Some issues have been fomenting in my head for a while, and tonight, they finally came to a head. There was a similar discourse around the time of the cutting of funding to TVNZ 7, and I made some similar comments then, but these ideas seem to be fiendishly difficult to put down.
Some context: one of the few remaining current affairs shows in New Zealand that still does relatively “hard” journalism, Campbell Live, has come under review by its network, MediaWorks, with the underlying implication that it is likely to be cancelled soon. Campbell Live has been a force of advocacy journalism, championing those who have suffered in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake, and been a loud critic of the government on issues such as child poverty.
The prospect of the loss of Campbell Live is nothing short of tragic. It is one of the sole places in primetime in the New Zealand broadcast spectrum where key issues related to the public interest are raised and discussed. While there have been a couple of occasions when these may have had a political bent, for the most part John Campbell and his team have been about speaking truth to power, no matter who that power is, and standing up for those who are not able to stand up for themselves. Sometimes this is about the individual, and other times it is about entire segments of the population who are without a voice.
However, once again, the public discourse around the potential loss of something important is shrouded in some problematic ideas and rhetoric. Of most concern to me is the notion that we are losing Campbell Live because of the existence of reality television, coupled with a suggestion, sometimes unspoken and sometimes not, that reality television is emblematic of what is wrong with our society, and should not exist on television at all.
There are any number of possible drivers behind these sorts of claims. It could stem from the complainants simply not liking reality television, which is fine – there are numerous programmes on television I’m not personally a fan of either. It could stem from a kneejerk reaction to losing something they hold dear, and desperately lashing out at something, anything, in order to find something to blame. However, one of my concerns is that there is actually something deeply elitist going on; there is often an undercurrent which suggests that many viewers are “not smart enough” to realise that they are watching the “wrong programming”, and that there is a societal obligation to take it away from them, so they are not tempted. Anyone with a background in Media Studies will be well aware of how dangerously close that is getting to media effects discourse.
Quite simply, to make that kind of assertion is also to overlook the really crucial cultural work which is done by reality television, and specifically by local productions of reality television. It’s important to note, I am referring to both formats created and designed locally, and to variants of internationally-designed formats which have been purchased by local networks or producers. There are several important things that these productions do, but first and foremost, they mean that we see New Zealanders on screen. And not just particular types of New Zealanders, not just the ones who are making it in show business, but all New Zealanders. Maori, Pasifika, Asian, African, Pakeha. New Zealanders of varied sexualities and gender identities. New Zealanders from different socio-economic backgrounds. New New Zealanders, and old New Zealanders. We see our country presented to us. (Yes, I know, RTV producers still pick and choose contestants etc. But we still see a broader range than in any other programming).
We are in a fairly unique broadcasting situation in New Zealand. By virtue of being a small nation, Anglophone, with Commonwealth roots, we receive content from, at minimum, the US, the UK, and Australia. There’s a small smattering of Canadian content too, but I’d challenge 99% of NZers to know that it’s not US content without looking it up. But the point is, we import a lot of content. This is likely to always be the commercial reality in New Zealand. And this isn’t a bad thing – all those countries can produce some truly wonderful material. I actually wish we were more open to the best of other nations, Anglophone or not. And one effect of our broadcasting system, combined with the digital mediasphere, is that we also encounter a reasonable amount of internationally produced reality television. We see American Idol. We see UK Masterchef. We see X Factor Australia. Again, this is not a bad thing. If you enjoy it, then wicked. (And yes, I am someone who does). But, we also know that these formats exist all over the world. It is important to feeling a part of the global media community that we see our own variants on screens, that we not simply watch America’s Got Talent and sigh wistfully, the unspoken implication being that we in New Zealand do not. These productions are an important and vital part of us existing in a global mediascape.
[Boring economic stuff] Producing these series are relatively economically risky – while they often rate well, this is not always the case, and significant money can be lost if ratings fail. There are reasonably high sunk costs, so pulling a series halfway through isn’t usually feasible, especially in the NZ market. There is very little after market revenue – almost no chance of international sales, and very few options for syndication. The money you make on its first airing will be very close to the last money you make on it. [/boring]
Because of this, some reality series receive funding from New Zealand on Air. There seems to be a lot of anguish over this. These series are seen as commercially successful, which raises questions about why they are funded. The simple answer is, most of them would not be made were it not for the initial investment in the first season or two. They are too risky, when it can be much cheaper to buy in an international equivalent which will rate nearly as well, and cost a fraction of the local. This seed money is why we have them. And you can see above for why *that* is important.
There are more angles to this (I haven’t even *started* on gender), but I want to finish with the inequality of argument which often surfaces. People will often point to a ‘Quality’ drama, and a culturally-demeaned reality show, to highlight the ‘vast league’ which exists between the forms. But, you’re making a bit of a stretch if you’re comparing The Wire to Keeping Up With The Kardashians (NB. I also have no issue with KUWTK, it’s just the show that often sits in that dichotomy, along with Jersey Shore). There is good television drama. There is bad television drama. There is good television comedy. There is bad television comedy. There is good reality tv. There is bad reality tv. As with any art form, there is a grand canyon between the best and the worst. Can we have a discussion of what constitutes good and bad reality tv? Hell yeah, I’m always down for that. But using reality tv as a slur to encompass poor quality television that you see as at best mindless, and at worst dangerous, that is utterly missing the point of what is a crucial element in our modern televisual landscape.
I have linked here the run of tweets that reminded me I was going to write this blog, along with a selection of the sort of material which triggered it.