10 August 2014

Watching Seven Sharp (so you don't have to)



The recent controversy about the appointment of the right-wing TV presenter and talkback host Mike Hosking as the compere for the TVNZ general election debates reminded me that for me, Hosking falls into a category of New Zealand social phenomena that most other people in the country probably know about. I've never heard his radio show because I don't listen to talkback radio, and I've never seen him on TV before. TVNZ's decision to have him host the debate is of course nonsensical from the perspective of someone who wants to hear an intellectually stimulating, free-ranging exchange of views between our would-be elected officials, because only last year he endorsed the Prime Minister's re-election campaign personally ("We have bright prospects for the future, so long as you keep them in Government,'), and is therefore hopelessly compromised.

But Hosking's involvement is a moot point really, because the argument that his conflict of interest disqualifies him from hosting the debate only works if you assume TVNZ operates in the public good and is motivated by the best interest of the New Zealand democratic system. Of course, it doesn't. It only operates to deliver financial return to the Government by selling airtime to advertisers, and anything that gets in the way of that, like journalistic impartiality, is largely irrelevant. In TVNZ's view, the simple equation is: Hosking is the host of our prime-time magazine show, so building his profile is vital, so he must host the debate, whether he'll be good at it or not. Hosking has claimed he'll try to do his best in the role, and that in any case, he's a presenter, not a journalist. Glad that's been cleared up.

In any case, this discussion about Hosking's biases and ability reminded me that while I've always presumed his 7 o'clock show Seven Sharp was rubbish, it was unfair of me to hold this view without ever having seen it. So recently I set the recorder and captured Seven Sharp's output from 28 July to 1 August, and gave them an airing to get a sample of the programme's output. How did it turn out?

Monday

So. The opening credits and synth music are inoffensive and bubbly, as if for a Saturday morning kids show. The fonts used are crayon-like and unintimidating. There are two beaming faces behind a desk, in the now-traditional format of middle-aged male anchor with a younger, heavily-coiffed female sidekick. Hosking's famed midlife-crisis hairdo and outfit tries to pull his image, screaming and kicking, back into his thirties, but no-one's fooled; sidekick Toni Street has a broad grin (well, so would you if you were on telly getting paid wheelbarrows of cash) and the sort of hair only women on telly with professional hair wranglers have. Toni is thirty years old, from the provinces, is sporty, and thanks to Hosking we soon know she drinks gin and orange, which is code for being a bogan. 

Seven Sharp operates on innocuous banter peppered with tiny VT items, as short as possible so they can sometimes fit two tapes into the space between the ad breaks. The first item of the week is a bit of Fair Go advocacy by Heather du Plessis-Allan, who has a lot of names and shares an acronym with both the Hoboken Dart Players Association and the Hellenic Data Protection Authority. She trawls Courtenay Place bars in Wellington, measuring the number of millilitres issued when she orders shots of whisky. Thereby she locks up the viewing loyalty of a nation of shot-drinkers, although its unclear whether the purchased liquid was actually consumer by the journalist during the production of the item. Her Twitter feed does mention testing a few more whiskies with Jacinda Ardern the following week, so perhaps this item was a case of incorporating one's personal interests into one's day job. In his curious accent, Mike offers his views on the economics of drinking spirits: 'People have got money to burn in this country if they're out there buying the nine dollars whiskies and the chips and dips'. Social commentary, that. In any case, have I mentioned that Seven Sharp is brought to you by Rabobank? Which I like to think is a Scottish-Irish corporation: Rab O'Bank. (Thank you). 

The Commonwealth Games are on in Glasgow this week, so there is a brief discussion of New Zealand's cycling progress, but most time is devoted to a Scottish athlete who proposed to his girlfriend at the games. Mike interviews a New Zealand judo organiser, which is a commendable focus on a niche sport until you realise that it was only selected because Mike used to do judo. (He was a white belt, you know. Which is the lowest or second-lowest belt there is in judo.)

A brief and relatively lazy segment follows, which could be titled 'Shit We Found on the Internet'. It includes a Youtube clip of a beach-going Mexican couple whose video selfie near Cancun is disturbed by an impressive lightning strike behind them. Mike and Toni affect bewilderment at the explosion and ask to see it again, and then once more in slo-mo. Yep, lightning is definitely a thing. Then the show proceeds into a trifling glance at current affairs, with a 'body language expert' casting her eye over election billboards of the major candidates. Her verdict? None of the politicians emerge with honours, so instead she picks a mocked-up one showing the Seven Sharp chap interviewing her. Much hilarity ensues, and the point is clearly made that the default setting for Seven Sharp stories is to make the presenter as much a part of the story as possible. Luckily, this wasn't much of a story.

Just before the end credits, it's time for the immediately hilarious editorial section, where Toni and Mike offer their views straight to camera, vox imperator/imperatrix/dei. The only thing missing is an actual wagging finger. Toni provides an update on a child trafficking story, which we all agree is Very Bad Indeed, while Mike has decided that he 'can't see the Conservatives getting over 3%' at the election, which is a rather precise prediction, and would make me wonder what his sources are if 1) he hadn't arrived at the figure whilst interviewing his laptop, and 2) I didn't agree with him.
   
End credits. Toni wears Karen Millen!  What Mike wears is apparently best left uncredited.

Tuesday

This episode kicks off with a piece from a techno-school in Hobsonsville in the Upper Harbour electorate, which mixes gizmo-centric new-fangled pedagogical practice with calling teachers by their first names malarkey. The children interviewed seem to enjoy it, but then who wouldn't enjoy mucking about with robots and watching Youtube clips at break-time? The show leaves us little room for ambiguity by captioning a school spokeswoman as a 'Forward-thinking deputy principal'. Tellingly, and developing a theme that would recur later in the week, there are almost no brown faces on display at this very nice and well-equipped school. The school appears to be an innovative and commendable initiative, but you can't help but wonder why it's happening in a comparatively well-off white-bread area when it could be of so much use in, say, South Auckland or Porirua.

In the grab-bag section Mike and Toni return to the sporting extravaganza in Glasgow, but only to talk about romance, because sport is clearly boring for viewers and advertisers, but anything that leads to shagging is fine. There is also a brief flirt with politics in two micro-items. Lorde's voting drive video targeted at young 'uns is played briefly ('Only 2000 hits', Seven Sharp sniffs), as is a presumably hilarious clip of Hon Judith Collins dancing vigorously at some community event, as only happens in election years. On the latter, Mike remarks 'I'm so impressed'.

After the break, a moderately useful VT item on an arts programme in Nga Wha Prison in Northland (which has two reviews on Google Plus), where wood carving and other art skills are helping to rehabilitate prisoners, or at least keep them occupied. This starts a trend of the week: pretty much the only Maori faces on Seven Sharp this week happen to be prisoners in correctional facilities. Unintentional, no doubt, but rather telling.

To shoe-horn a link for the next item, Mike and Toni are, unfortunately, talking about nudity. It's traditional in these schticks for the talent to hint at a sexual frisson between co-hosts, but this is more or less the only outbreak this week, when Mike remarks to Toni that 'We thought if we got you naked, it might get people tuning in'. To which the correct response is to say, 'F**k off, Mike'. Toni doesn't say this, though. The item is even less impressive than the intro - just a bunch of micro-trailers for a new wave of nude (a.k.a. crap) telly shows from America, for which the inventor of modern onscreen pixellation software has a lot to answer for.

The final VT for the day is a 'health' item about fist-bumping instead of handshaking that is so trivial I can't even be bothered to discuss it. In the editorial outro that follows, Toni praises the integration of para-sports into the Commonwealth Games proper, and Mike offers his wisdom to parents of kids who play sports. Turns out you shouldn't flog the little shits after all.

Wednesday

All through this week the shows have started with a shiny sports trophy on the Seven Sharp desk. (I hadn't mentioned it before now because it's all very inconsequential). This time it's the Melbourne Cup. The presenters promote their own sporting prowess and vow to bring in their best presentation cup from home, thereby leaving the nation gasping with anticipation until the end of the week. Toni will probably win, because she used to keep wicket for Central Districts Women, i.e. has actually played sports properly. Jocularly, Mike refers to Toni as 'the Streetmeister'. I'd like to say that no-one in their right mind uses such feeble and outdated terminology to refer to their colleagues, but I'm probably wrong.

I now detect a pattern in the blink-and-you'll-miss-'em 'news' updates that follow the greetings. There's one actual news item (5 seconds on Gaza!) and two absolutely not-news items, surfing squirrel-style. Can't over-tax the viewers' cerebral cortices, can we?

Item 1 is a Hosking interview about the newly-released Police report on their deeply troubling conduct over the Crewe murders in 1970.  Mike interviews former National right-winger and Police Red Squad member (during the '81 Springbok tour) Ross Meurant, who despite his conservative background is commendably frank about the Police cover-ups and evidence-planting during the investigation. Meurant believes a prima facie corruption case against two officers existed, but was never followed up. Which begs the question (which Hosking doesn't ask) why couldn't Meurant do something about it when he was an MP for nine years? But Meurant does come out with the pithy observation that 'Police should have the proper scrutiny of the courts, not this mongrel Independent Police Complaints Authority'. Hard to argue with that.

For item 2, Toni's linking ability might need some polishing, because all she can come up with is 'Okay, we should probably talk about pigs now'. Must we? The purpose of this story is to show city folk that piglets are cute. Oh so cute! The reporter is delighted at all the pulchritudinous porcines presented. Delighted, I say! It's a 'freedom farm', and the irony is hammered home with sledgehammer subtlety when it is revealed that the pig farm is actually run by Christchurch Prison using inmate labour. What, another Corrections puff-piece in the same week? Anyway, the piggies look very nice and all is sweetness and light until one worker slips in that for their labour the prisoners are paid 40c an hour. Urk! Can't have politics intruding on a feel-good story, can we? Virtual slave labour wages, no thank you. Again, more Maori faces onscreen as the prisoners are interviewed. Well, the bottom half of their faces anyway, so they can't be recognised, except to anyone who's ever met them more than once.  

Item 3 is a stilted video link-up with Glasgow to speak to gold-medal-winning swimmer Sophie Pascoe. The long satellite delay doesn't help, and nor does Pascoe's ultra-conservative media training, which prevents her saying anything remotely controversial and also anything remotely interesting, apart from revealing that she's 'fighting a wee infection'. Which is a bit personal, if you ask me. Still, we wish her urinary tract well because we like it when people win shiny things overseas.

In a link, Mike disses his own son for getting aspects of an inconsequential school haircut rules story wrong, and then we proceed to a follow-up piece on a Nelson pensioner whose flat has been insulated thanks to TV exposure-garnered charity. We like this because chilly pensioners deserve our charity, except the ones who aren't on television.

In the editorial outro, Toni (who always has to go first, junior partner and all) promotes a local lad who dresses up as (mostly female?) celebs to garner Youtube hits. Mike offers his take on the Novopay teacher salary system scandal, briefly criticising the 'accident prone' Ministers Hekia Parata and Craig Foss but then notes that 'Good old Mr Fixit Stephen Joyce was rolled out' to fix the problem, or not as the case may be. To wrap up, Mike provides his only profoundly stupid statement of the week, when he reckons it might be teachers' own fault for having such a complicated pay system. Only one outburst of imbecility in a week is fairly good going for a talkback host promoted to live primetime TV.

Thursday 

Mike reveals his age by asking the rhetorical opening question, 'who doesn't want to see Kenny Rogers?' Kenny Rogers is 75. Toni ribs Mike for also extolling the virtue of Dolly Parton in an earlier show. She is not, unfortunately, arguing that country music is shit; rather, she is lampooning Hosking's fuddy-duddy tastes. Hosking's wikipedia page lists his birthdate as 'born c. 1965'.

VT item 1 for the day is a trip to Sydney to interview the young New Zealand jockey James McDonald who is only in his early twenties but drives a new BMW 428 Sport. (This is apparently a good thing). More importantly, he wins a jockey championship, which is no mean feat in the competitive Sydney racing circuit. The main take home message from this item is that the winter weather in Sydney is a piece of piss, which is presumably why the reporter wangled a flight budget to get over there.

Item 2 is an interview with a proper politician, sort of. Georgina Beyer was a Labour list MP for eight years until 2007, and was the world's first openly transsexual MP. Now she's standing for the Internet Mana Party, although she's not in the 15-strong party list so stands little chance of being elected. She shows the cameras her regular regime of dialysis for her kidney disease, discusses the privations of being an ex-MP on the dole, and reserves a choice barb for the impertinent reporter's question of why she'd want to go through the whole political circus once more.

After a recurring theme of Commonwealth Games photobombing (this time, the Duke of Cambridge), item 3 is a cook-off following the rules of a new cookbook designed to show how people could live on a mere $2.25 a day. It's all in a good cause, and celebrity chef Annabel Langbein pops along to judge a cook-off between two Seven Sharp presenters. Langbein utters the immortal line, 'Imagine living on $2.25 a day when my latte costs $4.50', which is a reminder of how very, very middle class Seven Sharp is. The $2.25 campaign is highlighting the challenges of poverty in New Zealand, but Langbein and the reporters spend most of the clip laughing uproariously. It's all so much fun pretending to be poor! But at least they've mentioned the concept that people in the real world might actually only have that much money - half a latte, OMG! - to spend on food per day. Neither reporter wins the cook-off, but later it is revealed that the perma-chuckling Matt Chisholm has cheated, so he is disqualified. Someone cut off his bennie immediately!

Toni's editorial piece is about new breastfeeding research, and she as a new mother has Views, which she Expresses. I could probably work in a joke about expressing milk there, if I was interested enough. Mike lauds legislative changes benefiting war veterans, because they 'can't get enough support', which only goes to show that there are plenty of beneficiaries that conservatives actually do like. 

Friday 

The much awaited cup-off between Mike and Toni kicks off the final episode of the week with a fizzer. Toni's two cups are for small sporting achievements, but Mike's minuscule trophy is from his own children for being a great dad. Although they're unlikely to be an unbiased sample, I would've thought. And as Toni points out, the metal is suspiciously clean, leading one to wonder if Mike dashed out earlier in the week to get the thing made for himself. The one serious, two silly format for news clips follows: Gaza! Bloom vs Bieber! A Katy Perry video is made by a New Zealander! My IQ is draining away, ever so slowly.

Another limp intro from Toni: 'We should probably talk about Ebola'. Should we really? They manage to shoehorn in a clip from Contagion, just in case you'd forgotten what a fictitious pandemic looks like. Mike talks to a health expert in Washington DC to ask if we should all panic and begin to eye up frail and youthful relatives for the inevitable descent into organised cannibalism. The answer is no, it turns out.

The penultimate item of the week (although Seven Sharp would probably never use the word 'penultimate') is about a reporter. Wait, there's more - it's about a reporter accompanying the Bledisloe Cup on a plane to Sydney. That's all it is. I can't remember if it was the same reporter who interviewed James McDonald on Thursday's programme because all the reporters tend to merge into one amorphous blob of self-promotion, but let's assume it was. He is a nincompoop who knocks the venerable Cup loudly while carrying it down the plane aisle.

Seven Sharp then takes a brief detour to the mean streets of Wellington's expensive suburb of Seatoun, where the local decile 10 primary school is kindly participating in a scheme where cute little children wear earmuffs to remind them that deaf people exist, and so their teachers can practice swearing at them without the kids hearing.

The final VT item of the week is by Seven Sharp creative producer Dean Butler, formerly of the excellent Funny Business troupe - here he is looking young, with Lucy Lawless. Dean is assigned to run the Skytower challenge with a young chap running for leukaemia research. Not at all predictably, the relatively 'mature' Butler opts for the lift instead.

To close the week, Mike goes on a rambling critique of politicians who have chosen to go teetotal for the election campaign. He extols the virtue of a glass or three of vino with such vigour the viewer might stop to ponder if he's over-keen to get to after work drinkies. The production crew 'surprise' Mike with a clip of him at his studio desk 'singing' 'Hey Mr Tambourine Man' badly. It's not particularly amusing, but it does occupy 10 seconds of airtime, so it's a win in production terms.

Verdict

Now that I've finally seen Seven Sharp I'm pleased in a way that Mike Hosking wasn't particularly disagreeable. Apart from his numbskull comment about teacher salaries, he didn't say anything remotely offensive in the week I watched. His sidekick Toni Street is, likewise, blandly inoffensive. The levels of perkiness and cheer in the show are in direct opposition to the levels of actual information imparted to the viewer, but realistically Seven Sharp is not a current affairs programme. It is a magazine programme designed to attract high enough ratings to bridge the gap between the news hour and the primetime scheduling that follows. That's all it's there for, and it does that job pretty well. Certainly, the service Seven Sharp offers to its advertisers is unparalleled. In a commercial half-hour there is under 22 minutes of actual content; more than a quarter of its running time is advertisements. Much of its screen time is devoted to bigging up the 'personalities' of its reporters, who must by law be seen to be good keen jokers and sheilas, constantly on the verge of a massive belly-laugh which is ostensibly about the story at hand, but more likely simply a reflection on the wondrous affirmation that comes from knowing you're on the telly, and people who are too lazy or set in their ways to change the channel will therefore recognise you in Countdown.

Seven Sharp's pursuit of advertising-driven ratings is a relentlessly middle-class affair, so many aspects of New Zealand life are ignored. Despite this, Seven Sharp is mostly harmless, a tepid bath of banal trivia designed to numb the brain and pass the time until the sweet release of death. But if this is what many New Zealanders are spending their precious time watching, you have to ask how our collective standards slipped this low.

See also:
TV: TV flashback 1971, 10 April 2014
TV: The remuneration whoopee cushion, 8 February 2013
TV: Saving appearances, 22 October 2012

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