Dirty games in commercial TV’s hall of mirrors
Did you happen the see the viral video of Channel Nine’s ‘apology’ for using a watermark in its story on Brian McFadden’s aeroplane antics? They said sorry for forcing Channel Seven to blur a significant portion of the images it unflinchingly lifted from Nine.
Funny, wasn’t it? In that sort of immature Funniest Home Videos guy-getting-hit-in-the-groin kind of way. How pathetic. How childish. How fitting.
This is the era we live in. Missed last night’s Masterchef? Don’t worry, you can see it broken down play-by-play on ACA or Today Tonight. Ten may have paid something in the vicinity of $70 million for the rights, but the other networks are showing it for free. Well, except for however much it costs to blur out that annoying bug in the corner.
How times have changed. It wasn’t so long ago the Seven Network took Channel Ten to court for using too much footage of its AFL grand final coverage on Sports Tonight. A bitter and expensive case which transcended its premise and appeared to be watershed for the future of Australian news reporting.
Barely a decade later, the major networks - all of them - are taking each other’s material like teenage sisters borrowing each other’s accessories. The teenage analogy is especially apt, given scores of news reporters these days are so young they may as well have been spawned out of Lady Gaga’s Grammy’s egg.
Rachel Browne wrote an excellent piece in Sydney’s Sun Herald on network news’ sudden penchant for live crosses. My personal favourite is when a story on major changes to tariff laws was presented from a fruit market. Which fruit market? Didn’t matter.
The only thing more alarming than the quality levels our commercial news services are dipping to is the rapidity at which it’s descending.
Put simply, they’re as bad as each other. Seven News wins some nights, Nine News wins others. Ten has its good nights as well as bad. There’s no rhyme or reason anymore. It’s as if the viewers have collectively thrown their hands up and select a news broadcast with the same arbitrary thought process as how they choose what to have for dinner that night.
The recent Seven News ‘Shit Happens’ hullabaloo was a departure from the most basic principles of journalism. Commercial bulletins these days may be tailored to be digestible to a primary school student, however I’d take a bet that a kid struggling to do their six-times tables could tell you the response from the US commander to Tony Abbott’s colourful comment on the death of a soldier was every bit as important as the comment itself.
Suppose including that would have ruined the story, though.
Take Cyclone Yasi. Today Tonight breathlessly had a Yasi countdown clock in the top right of its screen, as if presenting a New Years Eve program. Rather appropriate for these people, given a natural disaster provides the sort of excitement in which these media types live for. The bigger the catastrophe, the bigger the rush.
Over at Channel Nine, they pumped in the sort of resources that come with staging a showpiece. Regrettably it was a showpiece of commercial TV’s turbo powered ‘What about me?’ approach to journalism. It didn’t matter that while areas closer to Townsville were being battered in the initial stages of Yasi’s arrival, Karl Stefanovic was perched in Cairns, where the weather conditions were positively motionless. No, what did matter was that he was able to regale us with a story that he had family somewhere in the potential firing line.
Two hundred thousand Queenslanders reduced to the equal sum of a few Stefanovics. Sadly this is standard.
Michael Usher’s 60 minutes piece on a family ravaged harder than most by the Queensland floods was an excellent feature, effectively yanking at the heartstrings. Quite simply it was wonderful television, but did we need the consistent self-involved theme? Here’s Usher’s defence of the piece on The Punch. And here’s how his 60 Minutes story was introduced:
“Occasionally in this job you hear a story that is so gut-wrenchingly tragic, that you wonder where people get the strength to get out of bed each day. That’s how I felt when I met Stacey Keep and her husband Matthew.”
In this job? You wonder? That’s how I felt? Four personal references in the first thirteen seconds. Not to mention the constant cutaways of Usher’s tears and his habitual over familiar contact with Stacey, topped off with a fatherly kiss to the head, all while assuring the overwhelmed woman, as he reached for his inner Robin Williams to her Matt Damon, that it ‘wasn’t her fault’.
I wonder how husband Matthew felt.
Self-importance has always been part of the deal in commercial news, but never has it been so complete and conspicuous. It’s the epoch of uber-narcissism and they’re all swimming at the shallow end of the same ego pool. At Nine, this new dawn appears to have coincided with the introduction of Mark Calvert as Director of News and Current Affairs. I don’t know much about him, except his superfluous appearance on camera during a news piece about Mark Latham told me all I needed to know about where their ‘What about me’ approach emanated.
While Calvert’s background is British, he seems to be calling plays off the Roone Arledge playbook. The late Arledge, a gruff, bold and visionary American, is a television legend, lifting ABC Sports, then ABC News, from the cellar to market leadership with imaginative and original news services such as Nightline.
Problem for Calvert is his personal playbook reads more like Frontline. Part of Arledge’s mantra was to make ABC News about his stars, glossy graphics and the occasional fluffy pop culture story. Sound familar? However amongst his garishness, Arledge filled his programming with hard news content. Presented in a slick manner, sure, but hard news nonetheless.
Can you see any commercial news service here going wall-to-wall on something like the Iranian hostage crisis? Or staging a debate between Gorbachev and Yeltsin?
Probably not. Unless it involved the Worm.
Dan Ginnane is an employee of Austereo and regular contributor on Sky News Australia. His views do not necessarily reflect those of either of his employers.
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