Perfecting The Sales Pitch: Seven Sharp's young target audience was raised in a culture completely saturated in commercial values. The measure of the show's success will be in how successfully it subverts those values; how viciously its presenters bite the hands that feed them. Seven Sharp's producers should look for inspiration not to the late, NZ Establishment-loving, Paul Holmes, but to the bitingly satirical US broadcaster, Jon Stewart.
BY THE TIME you read this Seven Sharp will be four shows old. Some of the nervousness evident in the first outing of TVNZ’s new prime-time product will be gone – replaced, one hopes, by the easy rhythms and rapport so essential to this kind of television. On the basis of that first outing, however, Seven Sharp does have a future. Traditionalists may balk at the judgement, but to my eyes, at least, the show has positioned itself squarely in the zeitgeist’s postal-code.
Seven Sharp’s critics will object that the show lacks seriousness: that the multiple economic and social challenges currently assailing New Zealand deserve something more from prime-time free-to-air television than the hip flippancy of Ali Mau, Greg Boyed and Jesse Mulligan.
Those critics will certainly get no argument from me concerning the seriousness of the problems facing New Zealand. Where we may part company, however, is over the tone in which a commercially-driven television network might best address its target audience.
Just consider the 18-34 year-olds at whom Seven Sharp is directed. At the top of the band we’re looking at people born in 1979; at the bottom, at kids born in 1995. All of these young New Zealanders grew up during or after the Rogernomics “revolution”. None of them have any personal memories of what “public service television” looks like. Most of them grew up with a TV remote in one hand and a computer mouse in the other. The doctrine enunciated by Lord Reith, the first Director-General of the BBC, that broadcasting should “elevate, educate and entertain” the ignorant masses (and in that order) would be laughed out of court by Generations X and Y.
Many older New Zealanders like to dismiss these generations as narcissistic know-nothings. But Generations X and Y aren’t so much selfish as sceptical. The grand transformational “narratives” of the Twentieth Century were all busted flushes by the time they were old enough to even notice capitalised nouns like Socialism and Fascism. And their relationship to the last grand narrative left standing – Capitalism – is analogous to the relationship of a fish to the sea. They live in it, they live with it, and they can’t live without it.
These are the generations who regard just about every attempt at communication – including their own – as a sales-pitch. Only a sap takes words and images at face value. Maturity is defined in terms of how completely one is able to see through and decode the World’s deceptions: by how finely-tuned one’s ears have become to its “spin”.
Jon Stewart: Exposing the absurd realities behind the Establishment's ever more elaborate lies.
The name we give to those who guide us through the world’s deceptions, exposing as they go the absurd reality behind the lies - and who then reward our attention with the gift of laughter - is “comedian”. It’s why, to so many members of Generations X and Y the journalists sound like clowns, and the clowns sound like journalists. President Barack Obama owes more to comedian Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show than he does to the New York Times or Washington Post. It’s why YouTube has more to say to Generations X and Y than TVNZ or TV3.
Seven Sharp’s producers, Raewyn Rasch and Tim Wilson get this – sort of. It’s why they’ve set the ambient mood of the show to “Sceptically Humorous”. Mr Mulligan understands – sort of. And Ms Mau and Mr Boyed will pick it up soon enough. But they’ll only “nail” that flibbertigibbet zeitgeist when they summon up the courage to ride their comedic horses off the reservation.
On Monday-night’s show it was Heather du Plessis-Allan who came closest to escaping TVNZ’s leaden conservatism. Revealing a PM who eats Wattie’s Baked Beans from the can at the end of a long day. Somehow – please don’t ask me how – that mattered.
But why-oh-why did Jesse Mulligan think it was funny to follow the lead of TV3’s Patrick Gower and put horns on David Cunliffe? Since when do we laugh at comedians who kick the victims of political duplicity? And why didn’t Seven Sharp ask their army veteran what lay behind his PTSD-induced nightmares? What had he and the NZ Army done to those Afghan civilians?
The young people whose eyes Seven Sharp is so determined to capture will not stay focused on humour that butters-up the Establishment, or watch pre-recorded items that gloss over its crimes.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 February 2013.