In Defence of Reality Television in New Zealand

There has been more discussion about television in New Zealand in recent months than I can remember ever before. The discussion over the demise of TVNZ7, the last true space of public service television broadcast in New Zealand, the decision by the government to only fund content rather broadcast platform, and some of the recent funding decisions made by the national content funding authority, New Zealand on Air. However, one of the things that has come through very strongly to me has been a distinct strain of anti-Reality television discourse. I absolutely understand that reality television is not to everybody’s taste, but to my mind, there have been some distinctly knee-jerk reactions, and suggestions of causality from people who really should know better.

I want to be clear, I am not a reality television apologist, although I do think it can be fascinating, and also can serve important purposes in society.

  1. Reality television is not responsible for the death of TVNZ7. Numerous people who entered into the debate over TVNZ7 pointed to the NZ on Air funding of The GC, NZ’s Got Talent and now The Ridges (EDIT – I am reliably informed by @dubdotdash that The Ridges did not receive NZonAir funding – but people have certainly been talking about it as if it did, which may make my point!) as something that was happening instead of funding the public service broadcaster. This is simply not true. NZ On Air could not have funded TVNZ7 if it wanted to, as it has no mandate to do anything except commission programming. They cannot and do not fund broadcasters, and the legislation which governs them prevents them from doing so.
  2. Reality television formats have an important place on New Zealand television. As a small Anglophone broadcast market, the economics of our situation mean that we have a large amount of cheap imported television content. Given the success of reality television formats overseas, it is only natural that many of these imported programmes are reality. There is value to us as New Zealanders to seeing New Zealand equivalents of these shows, instead of young New Zealanders aspiring to appear on American Idol, The X Factor Australia, or Britain’s Got Talent. New Zealand variants of these series maybe be (and look) low budget, but they provide an opportunity to see New Zealand voices, faces, culture, and senses of humour represented on our television screens in primetime. This plays a vital role in maintaining a sense of the unique New Zealand culture.
  3. Reality television suffers from elitism. There is a common discourse that reality television represents the lowest form of entertainment possible. This plays directly into a form of elitism that will be familiar to many scholars, especially those who work in the various forms of media studies. It’s the same elitism that said in the 1950s that television would kill off cinema, that said in the mid-1800s that the works of Charles Dickens were going to be the end of educated society, and that lead Socrates to decry that this new invention that would prevent the acquisition of knowledge. He was talking about the written word. Reality television is both new (although with extended roots, including cinema verite) and popular, which inevitably leads some groups of people to disparage and fear it. This form of historical amnesia has affected almost every new form of cultural product I can think of.
  4. Reality television covers a broad spectrum. There is a massive range of reality television. Country Calendar? Reality television. Intrepid Journeys? Reality television. The GC? Reality television. Survivor? Reality television. There is some excellent and interesting reality television. There is some reality television I couldn’t care less about. What else does that describe? Everything! For every Godfather Part II, we get a Freddy Got Fingered. For every War and Peace, we have 50 Shades of Gray. For every Harry Potter, we have Twilight. But every single one of those has a definite fan base, has people who adore the text. Your trash is my treasure. And I’m not sure any of us has the right to prevent others from enjoying their chosen entertainment.
  5. A lot of people enjoy Reality television. One key element of the elitism discussion above is that most of the cultural artefacts dismissed are those of mass entertainment, those that are seen to appeal to the population at large. There is an immediate backlash against anything that is seen as having broad appeal (cf the painful hipster affectation of “liking something before it was cool”). One of the elements that NZ on Air has to take into consideration when deciding what to fund is the breadth of appeal, and the viewership of many of these shows is undeniable (New Zealand’s Got Talent just received a 22.9 in the 5+ demo for its first episode – that means that nearly 1 in 4 New Zealanders over 5 years old watched it live, a frankly ridiculous figure in the fragmented distribution age).

I understand that people wish to see public service broadcasting. I understand that many people have no interest in watching The GC. I understand that many people do not see a point to reality television. But I believe that reality television, including imported reality television formats, play a crucial role in the formation of our national identity, and under the current guidelines, are certainly one of the areas that should be funded by NZ on Air. And I have been a little disappointed that some sectors (the NZ Herald probably unsurprisingly, RNZ’s Mediawatch a little more surprisingly) have jumped on the bandwagon, using phrases like “glorified talent show”, which contain a fair amount of negative subtext.

I do have some ideas for an alternate funding structure for NZ on Air, which would take into account public service programming, digital distribution models, fictional programming, and mainstream local content. This reformulation may remove a lot of the concern about shows like New Zealand’s Got Talent being seen to take money away from shows like Backbenchers.  I am still working it all through in my head, but I will blog about soon.

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2 thoughts on “In Defence of Reality Television in New Zealand

  1. Luke

    Great post. I totally buy your claims about cultural elitism. Personally, though, I would much rather see scarce public money for broadcasting channeled toward hard-hitting and/or innovative (and commercially risky) factual programming. I don’t think that makes me anti-RTV as such, just someone deeply concerned about the state of our public sphere, our civic culture and our democracy. We desperately need programming that asks hard questions of those institutions, corporations and individuals that wield power in our society. Of course, that’s a rather plaintive cry from the wilderness and doesn’t reflect the realities of the broadcasting system we have (and for which we can’t blame NZOnAir).

    • Mark S

      I don’t disagree with the need for that type of programming, in the slightest. I do feel that both are needed, but the reason that we are seeing this sort of discourse is that they are both being funded from the same “pool”, so funding one is seen as taking away from the other. I’m currently trying to hammer out an idea which would prevent that.

      I also didn’t make the point in this post, but NZGT must actually have been seen as commercially risky, given that a season has previously aired, and was not renewed. But I agree that it is certainly not hard-hitting, and it serves a different socio-cultural role than the sort of programming that you are discussing.

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