Reclaiming the tele

TAKE (NZ Director’s Guild Magazine)  December 2007   The view.


What television needs is a people’s revolution, argues Waka Attewell…

When you run a restaurant one of the vital functions of the process is not to poison the punters; when you build a house you don’t expect it to leak; and when you watch free-to-air television you don’t expect to be bored rigid. So how did we end up giving our public television system away to a bunch of people who think that they know what we want to watch? Didn’t ‘we the people’ wrestle the Government away from newsprint and books years ago? So, then, what happened to television?

For the record – and if you don’t ask you don’t get – here’s my suggestion. Our state television system has been run into the ground with the likes of reality programmes, celebrity stuff, endless home improvement series, info-news and infotainment (add more to the list if you care that much). This has happened, I suspect, in pursuit of the commercial dollar that props up the bits in-between the boring programmes that hardly anyone watches. So in short, our tele isn’t worth much, so ‘we the people’ should take it off their hands and do something clever with it.

Rumours were rife in the 1970s that the Prime Minister vetted the TV news before it was broadcast. Even if that wasn’t the case, it certainly felt like it was. But with all this conjecture and rumour, it suggested to us (the young filmmakers) that this large bulky item people were buying to add to their furniture was a really important thing. But in the last thirty years or so, where have we ended up? Who owns New Zealand television? Who should own it? And why is the Government still hanging around behind the bike sheds?

It’s all very well for Ian Fraser and Bill Ralston to say they did their best to change the direction of the runaway train (you have to wonder what the job description was, eh?), and then expect us to feel sorry for them when they storm out, resign, have a public hissy fit…then have to listen to them explaining how hard it is to work with a Board (read ‘committee’). Or, how the task is impossible when you have to run a commercial enterprise and then pay a dividend back to the Government – whilst still using taxpayer funds – and then make a profit on top of that. Phew, you might even find yourself agreeing with them when they put it like that. (Though I suspect it’s a cheap cost-saving contrivance when you become the TV news yourself. You have to admire their sense of fiscal responsibility there, don’t you?)

All this lack of meaningful television ‘Charter’ chat (and the struggles connected with it) suggests that not many TV executives know what this Charter thing is. I suspect it has something to do with ‘we the people’ because it popped out of a Parliamentary committee. And ‘we the people’ know this misery and cost-cutting stuff intimately – after all, we have to fed ourselves, pay taxes, clothe our kids, pay the bills…and then as a reward we get to watch boring TV. I reckon the Charter might be about having your ears on. It’s about being conscious that New Zealand exists south of the Bombay hills and north of the Sky Tower. That Otara and Ponsonby are not the only source of dysfunctional family drama available to the hardworking hacks of this country.

So when all the hand wringing, committees and long executive lunches – to discuss egos, TV news, more news opportunities and corporate branding…oh, and the odd TV programme – are factored out of the equation, what is there left to go wrong?

And for some reason this gets me thinking about this Rodney Hide fellow. Hide goes on Dancing with the Stars and is terrible at dancing and marginal at the entertainment business. But that doesn’t matter since we watch it in droves because this is the last and only highlight of free-to-air TV for the entire year. Rodney has a public epiphany when he realises something the whole country already knows: that Parliament is the problem. It’s not the separate parties or the policies or the debating or the bullying or the MMP – it’s the system.

You see what I mean: it’s a bit like TV. It’s not the TV – a box full of valves, wires and gizmos ­– it’s the way that it’s run. So, if they can’t run it, how do we get it back (if we ever had it in the first place) so ‘we the people’ can run it ourselves, um err, well run it properly?

I propose that filmmakers champion a revolution. TV One should be ‘gifted’ back to the people, then let the commercial boys slug it out on TV2. NZ On Air waits to fund the programmes ($86 million per annum). We wait to view it. Who knows, it might even rate. Here’s how it should happen. Divide the TV day into 48 half-hour slots (or 24 one-hour slots) and let anyone apply to have a go. Initially, if you apply you get a slot. No questions asked – we screen everything. Those programmes that are crap (voted by ‘we the people’) don’t come back. Those that are all right get a second go. Those that are good get automatic inclusion next week (the only rule would be that you can’t say “fuck” before 8:30 pm or after 5:00 am).

When there are too many good programmes to fill the slots, a selection committee sourced from a random ballot gets to choose. A new committee is picked by ballot every six months. TV executives and TV programmers aren’t eligible for the ballot, but they automatically go into the jury service system for the rest of their lives. No, that’s a bad idea. How about they get to star in their own reality TV show (which no one watches) for the rest of their lives?

If you don’t think this concept has a chance in hell, have a look at the community TV channel next time you’re in Los Angeles. Every half hour there’s a new show. There are no commercials. It’s barking mad, it’s nuts, you can see the sets wobbling, it’s original, it’s new, it’s bad, it’s good, you’ll scream out loud, and it belongs to the people not the TV experts. It’s the best thing since bread got sliced.

I say bring it on. Gift us TV One – all commercial free and free-to-air. Just leave the keys (and the funding) under the mat and we’ll take it from there, thanks.