14 November 2009

How terrestrial TV sells movie lovers short

I’ve written on this blog about the need for a revitalised public service television model in New Zealand to foster our distinct cultural identity and to broaden the horizons of our media culture.  As it stands, free-to-air (terrestrial) television provides a relatively narrow view of the world, and as terrestrial channels are still the ones viewed by most New Zealand households, our collective perspective of the world is arguably narrower as a result. 

Glancing through the TV listings in the Listener recently, I was reminded of a particular weakness of the commercial television model when it broadcasts movies.  The movie screenings offered by terrestrial broadcasters in New Zealand are meagre and often low quality, which is a concern when the cinematic artform has so much potential to entertain when quality is considered of equal importance to quantity.

You may argue that discussing terrestrial movie broadcasts on TV without reference to the many other means of viewing movies fails to consider the entire situation.  Certainly, viewers have a wide range of options aside from viewing movies in cinemas: renting DVDs either in person or by postal service, by pay-per-view through cable channels, or on dedicated movie channels like Sky Movies or Rialto.  And when viewers have a choice the movie-watching experience is naturally far more customised to their personal tastes.

But ultimately the largest source of entertainment and (for want of a better phrase) mainstream visual culture in New Zealand is terrestrial TV.  The material broadcast on free-to-air channels both sets and reflects the tastes of TV audiences, or to be precise, it attempts to do so in the hope of maximising viewership and achieving the highest possible audience ratings and advertising value. 

At this risk of sounding hopelessly curmudgeonly, it’s not that long ago that New Zealand terrestrial TV viewers were treated to a much wider range of movies onscreen than they are today.  The end of public service TV broadcasting in New Zealand coincided with a homogenisation of movie broadcasting as TV programmers narrowed their range of purchases to those likely to achieve the highest ratings.  Certainly, one could argue that screening mainstream movies achieves the greater good for the greater number.  But ultimately the innate conservatism of most movies on TV fails to capture the range of culture and entertainment on offer in the highly varied world of cinema.  

In order to get a better overview of the movies being broadcast, I took a two-week sample of the movie output of the five main terrestrial TV channels (TV1, TV2, TV3, C4, Prime and Maori TV) from 24 October to 6 November.  While I had hoped to provide a critical breakdown of the movies screened, my preferred choice of ratings – the Metacritic engine – lacked sufficient coverage of the more obscure titles.  The same problem presented itself for the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.  So I had to fall back on the 10-point voting scale on IMDB, which is less about critical review and more about the personal preferences of the website’s readers, but given the large sample sizes that are often involved it’s often a reasonable guide of quality.

Here’s a summary of each channel’s movie broadcasting in the period I examined:      

TV1 broadcast only five movies.  Three of these were British telemovies (including Ballet Shoes, Harry Potter star Emma Watson’s first post-wizardly role).  The other two were both appealing choices: the New Zealand movie No. 2 and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  None of the three telemovies were shown in prime time: Ballet Shoes and Magnificent 7 were daytime screenings and Half Broken Things appeared after 10pm.  Aside from 1980’s The Shining, the other movies were all made in the mid-2000s (2005-07).  Kubrick’s thriller gained a high 8.5 out of 10 from IMDB’s readers, while the other movies all gained moderately positive reviews.  Average movie rating: 7.08    

TV2 screened the largest number of movies (21), although 10 of those were late-night screenings after 10pm, and several were in the ‘wee small hours’ timeslots only suitable for insomniacs or timeshift viewers.  Several horror films appeared in keeping with the long-standing Sunday Horrors slot.  No New Zealand movies were featured.  A noticeable chronological pattern emerges in TV2’s movie choices: only one 20th century movie appears (the weak Deadly Game from 1998), while 19 of the remaining 20 movies were made from 2000 to 2005.  Only 2008’s Impact mini-series represents the post-2005 period.  TV2’s movies are rated the lowest in quality by IMDB, ranging from the high point of Finding Nemo (8.2 rating) to a bevy of five late-night stinkers with ratings under 5.0 (Darkness Falls, Deadly Game, Max Havoc: Curse of the Dragon, Swimfan, The Gospel).  Overall, TV2 seems to have a bargain basement approach to movies.  Average movie rating: 5.87

TV3 showed eight movies, half of which were shown in prime time.  Of the four movies shown after 10pm, two were telemovies.  Like TV1, all but one of its movies (Speed from 1994) were from this decade.  TV3 featured several more recent movies than its rival TV2 with Evan Almighty and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry both 2007 releases.  (Neither were particularly appealing).  Two of TV3’s movies achieved high IMDB ratings – Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (8.5) and Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (7.7), but there were no real clunkers.  Average movie rating: 6.87  

C4 played only four movies; all were in prime time.  The channel’s small budget and its fondness for the pop culture in the ascendant when its staff were in their formative years probably explains the age of the material shown: three from the 1990s and one from 2001.  In terms of ratings, C4’s offerings were more forgettable than lame (Down Periscope, How High, I Know What You Did Last Summer); the overall average was bumped up by the screening of Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992 (7.3 rating).  Average movie rating: 5.90 

Maori TV played only three movies, all in prime time and all from the mid-2000s, including one New Zealand feature, Hidden.  Maori TV aims for an SBS-style selection of art movies, often choosing those dealing with issues of ethnic identity.  Aside from Hidden, it also broadcast Gypo and The Home Song Stories.  Maori TV’s average rating is dragged down by an unusually low IMDB rating for Hidden (4.6) which is really rather low for IMDB.  Average movie rating: 6.23

Prime screened no movies in the fortnight I examined.

Options for NZ programmers

One of the beauties of the explosion of TV broadcasting in the modern age was the ability of motion pictures to reach a much larger audience than during their original cinematic releases.  Broadcasting movies on TV was a no-brainer – produced at no cost to the TV networks, movies fill lengthy timeslots and can act as major drawcards for viewers, with successful movies anchoring an entire evening’s scheduling and providing the opportunity for multiple revenue-raising advertising breaks. 

So it is surprising that the movies offered by New Zealand’s FTA broadcasters are selected in such a conservative fashion, with little variety on the larger channels.  The channels were all reluctant to delve too deeply into works from previous decades, which begs the question, what if the 2000s have been a weak decade for movies?  And are TV viewers so reluctant to view material from previous decades?  A selection of classic films from any post-war decade (black & white films aside, sadly) could surely draw a sizeable TV audience if they were judiciously chosen, particularly if they were screened in the lower-stakes environment of weekend daytime programming.  The screening rights would be cheaper than more recent movies too. 

A broadening of the age range of movies screened could permit a wider sampling of movies that are both popular and high quality.  Niche interests could be catered for too.  How else would viewers know that westerns, musicals and war epics existed?  All have disappeared from New Zealand TV screens in recent years. 

A broader scope would also have the extra benefit of introducing new generations of viewers to film classics that they might otherwise never encounter.  After all, once you’ve seen Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey you can never go back.

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