Time for TV to be freed from its historical flock

Time for TV to be freed from its historical flock

Tallulah O’Donnell feedS Sprite the lamb while her Alpaca uncles Basil and Shiraz keep a watchful eye over their charge.

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OPINION: It’s springtime in the rural community I live and that means lamb time.

While we are johnny-come-lately lifestylers there are also some serious farmers including Warren whose family have farmed the valley for six generations. Last year he kindly gave my daughters an orphan lamb to bring up, and a month ago Warren gave us a call to say he had another, if the girls were keen?

Were they what!

So for the last four weeks we have had Sprite the lamb join our household. From shaky beginnings and a dose of antibiotics, Sprite has started to grow like a weed. Last week she moved from drinking formula to eating grass and has now moved from living in the garage to living in one of our paddocks.

We didn’t have any sheep to put him with, so instead he’s in with my wife’s herd of alpaca’s and two goofy but protective geldings have adopted him. This has made for some amusing and interesting observations as Sprite starts modelling her behaviour on a couple of camelids. First she started mimicking their “ship of the desert” style of sitting, More recently she’s starting acting assertively with dogs, as the Alpacas do.

Watching how a lamb can change its behaviour when freed from a flock, got me thinking about the television coverage of the recent election. Not so much about lambs to the slaughter, but more about how television reporters are forced to comply with the historical bounds of their medium and how the stress cracks that are beginning to show.

More than any other, the recent election illustrated how tough it is for television broadcasters to keep up with the cut and thrust of a fast moving political campaign. Events happen in real time, but television is forced to keep much of its newsy powder dry until 6 o’clock when their traditional big bulletin airs.

When the only main competition was tomorrow’s newspaper or a five minute radio news, that wasn’t such a problem. But today newspapers’ websites are among the top three digital assets in the country and are updated continually, while applications like RNZ’s new mobile site means the radio follows you around. By comparison the TVNZ and TV3 websites can fail to make the top 20.

But what’s really made it tough for television broadcasters is social media.

The cut and thrust, and inherently dynamic nature of social media is a natural place for political journalists to hang out. The immediacy, irreverence and (often dark) humour are like the primordial soup for the political pundits. And social media was where a lot of this year’s campaign got reported first. From Dotcom’s meltdown at Patrick Gower after the moment-of-truth belly flop, to the resignation of cabinet ministers, through to the way that the @whaledump dribbled out source data on Twitter; social media was where much of this year’s campaign unfolded. And New Zealanders’ consumption of social media has passed 95 per cent according to ComScore.

As a result television’s political reporters were often faced with the very real chance they would scoop themselves by tweeting or blogging on news as it happened. So however desperate they were to own the news and share it, they often had to sit on it and pray that no-one else would tell. That’s hard enough when it’s just other journalists. When it’s anyone with a Twitter application on their phone it’s that much tougher.

Forty years ago the likes of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S Thompson and Gay Calese, changed the paradigm for reportage with their “new journalism” in which journalism became participatory and the writer themselves became part of the story. Effectively they rewrote the rules around the medium.

Today a similar but much more substantial change is happening, driven by the twin opiates of social media and frictionless, live online distribution.

The current paradigm of television evening news can trace its origins to the time that most people were in a place they could watch a screen, with allowance for the time to process the film. The strong economics around an advertising model which delivered maximum payment around a primetime concept meant that the institution was perpetuated for another 50 years. Meanwhile the TV companies have been slow to ramp up use of their own news websites and the income streams around them.

Today people carry their screen around with them, and that device also serves as camera, microphone and distributor. So while the companies that own the television news operations are keen to retain the status quo, the reporters themselves are straining on the leash.

In another month’s time we will return Sprite the lamb to her flock and she’ll forget her goofy alpaca guardians and her new patterns of behaviour. On the other hand it’s pretty unlikely that in three years time television reporters will forget how painful it was waiting for 6pm to tell their story. I reckon election 2017 will be a whole new paradigm – a paradigm where mobile and content customisation are front and centre. By that time the six o’clock news may well be a thing of the past.


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