Hard News by Russell Brown

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Reviews: #NZGT and the Herald

I'm no expert on these things, but New Zealand's Got Talent seemed to go off quite well on Sunday evening. The hokey talent-quest vibe of the format suited New Zealand, to judge by the social media noise and, more crucially, the Nielsen ratings.

This is not, you may or may not be surprised to learn, the first flutter with this format in New Zealand. Prime Telvision had a crack in 2008 (the dancer Chaz Cummings won -- no, me neither) and got pretty good ratings, but declared the show uneconomic to produce after just one season.

The difference now is that NZ On Air has kicked in $1.6 million in production costs. If I recall correctly, NZ On Air funding can't cover the cost of licensing the format -- so for what exactly has TVNZ paid money to Fremantle Media? Well, the branding, obviously -- which in a post-Susan Boyle world is worth more than it used to be.

But a talent quest is a talent quest: we've been making goddamn talent quests for TV for a long time. The real value isn't in the nature of the the show, but in what the people who own it have learned about making this stuff work -- which is typically contained in the highly confidential production "Bible", as this tidy and informative legal article explains:

1. TV format producers formalize and sell know-how which cannot be easily gleaned from watching the show.

This knowledge may include how to source contestants and organise audience participation, as well as specific production elements. The format is codified in a so-called 'production bible', supplied under confidentiality agreements and licences, and supervised in implementation by 'flying producers'.

I wouldn't be entirely surprised if the Talent Bible says "the first show must contain an amusing one-man band and an old lady who surprises everyone." Creating particular comic and dramatic situations -- via casting and editing -- is a key part of producing formats like this.

It's the same with the judges, who must conform to tropes. I thought Jason Kerrison made a tolerable fist of the alpha-male Simon Cowell role, and Rachel Hunter has the glamour and self-awareness to carry off her part. UB40's Ali Campbell was like some guy down the pub, and not in a good way.

But the regular who will probably be of the most benefit to the enterprise is host Tamati Coffey -- warm, funny, gay, letting us in on it all -- who I suspect has taken quite a big career step up.

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Everyone involved at the New Zealand Herald should feel proud of yesterday's relaunch. Refreshing the Herald website, mobile app and the printed paper on one day was an ambitious thing to do, but there's an impressive sense of purpose about the whole enterprise -- most notably in the news pages, where design, journalism and format feel like they're on the same page, so to speak. Even the infographics were a start, if a slightly wonky one.

But the editing of the opinion writing is still generally a mess. In the first two days of the new era, Deborah Hill Cone, Rhys Darby and Jeremy Wells have all been allowed to use their New Zealand Herald columns to inform us, redundantly, that they were writing columns for the New Zealand Herald. Hill Cone's howler about "infant immortality stats" (yes, really) not only made it into the printed paper, but still stands in the electronic versions. Does no one actually care?

The extended op-ed section was a mixed bag yesterday. Academics Richard Jackson and Alexander Gillespie went head-to-head over the question of whether New Zealand troops in Afghanistan died in vain, producing a solid argument on a great-looking page. Facing them were an orderly, crisp column from Tapu Misa on the future of newspapers, a slightly stodgy effort from Anne Salmond on water rights and a mystifying waste of space from Jem Beedoo, under the risible title 'Jem's Gems'. (If this is really going to be a regular feature, Beedoo would benefit from a frank editorial discussion about relevance.)

Peter Calder's assured contemplation of cultural nationalism, meanwhile, seemed out of place in The Magazine, which also included a half-decent but meandering effort from James McOnie. Colin Hogg coasted a little in his TV review of New Zealand's Got Talent -- I think he could have told us more if he'd put his mind to it. 

This morning sees a guest column from Jim Traue, who is always worth your time, and a jibbering slippery-slope editorial which appears to suggest that if they are allowed to flourish, school breakfasts will rise up and kill us in our beds. Greg Dixon should have convinced himself that he actually wanted to write a column before writing it.

I don't expect everyone to be as much of an op-ed nerd as I am, but it's a shame that the Herald's opinion content doesn't always match its sharp new setting. I think the lesson is that, as Public Enemy put it for the Paralympics, crafting an argument -- especially a humorous one -- is harder than you think.

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