Future Tense: Current affairs has a future, but it’s unlikely to be found in a teleprompter

MediaWorks’ decision this week to review 3D was, much like in the case of Campbell Live, met with a unanimous groan across the industry, as another sign that journalism isn’t commercially viable.

This narrative was also evident in the short statement from MediaWorks group head of news Mark Jennings: “Long-form current affairs is challenging to make commercially viable all over the world.  Given the way media consumption habits are changing, unfortunately continuing 3D may not be possible.” (StopPress requested an interview with Jennings on the future of news, but MediaWorks group head of comms Charlotte McLauchlan said it wasn’t possible today).

While it isn’t easy to make current affairs commercially viable, new media news publishers like Vice, Buzzfeed and The Young Turks have found massive audiences actively searching out their content and watching it every day.

Last year at YouTube’s Brandcast event, Vice’s global general manager Hosi Simon gloated that the media company is operating in 35 countries with over 5,000 contributors, creating 1,000 hours of content in 18 languages—and it has grown even bigger since then.

Simon says this all happened at a time when the general consensus was that young consumers simply don’t want news.

“When we first started, everyone in mainstream media told us emphatically that young people don’t care about the news, and young people particularly don’t care about anything international. Young people just want short, snackable content and nothing serious. Instead of listening to them, we decided to ask our fans around the world what they actually wanted in a news channel. What we found out was that Gen Y was absolutely desperate for news, but they were totally disenfranchised with traditional news media. And, most importantly, they were consuming news in very different ways.”

Vice has positioned itself as the exact opposite of mainstream news. Rather than featuring a presenter wearing a tie and reading from a carefully scripted teleprompter, Vice Media’s journalists wear ordinary clothes and present the news in a raw, and often-unscripted style. Yes, there are scripted voiceovers that weave the narrative together, but the style is far-removed from heavily produced shows shot in studios (its 42 minute documentary on ISIS has been watched 8.4 million times). 

Some of the investigations conducted by 3D Investigates have served an important democratic function, particularly the Teina Pora case. So the problem with current affairs in its current format isn’t that people don’t think it’s important. It’s that viewers—particularly those in the millennial demographic—view it as boring and aloof.

And while broadcast current affairs is pitched at an audience broader than that of Vice, the ratings speak for themselves.

There simply aren’t enough Kiwis watching current affairs shows presented in the traditional format.

It has already been well reported that 3D’s ratings fell from 225,500 in May to 94,900 in October. And though scheduling didn’t help the show’s cause, those numbers simply aren’t high enough to keep it on air. And Newsworthy is going the same way.

 The show’s average audience has dropped from 81,100 in June to 66,400 in October across all groups (down from 45,700 to 34,500 in the 25-54 demographic).

The thing with Newsworthy was that it had the potential to be something different. It had a pair of young hosts, who both appealed to younger audiences. But rather than giving them freedom to add a quirkier take on current affairs, they’re bound to teleprompters and limited to largely rehashing what was already covered in the 6pm news slot. And while there are some slightly offbeat, original pieces, the show is based on a formula that’s all too familiar, and increasingly antiquated.

One of the few current affairs shows performing well on television at the moment is Seven Sharp—and it’s typified by a more informal approach.

“There’s no question our news and current affairs presentation has evolved over time from a straight down the barrel declaratory style and it’s going to continue to evolve in step with viewer preferences,” says TVNZ head of news John Gillespie.

Gillespie says this evolution has been revealed in the shift in viewer response since the launch of the show.    

“Think back nearly three years ago when Seven Sharp first launched. The show’s conversational style was a topic of much debate – these days that back and forth is the norm. Presentation style sets the tone – it’s one part of the mix, but it has to be consistent with credible content as well.”

It’s interesting, but not altogether surprising, that Hosking, a radioman by trade, has come to be so successful in this new approach to current affairs.

Steve Kyte, the general manager of talk at NZME Radio, explains that radio similarly transitioned from a more formal approach to something more colloquial.

“It’s gone from being very buttoned-up, with the announcer speaking in polished English with perfect grammar to something more conversational that connects with the audience.”

Kyte says the reason for this shift is because the radio audience expects authenticity from the presenter, and a conversational presentation style makes this more believable.

This evolution toward a more conversational style didn’t happen over night. Several decades ago, newscasters in New Zealand spoke with an English affectation as this was deemed proper, but it was eventually phased out in a bid to connect with the local audience (now there’s a similar debate over the rise of vocal fry, which older listeners feel diminishes authority, but younger listeners don’t really care about). 

This need to connect with an audience hasn’t changed, but it has become more difficult at times when local shows are competing against the burgeoning digital landscape.

Kyte says this has made it much more difficult to maintain an audience. He says 20 years ago a broadcaster could’ve pulled in an audience with serious content that was important, but that’s not the case any longer.

“It’s got to connect with the audience,” he says.

This doesn’t mean that an important issue should be trivialised by the personality presenting the information.

As Gillespie explains: “Viewers respond to the immediacy and new informality of online coverage – and I think our linear platforms are picking up on that. Our viewers want us to be in the moment with them and to take them into the thick of the action – and we’re responding”

And Gillespie admits this might result in content that’s a bit rough around the edges at times.

“When you’re pumping out up to the minute news, you’re going to produce something that is inherently less formal. It’s all about being authoritative, accessible and authentic in this space.”

This doesn’t mean that we should retire teleprompters and the metronomic intonations of the stylised newsreader voice entirely. There’s still a role for this to play in radio segments and during the 6pm news bulletin. But when it comes to the remit of current affairs on linear channels, there is a growing demand among consumers (as the ratings clearly show) that it should be entertaining. 

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