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John Bishop: TV Debases The Viewers

TV Debases The Viewers

By John Bishop

Nowhere is the debasement of ideals more obvious than in the operation of our television service over the last twenty years or so. While I don’t share the views of Ian Johnstone’s aging venerables who are seeking a return to Close to Home and regional news shows, I do share their concerns that the viewers are being treated badly. It is not the commercial model that is at fault; and neither is the charter the solution. The fault lies in the way in which successive Ministers, boards and senior management of TVNZ have practised commercialism. Making a profit is not a sin, but the Americanisation of television in New Zealand has made the pursuit of ratings the only measure of success. That’s wrong. Here’s why.

In the mid 1980’s what the Americans call “high concept” became fashionable in news and current affairs. This was the transfer of the two key elements of Hollywood filmmaking into television. These concepts were simplicity and promotability. “High concept” was the reduction of an idea to its simplest form but it also had to be readily promotable, that is, easily understood and attractive to the audience. Perhaps the most famous example is the film producer who pitched an idea to a studio by saying only “Schwarzenegger and de Vito”. He got the money and made the movie Twins.(I suspect that Mr and Mrs Smith with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie was pitched on the same basis).

If you decide to treat viewers as blobs of protoplasm who need a shock wave of emotional electricity run through their febrile brains each night, the appropriate vehicle is a programme like Holmes which polarised, demonised, simplified, objectified, and pre-selected for us the good and the bad, the villain and the victim, the hero and the one to blame. Choice, rational discussion, and most importantly shades of grey are removed. Minister faces opposition counterpart in a political slugfest. It’s entertainment not information. It’s certainly not informative and the viewer is the passive observer, because the programme makers remove our capacity to make a decision. They encourage us simply to feel. The appeal of a politician or a brand or a product, service, or event then becomes based on our emotional response to it, not on what we think. Often we cannot think, because we haven’t been given a lot of facts or a diverse range of opinions; rather we have been encouraged to feel, based on our brief sighting of whatever it was that took place. That’s why the sight of Don Brash rather awkwardly getting into a racing car was one of the enduring images of the campaign. It encouraged us to believe that if the highly cerebral Dr Brash could not manage this simple task, how could he run the country. We never saw Helen in any situation likely to allow us to harbour such thoughts.

Consequently my solution to why is there so much rubbish on television, and why is there so little that intelligent people want to watch, is not to change the charter or re-introduce public service television. It is to get rid of the programme buyers, commissioners and programme makers who want to abuse my emotions for their commercial gain. Fire the managers who don’t have a demonstrable ethos of treating the viewers like intelligent human beings. Lord Reith, who used to run the BBC many years ago combined the need for ratings success with the desire for quality this way: find out what the public wants and give them something better. The people who gave us Holmes and made shows like 60 Minutes focus on the weepie of the week perverted that credo into find out what the public wants and give them something worse to cry about. Those are the people who should be eradicated from our television service ‘root and branch” as Oliver Cromwell once said of bishops in the Church of England.


John Bishop is a Wellington writer and commentator who has worked as a radio and television reporter. He can be contacted at

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