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Stateside with Rosalea: PSPTV

Stateside with Rosalea


I have seen the future of television, and it is PSP. I'm not talking about just the technical feasibility of broadcasting to, and receiving input from, a handheld device like Sony's Play Station Portable, but about programme content itself.

Do you like Whose Line is it Anyway?, where the actors have to improvise on a theme that the audience or the program's host have given them? How about those shows like Idol where you can phone or text your preference to a vote-counting system? And Survivor, where the participants themselves choose who should continue?

What if you took all those elements and put them together in a drama? On screen, an icon appears representing a direction the story can go in, and the icon that is chosen most by the audience determines the situation the actors will next be put into. Just like those books that came out in the sixties where you could choose which chapter to turn to next.

And, like the first such book that I read, which was about a fictional African country finding its way after becoming independent, the content of PSP programming doesn't have to be trivial. You could, for example, take historical content and treat it in this way.

Because such programming would have to be live, the key to success would be to get actors so grounded in their characters and the possibilities open to them within the show's context that they could handle whatever is thrown at them by the audience. An audience that is increasingly made up of viewers who are used to being participants and controllers of outcomes because they're used to playing video games.

The format could even be adapted to interest people in politics by conducting political debates this way. Instead of using a "worm" to measure how popular a particular reply to a debate question is, the audience could choose instead to give the candidates material they have to work with on the fly--a shrinking budget, a complete ban on immigration, more funding for education.

The inspiration for my new show format was a couple of TV programmes that caused quite a stir at a conference of public broadcasters held over the past week in San Francisco. One was a historical version of Survivor, created by two young Swedish television producers, in which there is a gamesmaster and the rich are in the castle living a good life, and the poor are in huts eking out a living at the mercy of their feudal lord.

"Did you have a panel of historians working on the show to make sure it was accurate?" asked one of US public television's worthies. "No. We had one historian, and a panel of gamers advising us," was the reply from the producers.

There is an incredible disjunct between what the US sees as public service programming and what the rest of the world sees as such. The only entity stateside that comes close to being a state broadcaster a la BBC or TVNZ is the Public Broadcasting Service and it is has to survive on money from foundations, viewer pledge drives, and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which us kind of equivalent to NZ On Air.

The Swedish programme (The Empire) is a very long way from the programming that many people in the US see as suitable for prime time public television. But it is ridiculous for the worthies here to be snobby about it, considering that the PBS station in my area, for instance, plays Antiques Roadshow in prime time every night of the week. Anyone who thinks that is a show that's going to interest people in history for the sake of learning (as opposed to earning) needs a big fat L tattooed on their forehead.

The sad thing is that, so long as public television heads in the direction of being worthy and precious--as it is here in the States--it's not just the intellectual snobs who are the losers. It's the viewers as well, who are left to scour the commercial television airwaves in the hope of finding something that caters to their interests.

The second programme that caused a large stir that evening was from Croatia. The Pyramid goes out live and has three contestants on each show, from which one is chosen to continue. The episode we saw pitted three politicians against each other. The producer later said that they use people from all walks of life, but they come from the same area of expertise each week. For example, one week it might be teachers. The contestants are screened to see that there is a left, right, and centrist point of view in each show.

The questions all come from current events--things that are in the news that week. The show is live so people can phone in their choice for the contestant that most impresses them, and you see the vote results at the end of each segment. The lighting, set, camera work, and pace of direction are very much like Millionaire. Each contestant's response is timed, just like in a traditional debate or game show.

The first subject the contestants were asked to talk about in the show we saw--and these aren't wannabe politicians but include ministers in previous governments--is Croatia's entry into the EU and the failure of a general accused of war crimes to turn up in the Hague. I confess to being totally gobsmacked by the eloquence and passion of the unscripted replies to all the questions that were asked.

Obviously, I've lived in the US too long, or I wouldn't have been surprised by that. Here, political debate amounts to nothing but PR and is presented as either something worthy and precious or as a turgid obligation that's being foisted on the viewers of commercial networks by some arcane law created by do-gooders.

Oh, my! Only an arcane, worthy, precious commentator could have written that last sentence, I suppose. But you get the picture. During the audience interaction with the producer after The Pyramid was shown in San Francisco, it was interesting that someone from the US said he didn't like it because politics has already been reduced to soundbites and this kind of fast response to important matters also fell into that category.

Equally interesting was the comment from a woman from Danish public television that this style of programme creates huge social capital: It gives people something to talk about at work the next morning. Choosing contestants with differing viewpoints also validates a range of opinion, not just one. In a country like Croatia, where war is never far from people's minds, that seems to me like a big plus.

Nonetheless, I couldn't help wondering if The Pyramid wasn't really created by the CIA. Imagine such a show in Iraq with a Sunni, a Shia, and a Kurd talking about events of the day. Maybe it would hasten the impending civil war, or maybe it would stay its hand.

Publicly funded television, broadcast either on networks operated by government entities or by commercial broadcasters as part of a public service obligation, is no trivial matter. Here in the States, where the change to all-digital broadcasts is under way, there is no better time for people to put a stake in the ground for what they want public broadcasting to be.

For those who are interested in how the telecommunications scene is playing out here in the States, it's worth signing up for the Insider Update at this website:


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