Posts Tagged ‘TV’

Put it out of its misery

datePosted on 23:12, March 11th, 2011 by Lew

After defending New Zealand’s broadcast news media in recent weeks, and bemoaning the lack of funding for public service broadcasting in particular, TVNZ has tonight hit rock-bottom. The so-called national broadcaster has been comprehensively shamed by TV3, and in the battle for news credibility it has capitulated having barely fired a shot.

John Campbell announced the Sendai Earthquake live on Campbell Live, and TV3 interrupted its broadcast of the high-rating Glee with micro-bulletins (leading the ad breaks) not long afterwards, and eventually ditched the show altogether to show live coverage from Japan’s English-language NHK network. TV One, in contrast, let MasterChef play to the end before switching to NHK. The digital-only channel TVNZ7 was also broadcasting coverage from NHK.

Both commercial channels continued to play ads, but other than that, did a pretty good job of balancing raw foreign coverage, context provided by their local presenters, and important updates for New Zealanders (tsunami alert status, etc.). And then, after broadcasting quake coverage for about an hour, One switched back to its regular programming, showing “Pineapple Dance Studios”, a reality TV show about “the larger-than-life exploits” of the dancers at said London studio. TVNZ’s other channel, TV2, was broadcasting American Idol. At some point (I haven’t been watching it) TVNZ 7 switched back to its regular programming: a book show of some sort. TV3, apparently without a second thought, cancelled the rest of its scheduled programming, and continues to carry the NHK feed, interspersed with relevant original content, including reports from New Zealand expats in Japan.

The contrast could not be more stark: while both One and TV3 remain general-purpose TV channels with a bolt-on news component, TV3 thinks of itself as and actually behaves like a bona fide news outlet, while for all its big talk TVNZ has revealed itself to be just another vehicle for empty escapism. TV3 demonstrated considerably better newscasting chops than TVNZ during the Canterbury earthquake of 22 February, but the comparison was unfair because TVNZ’s live broadcast infrastructure was more or less destroyed in the earthquake, so they had considerably less capacity to respond, for reasons outside their control. It is true that, given the volume of disaster coverage we have had recently, there is a need for an escapist bolt-hole — not least, for the traumatised survivors of the Canterbury earthquakes. But that’s what TV2 and American Idol are for. Make no mistake: given our current disaster awareness, the relatively strong links between New Zealand and Japan — including the presence of Japanese USAR teams still in Christchurch — that country’s broad and deep experience of coping with events such as these, and the fact that the tsunami waves are predicted to submerge entire islands in the Pacific, including, presumably some of our protectorates — this is of legitimate news interest to New Zealanders. It is apparently the largest earthquake recorded in Japan in the past century, and one of the ten largest earthquakes ever recorded. By any meaningful metric it is an important news story worthy of our attention.

At the heart of my defence of public service broadcasting lately has been the argument that public service broadcaster raise the bar of competition, forcing commercial broadcasters to sharpen their game. To quote myself (from a comment on Red Alert the other day):

The British broadcast media are very good indeed, and the main reason for this is the BBC. Yes, the BBC itself makes up a lot of the broadcast media environment there, but more importantly, it forces commercial competitors to compete with something other than lowest-common-denominator mass-market ratings. The same dynamic exists in the two other major media markets with strong and well-provisioned PSBs: Canada and Australia, where the CBC and ABC respectively set an enormously high standard for commercial competitors to meet. This is one of the major roles of public service broadcasting, especially in news: to set a high bar for competition.
If you want to solve the problems within New Zealand’s media environment, if you want to raise the bar: make the commercial media outlets compete with something that hasn’t been gutted and hamstrung. Fund TVNZ and Radio NZ properly, give it freedom to hire and retain the best people, buy the best content, and generally do what it does, and let the others work to match them. Everyone wins.

To give just one tiny example of how this might have worked: TV3 may have reconsidered its decision to air advertisements for fast food and outboard motors between shots of buildings and fleeing vehicles being swept away by ten metre waves, if there had been a viable ad-free newscast in competition with it. To give another: perhaps, if there was some competition prepared to put up the NHK feed overnight for those whose family members and friends are in Japan, TV3 might not have cut to Sports Tonight after Nightline had aired. But there wasn’t any competition. When governments underfund public service broadcasters or hamstring them by imposing the contradictory roles of a public service mandate and the need to return a profit to the consolidated fund, both roles are weakened. We get the worst of both worlds: as taxpayers, we pay public money to fund public service broadcasting, provision of which is undermined by the channel’s need to remain obedient to market imperatives, and in exchange for putting up with ads we end up with a pale imitation of a commercial broadcaster as well. One News — and to an even greater extent TVNZ 7 — supposedly a dedicated ‘factual content’ channel — disgraced themselves and failed New Zealanders tonight. The tagline “New Zealand’s news. Anywhere. Anytime” should perhaps be revised to “Anywhere. Anytime. Except when there’s third-rate reality programming to air instead.”

TVNZ, by waving the white flag tonight, has demonstrated that it’s all but worthless as a public service broadcaster. The market is doing its job for it. If the government isn’t going to fund it well enough to turn it into a proper public service broadcaster, they might as well sell it, if they can find anyone who’ll pay anything for it. If they can’t, perhaps they can just take it out behind the shed and put it out of its misery.

L

‘Ethnographic’ TV: compare & contrast

datePosted on 11:30, September 28th, 2010 by Lew

At the risk of courting Pablo’s disappointment, I’m descending briefly from lofty theoretical heights to make a few rather rambly observations about two new examples of ‘ethnographic’ reality television in New Zealand: How the Other Half Lives and Are You My Tribe? (both of which screen on TV One, Monday nights).

First, the similarities: Both shows follow a pretty well-established format popularised most thoroughly by Louis Theroux: ‘gonzo anthropology’ for the television audience. Both are journeys of discovery undertaken by middle-aged celebrities who have made their names and reputations by being all-round Kiwi blokes — former All Black Marc Ellis and broadcaster Mikey Havoc. Both have enthusiastically embraced their ignorance of those aspects of life in New Zealand which form their shows’ subject matter. Both possess the superficial characteristic required for such an endeavour: the ability to establish and maintain rapport with people whilst simultaneously objectifying them; or, put another way, the ability to make the objectification not seem quite so objectionable.

In HTOHL Ellis is explicitly using his status as a cultural elite to investigate defined sub- or counter-cultures within New Zealand society. In AYMT Havoc uses the same cultural elite status to gain entry to te Ao Māori in an attempt to make up for 38 years of having (as one Ngāi Tūhoe kaumatua put it) not bothered. Both Havoc and Ellis speak to — and for — ordinary Pākehā middle-class New Zealand; that swathe of folk who are, by any objective definition, in charge of the country economically, politically and culturally; and who yet harbour considerable uncertainty about whether they are or not. There’s an unselfconscious normative aspect to this; HTOHL’s blurb declares that Ellis “reckons he’s pretty normal” but in the show “he jumps the fence of normality”; the word ‘other’ is even in the show’s title. AYMT pointedly started with the most ‘scary’ iwi for its first show, which went to some lengths to emphasise Tūhoetanga as a distinguishing characteristic. So the clear subtext of both shows is to firm up that shaky sense of cultural identity by emphasising the fact that the cultural objects of his investigation — those, by definition, with a strong and distinctly-articulated identity — are on the margins, outside society’s norms and not really wholly accountable to them. The screening of the two shows back-to-back is a bit troublesome here; I’m vaguely disturbed by the equation of Māori with the sort of fringe subcultural ‘others’ which are the objects of Ellis’ investigations — Neo-Nazi survivalists, witches, born-again Buddhists and so on.* One of the key things the last few decades should have taught Aotearoeans of all hues is that Māori aren’t just another fringe group.

So much for the similarities. There are some pretty fundamental differences between these two shows, which are also emphasised by their consecutive timeslots. The first and most obvious of these is the specific objects and the host’s relationship to them. Ellis is lighthearted and superficial; he’s more interested in the gonzo than in cultural engagement, and the choice of fringe subcultures as his objects permits him to be flippant and dismissive when it suits. Havoc, playing for much higher stakes, doesn’t have this luxury: he can’t treat his objects as cultural curiosities or as a freakshow. He has to take his objects seriously, and this requires him to engage more deeply and more honestly with them than Ellis does, to put more of himself on the line, drawing more out from the objects of his investigation.

That difference gives rise to the second major difference: the presence and extent of judgement as to life according to ‘other’ norms. The heart of programming like this — and of comparative ethnography in general — is in the carefully-contained judgement of the investigator. The point is to examine the cultural fronts, where norms butt up against each other; and the key attribute of a host isn’t so much to be a jovial wise-cracking ‘good bloke’, it’s to do so whilst gaining genuine insight into where the cultural fronts lie, how they might be negotiated, and indeed whether it’s possible to negotiate them. This is a pretty rare quality; one which Louis Theroux has in spades and which permits him to make such eye-opening television: the objects of his investigation don’t feel like they’re being objectified. As a rule they are disarmingly frank, and sometimes frighteningly so. Theroux achieves this sort of dynamic by carefully constraining his judgement, but not abandoning it altogether. Theroux asks the question which needs to be asked and holds his own cultural ground, but does so in a way which does not threaten or attack his objects. Theroux refuses to become complicit in admiring whatever edifices of self-delusion his objects erect, but also does not make it his business to tear them down.

For all that Havoc exhibits maudlin and faintly embarrassing envy for the strong and rooted sense of identity possessed by Ngāi Tūhoe (honestly, how many generations will it take for people to realise that being Pākehā is not the absence of culture; it is a culture in and of itself!), he enters into the discourse in good and robust faith to find out what that identity is, and what it tells him about his own. His aim is not to disabuse them of their stranger notions, but nor is it just to impassively observe. Havoc puts himself in uncomfortable situations (such as powhiri and a raucous kitchen-table drinking session) but does not relinquish his own cultural ground, finding ways to ask the question — like addressing the fact that one in four young Māori end up in prison, and asking “how is ‘exclusive’ different from ‘racist’?” — and expecting good answers, without alienating those who must provide them.

Ellis, on the other hand, is not required to do anything more than the superficial, so he doesn’t. He exhibits a much stronger sense of his own identity than than Havoc does, but there’s almost nothing of it in the programme. His own reality is never challenged: the cultural front never emerges because instead of engaging and standing firm on his own ground, he withdraws into jocular trivialities, avoiding the conflict which is necessary for this sort of exercise. Discomfort is limited to banalities like sitting through three-hour chanting ceremonies and sleeping rough in the bush. He gets through the entire first episode of this season with Kyle Chapman, former leader of the National Front and probably New Zealand’s best-known neo-Nazi, without once initiating discussion about the ideological and racist foundations of Chapman’s Survive Club. What’s more, when one of the club members talks about how the ‘maaris’ — and Ngāi Tūhoe in particular — are the leading threat to New Zealand’s civil society, he fails to ask the question (in fact, judging by a posting on Survive Club’s website it seems that not being a “media hate monger” was part of the deal.) It takes a special sort of obliviousness to not remark on the irony of a group of racial-supremacist armed wannabe commandos training for the coming apocalypse in a remote part of the Southern Alps who think some other group are the real threat.

You don’t get to be Louis Theroux without asking that question.

L

* I can certainly see the counter here: Tūhoe training camps; rongoa Māori and modern religions like Hauhau and Ratana.

Faces not for radio

datePosted on 18:07, July 13th, 2010 by Lew

A post by Janet Wilson expresses a general conspiracy theory I’ve held for a long time about why radio news is usually better than TV news: because the people are chosen for different qualities. To an extent the “beauty bias” is present in every field, and of course, even in news it is simplistic — there are a host of other factors to do with resourcing, format, training and so on. As in almost all fields — and for the same sorts of reasons — these pressures weigh much more heavily on women journalists than on men, and consequently the aesthetic homogeneity of NZ’s top female TV presenters is striking:

What Janet calls “tits and teeth” selection really matters: people instinctively trust attractive people more than unattractive people (as long as they’re not too attractive), and broadcast news is all about projecting authority and trustworthiness via a predominantly visual medium. Dress and bearing are also relevant — as is voice, which is even more important in radio. But those things can, to a much greater extent, be worked on or around.

So TV news is biased in favour of attractiveness. In general, a presenter’s job is to present — their newsgathering, interviewing and editorial skills are backgrounded to a considerable degree. So this bias isn’t entirely unjustified for presenters, but the problem is that it’s also clearly evident in the journalistic ranks from which presenters are drawn. While it does not exclude journalistic quality the beauty bias does weight against it. Because the jump from reporter to presenter is a crucial part of a broadcast journalist’s career arc, and being unwilling — or unable — to fit the pattern is an explicit and well-known limitation to advancement, it likely dissuades people who might otherwise make outstanding broadcast journalists — which society desperately needs — from entering the profession. As Janet notes, the bias also selects against experience, because while men tend to become “distinguished” as they age (strengthening their gravitas) women do not, and those who don’t retain their youthful dash paradoxically become less favoured as their screen experience increases.

A case in point on this last point has lately been evident in the most trivial forum: Breakfast, on TV One. My wife, at home with our daughter, remarked on the greater capacity of One News anchor Wendy Petrie to deal with co-host Paul Henry’s soft-gonzo screen persona while she covered for Pippa Wetzell recently: a sort of dismissive indulgence, as if of a poorly-behaved child on his birthday. The customary pairing is a classic mismatch: Henry dominates the studio while Wetzell — herself a quality presenter, as we occasionally see when Henry is absent — is often forced into the role of slightly-embarrassed fall-gal. Petrie, with close to a decade’s primetime hard-news presenting experience under her belt, is out of Henry’s league and she knows it.

Of course, she herself has the beauty bias on her side. But the question is: how long does she have left? And how many other talents have we lost — or never found — due to the dire ravages of crow’s feet, a poor hairdo, a few additional kilos, or a mismatched outfit?

(Thanks to Naly D for the link to Janet’s article.)

L

PS: I’d like to endorse Nicola Kean’s campaign to go to Columbia Journalism School, as others are doing. Go and vote for her, and perhaps she’ll do better than another well-known graduate from these parts.

Depicting Julia Gillard

datePosted on 14:27, July 5th, 2010 by Lew

I’ll be watching with interest the characterisation — and caricaturisation — of Australia’s new PM, especially as compared to Helen Clark. Some of you might be aware that I once wrote a research paper on the characterisation of Clark by John Banks and Lindsay Perigo in talk radio during 2007. I was informed at the time that, via the usual academic networks, a copy made its way from Victoria University of Wellington to someone at the Australian National University in Canberra who had contacts within the then-Deputy Leader’s office, and that Gillard had read it with some interest. I’m not sure how true that is, but I do know she took a keen interest in Helen Clark’s public image, likely with this very eventuality in mind, so it isn’t altogether implausible.

The Clark-Gillard comparison is a natural one, due partly to geographical and temporal proximity; but also due to genuine similarities between their politics, manner and ascent to power. The comparisons have been highly ambivalent. The usual slanderers have already begun spreading the same ludicrous assertions that Gillard, like Clark, is a closet lesbian, on the grounds that she hasn’t had children and is more apparently bolshy than her husband. Apparently very deep in the closet, since she’s come out against gay marriage. (But then, she would, wouldn’t she?)

Peter Cresswell described her as Helen Clark with lipstick, which I guess is negative as to her politics but positive as to her perceived femininity, notwithstanding that Clark did in fact wear lipstick herself. Auckland University’s Jennifer Curtin pointed out some comparisons as to the two women’s assumption of their roles, though I can’t help but think she must have a more nuanced and complex position on the topic than was suitable for an AAP statement:

“They’ve both started off on the left but moved kind of to the centre of their party,” she said. They both appear to be hard workers, good speakers and have made similar choices in selecting their political allies and portfolios – opting to avoid women’s policies specifically. “If they represent women they do it in a more mainstream kind of way,” Curtin said.

Clark’s biographer Brian Edwards, speaking on ABC Radio National, outlined the similarities in more detail:

Well there are extraordinary similarities. I’ve been reading some of the reports about Julia Gillard in the papers here in New Zealand, and it’s absolutely uncanny, and what we’ve just heard is also true, that from the start, Helen Clark was a professional politician, she was absolutely focused, her intention I guess, long term, was to be prime minister, and she would do everything possible to do that. And if you look at the two women, as I say, the similarities are remarkable. Both unmarried, both decided, clearly, that being a politician and aiming to be prime minister did not go with having children, that was the decision, a positive decision which Helen Clark made, she and her partner, Peter Davis. Helen in fact, never wanted to get married and was actually more or less pushed into it by the Labour Party, and wept on her wedding day, which was relatively unusual. She was an atheist, she received some of the same sort of criticisms that I gather Julia Gillard has received in your country for her voice, she had a strong Kiwi accent, a rather deep voice; for her looks, people didn’t like the look of her hair, they didn’t like the look of her teeth; she was accused of being a lesbian, primarily by her opponents admittedly in those early days, and had an extraordinarily hard struggle to make it at all.
And these were all things that a man would not expect to happen at all in politics. None of those things would have come up if the man was a bachelor or was married or didn’t have any children, or any of those other things.

Clark fought these attacks, in part, by recourse to a “makeover” in mid-2005, when she appeared on the cover of women’s magazines — notably Woman’s Weekly — more heavily made up, more softly and sympathetically portrayed and generally appealing more directly to women, and to men who, if they had to be led by a sheila, wanted to be led by a real sheila. This was probably crucial to her winning the 2005 election. Gillard, The Australian tells us today, already has a similar glossy campaign well underway. It’s a good move. (Anyone who wants to call it fake or staged or a cheap trick or blatant media sycophancy to make such an appeal had better first recall John Key’s appearance on Gone Fishin’ (audio), and accompanying article by host Graeme Sinclair in — you guessed it — Woman’s Weekly. Incidentally, if anyone has or can find a copy of the video of that Gone Fishin’ episode, I’d love to see it. I missed it at the time.)

Other Gillard comparisons have also been made: to Margaret Thatcher (as Clark before her was), and to British Labour’s present acting leader Harriet Harman. In contrast with Jennifer Curtin’s observation that neither Clark nor Gillard emphasise their femininity in policy terms, The New Statesman‘s Alyssa MacDonald argues that the public treatment of Harman illustrates that it’s still not politically viable to be an overtly feminist female leader, even in 2010:

Both come from legal backgrounds, hold multiple political posts, have strong union connections, speak with distinctive voices and are always politically “on”. But while Gillard is popular and respected, Harman is often, very unfairly, spoken of as hectoring, dowdy and not very bright. Even before Gordon Brown’s departure, her chances of becoming Labour leader were the same as the number of forthcoming Harman biographies: zero.
Politically, there’s a glaring difference between Gillard and Harman. One has fought consistently for a feminist agenda, while the other has approached her political career with individualistic ambition. Not to do Gillard down — she’s very good at her job and she deserves her success — but her premiership isn’t necessarily any more of a great lunge forward for women than Margaret Thatcher’s was thirty years ago.
Meanwhile, Harman’s drive to push issues such as rape laws and the Equality Bill into the spotlight has undoubtedly been good for British women — and a huge contibuting factor to her unlovely public image.
Gillard’s success is still a symbolic step forward, signalling that the presence of women in Australian politics has become normal. And it looks likely to be good news for the country as a whole. But it’s not as if Australian women now have a Harman at the top to look out for their interests.

As MacDonald notes, Gillard is much more favourably-portrayed than Harman (and I would add, than Clark was at any point during her leadership). I think a lot of this is down to the “lipstick” to which PC refers: a metaphorical sort of lipstick which speaks to a particular notion of femininity, like the kind which Sarah Palin made famous. For one thing, Gillard’s attractiveness has been emphasised by the favourable comparison to Scottish actress Tilda Swinton:

This distinctive visage, the “bricklayer” voice to which Brian Edwards alluded, and her speaking style have been welcomed by the Australian media and satirical communities, who found Rudd “almost irritatingly bland”, according to editorial cartoonist Bill Leak. This from an article, also in today’s Australian on the topic:

Gillard’s wealth of striking anatomical attributes is almost too much of a good thing, says Cathy Wilcox of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun Herald. “She’s got so many features that if you just go for one, it isn’t enough. The challenge is how to get all those things in there without her head being enormous.”
Since Gillard took power, editorial artists have been studying her face with the obsessiveness of a lover, poring over photos and freeze-framing the TV to parse her every angle and expression.
Australia’s first female Prime Minister, seen through their eyes, has a “striking head of hair”, “incredibly beautiful skin”, eyes that manage to be simultaneously “squinty” and “big and distinctively shaped”, “chubby cheeks” with “pronounced cheekbones” and a mouth that “sits small and low” above “a small chin that tucks into an incredibly long neck”. Not even her earlobes escape attention.
And who else but an artist would notice that the new PM has “a reasonably ample bottom in relation to her head”?
But there is one facial feature in particular about which they all rhapsodise: Gillard’s “pointy”, “assertive”, “wonderful” nose. A nose, as Leak puts it, “that looks like you could chop wood with it”.
Fiona Katauskas, freelance cartoonist and producer of the Talking Pictures segment on the ABC’s Insiders, says Gillard’s nose is a defining feature that artists can utilise to express her character, just as the jutting lower-lip of former PM John Howard came to represent his determination, or obstinacy.
“I will take a punt and say Gillard’s nose will become the equivalent of Howard’s lip,” she says.

What’s interesting about all this is that, unlike most of the discussion of Clark and Harman’s appearance, it is robust but not unkind. Gillard’s relatively warm reception is being put down to her status as Australia’s first female PM, and I think there’s some legitimacy to that view; a genuine preparedness to “give her a go” tinged by a fear that bagging her too early would come off as sexist. We’ll see how long that persists, and how long her distinctiveness — of appearance, manner, and political character — is portrayed as quirky and endearing rather than bizarre and threatening.

L

Life mimicking art: Hollywood Shrugged

datePosted on 09:18, June 2nd, 2010 by Lew

[Update: It occurred to me that I missed an opportunity for wordplay in the title of this post, so I’ve belatedly changed it. Groan away.]

Via Not PC, the news that Atlas Shrugged is finally being made into a movie. Or three movies, as is appropriate.

After decades of studio procrastination, the principals of the project have decided to simply go it alone and produce it as an independent project. They have plenty of money, but no name actors, a debutante director and an inexperienced production team, and are working to a shooting deadline which doesn’t permit any detailed production planning. The names are John Aglialoro, Brian O’Toole, David Ellison, Dan Pritzker, Stephen Polk. (Who? Yeah.)

This is foolhardy in the extreme. As the making of one of the greatest American films of all time illustrates, filmmaking is hard, especially when you’re working with complex, well-known (and well-loved) source material. Even when you have the resources of a studio system behind you, and the ability to pick up the phone, drop a name, and have things be done, making a single feature is the sort of undertaking which destroys people. Making a trilogy? Wow.

Atlas Shrugged is a story of superhuman struggle against mediocrity; succeeding despite the interference and opposition of the whole world, a David-and-Goliath stick-it-to-the-Man fable for our time. Its protagonists achieve the impossible by sheer force of will. The story rests on deus ex machina devices — a “free energy” machine which powers the revolution; a cloaking system which hides it; a means of extracting bounteous yields from exhausted oilfields; self-destructing high-tech equipment; individuals of perfect and apparently limitless genius who just up and invent these things as and when they’re needed, etc — and the backers of this project seem to be relying in real life on the same sort of narrative logic to get them through. They appear to think that, if one just wants something hard enough and is sufficiently single-minded in pursuit of that goal, it will be so. As commenter Double0seven says on the release announcement story:

This is truly hilarious. A study in hubris or as the kids these days call it – EPIC FAIL. So we’ve got no stars, a director who is actually an unknown actor, a producer by virtue of wealth and two weeks of prep for a June 11th start date? And then, underlying material that is ridiculously hard to crack. Don’t get me wrong, like many of you I fell in love with Rand’s objectivism in my angry young 20s, but look at the material and consider the economic climate, even if they get this movie made and released, think about movie going demographics – there are not enough teabaggers to support an opening. Perhaps like in the book, this film will open on one screen in a hidden valley in the rockies, where industrialists will pay their admittance in gold. Good luck John Galt.

Perhaps unusually among non-Objectivists (and non-converts to objectivism), I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged and I think it’s a pretty important piece of our political-philosophical culture. I want good movies made of it. I’m bemused but not surprised that the vaunted market of the Hollywood studio system has entrusted such an ambitious and important project to moneyed dilettantes who think themselves Atlases. And (as the comment thread I excerpted above goes on to discuss), there’s no use in citing the filmic Galileo Gambit of Orson Welles, George Lucas, and other Hollywood wunderkinder — for every one of them there are a thousand who were crushed by the machine they set in motion but could not control.

There’s the faintest glimmer of hope that this project will be a genuine bolter, but with this degree of expertise, time and talent involved, the most likely outcome is a blend of the worthy but unpolished products of the 48-hour Furious Filmmaking Festival, an embarrassing Ed Wood-esque schlock-fest, and the earnestly didactic bombast of the films TV channels screen on Easter morning and at Christmas, partly because they feel like they should, and partly because it’s a ratings desert anyway. Objectivists, bless them, seem to lack any sort of humour about the objects of their affection, so while the rest of the world might not mind this latter result (for one film, at least), I fear the self-declared mavens of philosophical and aesthetic rectitude will make fools of themselves defending the cinematically indefensible. It would be a shame to see these people prove that they’re really just Twi-hards with lofty ideals and better argumentation.

But hey, it’s their risk to take, and their choice to make fools of themselves if they want. Galt knows (as they say), they don’t need the approval of us moochers. So let them boldly stand in the path of the machine, and more power to them. But my sense is that a few exultant idealists are about to discover that unflagging self-belief and unlimited money just isn’t the deus ex machina in real life that it is in fiction.

L

Cannabis bust news coverage bingo

datePosted on 17:57, April 27th, 2010 by Lew

Here’s a fun game. Watch tonight’s TV news (either channel) and count the following tropes.

Update: I did this — both channels, since they were conveniently on at separate times, and was pleasantly surprised by reasonably sober tone of coverage. Comments in italics.

  • Gratuitous display of cannabis leaf or other marijuana iconography
    Four times on One and thrice on 3. Mostly in the display of the “Switched On Gardener” signage.
  • Gratuitous display of drug porn (huge quantities of plants, or egregiously sticky buds, etc.)
    5 times each. TV3 used this as their studio backdrop, otherwise it was the same stock footage throughout, obviously supplied by the police. A distinct lack of additional file footage and High Times-style images of the sort which are usually stock-in-trade for this sort of coverage.
  • Police casually destroying huge quantities of same
    None! Only some police confiscating computers, other equipment in the TV3 footage.
  • Tenuous linkages of marijuana with other drugs, violence or terrorism
    None! Some passing mentions and image of other drugs, firearms and references to organised crime, but nothing tenuous or unjustified.
  • File footage of a shadowy person smoking a joint — None!
  • If it’s clear despite anonymisation that the person is brown-skinned
    None of these either.
  • Footage of people being arrested or detained
    No images of people being arrested. One shot of an unidentified (white) person walking down the street as the voiceover informed us that those arrested were appearing in court.
  • Footage of supposedly ill-gotten gains: flash cars, etc.
    Twice each, references to property being seized under proceeds of crime legislation. Nothing major.
  • Smug, serious middle-aged white people expressing deep concern.
    The only examples of this in both cases were press conference shots of the senior police officer.
  • Triumphal statements that this has broken the back of the cannabis industry, with no supporting evidence
    Again, just what the police told us. Reporters stuck generally to the facts.
  • Reporter looking smug and saying words to the effect of “we can’t reveal which garden centre at the moment …” with the clear implication that it’ll all become clear pretty soon, and anyone who’s anyone already knows
    Well, although National Radio didn’t report (and the police refused to say on-air) which gardening shop chain it was, it was no secret, so none of this.
  • Breathless revelations that people who aren’t beneficiaries or gang members are involved in cannabis production and consumption
    Mentioned twice on One and once (but more extensively) on 3 — the fact that “managers and directors” of the company were among those arrested. But in general, not a big deal made of this fact.
  • Implication that schoolchildren might have been in danger
    Not mentioned or implied at all.
  • No mention of the fact that alcohol causes orders of magnitude more harm by almost every indicator
    Not mentioned or implied either, but on both channels, the booze story took precedence, occupied considerably more screen time, and was covered in much more depth.

So, all in all, nothing much to separate the coverage on One and 3 news. Both items were characterised by a heavy (almost total) reliance on official source material and footage — although both did a field cross, TVNZ’s was the usual pointless live cross, while TV3’s reporter didn’t even make the screen, with the field shots showing police hauling stuff out of a building. Both used similar (probably supplied) footage and images as background, and emphasised the length of the investigation, the number of people involved, and the impact the bust would have on the cannabis industry. Neither report was journalist-centric, with both reporters essentially relaying facts with a minimum of editorialisation. Both reports showed a distinct lack of sensationalised narrative, imagery or suggestion, lacking the usual devices employed to propagandise and pad out this sort of topic matter.

So: well done One and 3 News :)

L

Important question

datePosted on 11:01, March 4th, 2010 by Lew

Given that in 20 months’ time, we’ll be able to watch the All Blacks get thrashed on four different free-to-air channels simultaneously, why can’t we watch the All Whites get thrashed by Mexico on even one channel today?

L

Resisting the decline

datePosted on 17:19, March 3rd, 2010 by Lew

This is art, can you believe it?After some reflection and consideration of the pretty well-made arguments against my last post on Sensing Murder, I now have a bit more understanding of and sympathy for the position of those who are so infuriated and offended (thanks, Tony, Keir, Andrew and others). While I still think the difference between psychics and other sorts of entertainers is one of degree rather than kind, I accept that it’s a pretty big difference of degree, and that matters.

I wonder if there’s a correlation between those who object most strenuously to shows like Sensing Murder and those who generally bemoan the falling standards of entertainment and current affairs, and particularly the rise and proliferation of reality TV formats, and the consequent “realitisation”, if I may coin the term, of other genres. I’m thinking, here, of shows like Lost, which started out basically as a fictional version of Survivor; and 24, which is basically a video game in serialised form; the talking-head rent-a-quote instant-experts which predominate in news and current affairs programming; and the reality-esque coverage of media heroes and antiheroes like Clayton Weatherston and David Bain.

I reckon there would be, and I reckon that no small portion of the reason people hate on Sensing Murder so much is because it represents the most egregious example of this trend toward manufactured verité — in entertainment, in real life, and in how real life is presented to us. In this, it’s just another example of “resisting the decline” of society, which happens to an extent every generation.

I should hasten to add that I think it’s important that the decline be resisted — but by the same token I think it’s important that the reasons for resisting it be clearly stated and understood. But here’s another thing: while there is undeniably a great deal of dreck in the reality TV ouvre, and a significant amount of bland mediocrity, has the move genuinely brought nothing of value? The most venerated examples of the reality genre — Survivor for one; Idol and so on for another — have given zillions of people a great deal of pleasure, and now form a pretty central part of our* culture. I have a particularly soft spot for Survivor since it’s essentially just a big ball o’ political, social and psychological theory implemented in a handy ritualised narrative form.

In case you think I’m a trendy hipster libertine, I do personally disdain a huge amount of pop-culture — but not to the extent that I wish its absence on others who are into that sort of thing. That’s where I draw the line with Sensing Murder: let those who have been duped of money or faith complain to the small claims tribunal, or Fair Go, or the Advertising Standards Board, or the Commerce Commission. Let those who dislike the programme turn it off, and voice their disapproval to TVNZ and the show’s producers. Let those who object to public money being spent on it, and to the Police becoming involved in it make their objections known strongly, but let it all be done in the knowledge that some folk want it anyway and are willing to pay for it, even if it is all faked (and, deep down, they know it).

Last generation’s trash is this generation’s treasure; and vice versa. So it has ever been. This is part of what it is to live in a liberal society. Is it not?

L

* Permit me this generalisation, since I don’t want to write, nor (I am sure) do you want to read, yet another awkward definition of the “self” in this context.

Psychic’s Advocate

datePosted on 14:32, February 28th, 2010 by Lew

Poneke has another post up about Sensing Murder. Just for the record, I agree with the core argument of the post, and its somewhat famous predecessor. It should come as no shock to most of you that I also agree that the worst bit is that some journalists and current affairs directors treat them as newsworthy — but that’s the newsmakers’ failure, not the psychics’.

But here’s a comment from Falafulu Fisi I think could use a little unpacking:

People earn money for a living by being honest and hard work.
Business men are successful by being brilliant in running their businesses.
Paranormal practitioners (psychics etc,…) earn money via people’s stupidities and gullibility’s. They can become rich of course. Put them into the real world to try and earn an honest living they would be the laziest and incompetent wherever they are.

And in response, this from Klytemnestra:

I would have to disagree somewhat with Falafu Fisi. Excluding those cranks who actually believe they can talk to the dead, these ‘psychics’ are really quite successful business people. Getting rich by exploiting niche markets with false services no one really needs; this is a feat worthy of a degree of respect, even if they are repugnant in every other way.

Contra both of them, I’d argue that their “honest living” isn’t as psychics, or necessarily as providers of false services; it’s as entertainers. After all, those who actually use those “services” are a tiny fraction of those who consume the televised or stage-managed product which results. I also don’t accept Poneke’s suggestion that these consumers necessarily believe they have psychic powers — after all, it doesn’t follow that people who watch vampire movies actually believe in vampires. But even if they did, it ultimately doesn’t matter: taking advantage of peoples’ credulity isn’t wrong in and of itself, and for doing it these folk don’t deserve any more — and in general considerably less — criticism than financial advisers, real estate agents and talk radio hosts. They give a great many people who want such things something to watch of an evening, and something to believe in and make them feel all warm and fuzzy inside. In this regard it’s little different from — say — soap operas or romantic comedies. There’s a fair argument that it’s ghoulish, and perhaps hurtful to the real people involved, but in this regard it’s little different from — say — the cheesier end of TV current affairs or other reality programming.

Even if you don’t personally see any value in it, that’s an honest living, wouldn’t you agree?

L