Cracker by Damian Christie

Absolute Genius: The New Paul Henry Show

For the past couple of years, as part of my teaching at AUT, I’ve given a lecture called “Writing for Television News”.  It was adapted a few years ago from notes from a lecture that I believe Mike McRoberts had given prior to that. Philip Sherry probably wrote the damn thing 40 years ago, and like whatever the non-racist name for Chinese Whispers is these days, it probably bears no resemblance to whatever it was when it started.

The point is, writing for television is quite different than writing for radio.  The former already has pictures, it doesn’t need them to be painted.  A combination of pictures and words can be used to say much more in a shorter space of time (I’m talking about news theory here, obviously television can also say very little for a great deal of time, as anyone who’s sat in front of a Kardashians marathon can attest). 

 A simple example of words and pictures combining: A voiceover reads “The Auckland Council is looking at selling a number of key assets”, while showing a picture of the Airport, the Museum and Motat.  In radio, you’d have to include the names of those assets to give the same meaning.  At a more basic level, I can introduce someone with the line “but not everyone agrees” and then cut to a statement from Dick Quax, who has a key (which is what we call the name and title that flashes up on screen when someone talks).  On the radio, you’d have to say “but not everyone agrees, including Auckland Councillor Dick Quax”.

Then there’s some things that will never work on radio. A dog on a skateboard. A death-defying extreme sport stunt. Highlights from Fashion Week. Things that listeners of RNZ are probably quite grateful for avoiding.

Where am I going with this?  Am I going to teach the broadcasting syllabus one blog post at a time?  No.  I’m pointing out that if you’re looking at starting a new breakfast TV show, making it also work for radio is no mean feat.  Which is exactly what Mediaworks is coming to grips with as it prepares to launch the new TV3 and Radio Live breakfast show with Paul Henry. 

I can’t say for sure that it was ever intended to begin when most such shows resume this year (about this week), but it’s definitely not now. An acquaintance at TV3 says it’s posing a few challenges (that’s a polite paraphrasing), and will be more like April or May.

Like most of you, I’m guessing, I’m not particularly excited to see or hear from Paul Henry.  His “I’m amazing” shtick is more tedious than offensive, although the marketing team at Mediaworks seem to be loving it so much that they’ve adopted it as a recruitment tool.  Although to be fair, when I think “tool”, Paul Henry does spring to mind.  In the past, I've defended at least his abilities - I’ve seen him do very good interviews, interesting journalism, marred by the occasional tosspot outburst.  That ratio has long since turned on its head.

But regardless of what Mediaworks or Paul Henry might think, this isn’t all about him.  A multi-platform breakfast show will employ dozens of people, and many of them will be good, hard-working people.  I know some of my former students will be among them.

So if it’s possible to tune out Henry, even for just a minute, I’ll be fascinated to see if, and how, a TV show that’s also a radio show will work.  There aren’t any great examples I can think of from overseas.  The closest thing we have here is when Radio Live plays the TV3 news at 6pm, and that’s a good example of how it doesn’t work: dramatic pictures not speaking for themselves, nameless interviews, invisible sports highlights and a vacuum where isobar maps should be.  At least (I’m told), on the new breakfast show(s), the news breaks will be split into separate radio news and TV news bulletins. 

It’s not hard to arrive at the opinion that rather than a brave step into a dynamic multi-platform environment, Mediaworks aren’t instead simply  giving up on Radio Live.  Marcus Lush hasn’t made any substantial inroads into Newstalk ZB’s breakfast audience, why not save his (by all accounts, considerable) salary and get two for the price of (by all accounts, a considerable) one with Paul Henry?  At the same time pare back the over-resourced late night Paul Henry Show into a more modest late news show (cheap presenter, no co-host, no special reporters), the bottom line looks better, the company looks more attractive to a potential buyer, etc.  

I can only think in the same situation, if TVNZ had decided to scrap its failing late night show, breakfast show and (if we had a radio arm) a breakfast radio show, the NZ Herald wouldn't have gone with a similar line as the one  attributed to (a very misinformed) Brian Edwards, that "MediaWorks was capitalising on Henry's late-night television success".  I presume "Crisis at State Television" would've been more the angle.  

As a journalism teacher and maker of television, I find any shift in the media landscape interesting, and a genuine effort to create a multiplatform show on a major network particularly so. I'm really curious.

 If it works, and I genuinely hope for those journalists employed there that it does, it might be time to rethink that lecture on writing for television.  Maybe I’ll invite a guest lecturer instead, some genius from the Paul Henry Show. No, not that one.

[EDIT: I tend to assume people know these things, but for the record, I work on a casual basis for TVNZ News & Current Affairs, and co-host Back Benches on Prime TV]