of $1m state funding for 36 episodes of 'The Nation') weighed in on Kiwiblog with this seemingly throwaway line:

We get NZ on Air Platinum funding to produce “The Nation” for TV3 though I suspect we get considerably less per programme than the budget for TVNZ7 shows. 

Which again, is complete nonsense. I hope Harman's political suspicions are better informed than this. I'm not going to reveal figures here (because they're not mine to reveal), but suffice to say I know of no current TVNZ 7 show (and I know the approximate budgets of several) receiving more than the $27k per episode received by The Nation, and I know some that get less than half that, even though you wouldn't know it to look at the production values of The Nation.  It's not like the Nation's ratings are exactly out of the park either – 33,000 people tuned in on Saturday morning. (Q+A gets around 200,000 viewers, with slightly less funding.)

For the reasons given above, it's hard for me to say how many people watch Back Benches each week. To be honest, it'd be interesting to know but I don't really care – we go out to make a good show, and if my experience on primetime TV taught me anything it's that watching the ratings is a dangerous game. Based on the number of repeats of Back Benches each week (6), the cumulative weekly audience for TVNZ 7, a bit of hunch-work, comparing on-line viewership with other shows that do have ratings and so forth, I'd guess it's around 50,000 – 60,000 viewers per week.

I am of course simply falling into the trap –that unless TVNZ 7 shows can somehow prove themselves as popular as commercial shows, they shouldn't exist. Which kinda defeats the purpose of public service broadcasting.

That's the thing I'm going to miss next year, is having the opportunity to put forward shows that don't necessarily have mass appeal (but still have far more mass appeal than Lindsay's new show "Perigo". Good God) but in some way add value to society.

Back Benches has, for instance, engaged people in political debate who normally would run a mile from such a thing. I know, they've told me, and they keep telling me.

There are of course many important things our money should be going on right now (plastic waka and MediaWorks bailouts aside – although I don't have much of an issue with either of those, actually). Because our little nation ain't doing so well. But I suspect even if it were, the ideology of a couple of National Ministers would find another reason to ditch our last great foray into public broadcasting. And I think that's a shame.

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