The voice of a nation: TV’s central role in covering the election

The 1975 general election was an election of firsts. It was the first election shown since the arrival of colour TV, the first election covered by two competing TV channels (TV One and South Pacific Television) and the first election to usher Robert Muldoon—arguably the country’s first ‘made for TV’ politician—firmly onto the screen.

In essence, 1975 was the first ever election in New Zealand’s history to be strongly influenced by the medium of television. For the next nine years, Muldoon went on to project his bullish yet undeniably entertaining style of Prime Ministerial governance onto the nation’s screens, with other charismatic and dynamic personalities, such as David Lange, John Key and Winston Peters, stepping in front of the camera in the ensuing decades.

From that point forth, politics and TV have remained inexplicably linked in a complex mutual embrace, and this year’s 2017 general election is proving no exception. And while the remit of political coverage on TV extends well beyond the triennial election cycle, the intense and prolonged media attention given to politics during this period means that campaigns work extensively to communicate their messages using the best means possible.

Much has been made of Facebook and Twitter’s role in keeping the modern election ball rolling, but time and again, political parties have scrambled to the country’s biggest networks to get their own slice of the TV pie. And that’s not just down to the traditional nature of politics and its still awkward embrace of new media forms (think Bill English and his self-publicised ‘walk-run’ routine). With 3.5 million New Zealanders aged 5+ tuning in to watch TV every week, television remains one of the most effective mass mediums out there to reach a wide and diverse audience quickly and efficiently.

During the last election in 2014, TVNZ’s head of news and current affairs John Gillespie says the network experienced a 5-6 percent increase in viewership for its 6pm news hour, with numbers sometimes going up as high as 7-8 percent. Beyond its regular programming, TVNZ’s leaders debates also emerged as some of the network’s highest-rated programmes of the year with a reach of more than a million, an average audience of more than 600,000 and an audience share of 36.2 percent. TVNZ’s first leaders debate this year between new leaders Bill English and Jacinda Ardern proceeded to exceed these numbers, with reach increasing to well over a million, and boasting an average audience of just under 800,000 and an audience share of 48.8 percent.

The final debate continued the trend, with over 40 percent of New Zealand’s TV viewing audience tuning in to watch Ardern and English lock horns. It achieved an average audience of 643,000 and an audience share of 41.8 percent.

Richard Sutherland, head of broadcast news at Newshub, also cites an increase in viewership for MediaWorks during the election period. He’s seen significant improvements in the performance of its 6pm bulletin over the last two and a half to three months, with the channel’s best-rated bulletin coinciding with the launch of the new Labour Party campaign in late August.

“I think our audience and share is up roughly 10 percent compared to earlier this year, so we’re very happy with the way the numbers are tracking and we believe a large part of that is because of the political environment we’re in and the coverage of it that we’re doing,” he says.

“TV does a lot of the heavy lifting around what we need to do to get the news coverage, and then we slice and dice the material that we gather in many different ways in order to reach a wider audience.”

These spikes in general viewership are important because while election strategies have become increasingly focused and segmented with the arrival of more sophisticated modes of analysing the public, decreasing levels of party loyalty and increasing levels of voter volatility have meant that mass targeting remains one of the preferred methods for political parties during New Zealand’s short but intense campaign period.

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A matter of trust

Newshub’s Sutherland says the emotional draw of television continues because viewers search for familiarity and trust.

“As an audience, when you look at presenters, you feel like you know them even though you don’t. You have an emotional connection to these people in a way that other mediums don’t allow,” Sutherland explains. “So whatever people might say about journalists, they trust certain brands. There’s been all this discussion around fake news for the past 12 months or so…[but]there’s something about a trusted brand like Newshub that makes people feel like they can watch it and know they’ve got the real story.”

But it’s not just the problem of fake news that plagues digital forms of political coverage. In New Zealand and overseas, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have often been accused
of being ‘echo chambers’ for people’s preconceived beliefs, with political messages more often than not falling on the eyes and ears of the converted. And while more than 2 million New Zealanders are said to use Facebook every month, just 33 percent state they use it for keeping up to date with news and events.

On the flipside, Twitter acts as a more politically active platform with a number of prominent politicians, journalists and talking heads all taking part in the site’s lively conversation. But Twitter in New Zealand is a bubble, with the site boasting just 368,000 local users in 2013 according to AdCorp. And while more recent numbers around Twitter usage in New Zealand are harder to find, the site’s global decrease in new users suggest little has changed since then.

When it comes to being a trusted yet familiar source of information, Sutherland cites Newshub’s political editor Patrick Gower as a prime example.

“Paddy Gower is a brand. He’s a trusted brand. He’s a known brand in a way that he wasn’t when he was in the print medium,” he says. “[Although] Paddy was a very good journalist as a print reporter, the difference is that everyone knows who he is now because he’s been on TV.” 

“That’s the thing about TV: It’s where you build a brand. Advertisers can build a brand on TV and we as journalists and news presenters can build brands as well.” 

A shared culture

Other than the fact almost every single household in New Zealand owns a TV set, the question remains as to why audiences, both young and old, still flock to the medium for their electoral fix. One reason could be attributed to the inherently communal nature of both television and politics, with the former often located in a household’s shared living space and the latter by way of its natural tendency to spark discussion, deliberation, opinion and debate.

Communal viewing also occurs as a result of the live nature of many politically significant events, such as breaking news bulletins, 6pm news hours and formally organised election debates. Such events replicate a similar effect that live sports generates, signifying a distinct differentiator TV has over other content forms such as SVOD or social media which often play out as atomised experiences.

“There’s an inherent drama on the TV screen with those set piece plays, especially with breaking news events,” says TVNZ’s Gillespie. “People will turn to TV news in droves, tuning in to find out what’s going on.”

“Big events and TV do have that power, and even different TV news slots cater to different expanses. We know that generally, a late news bulletin is more of a solo experience, whereas the 6pm news or morning news is more of a family or flat event. So the medium still has power to pull during the day. It’s still quite an emotive and formative experience…and I think politicians know that.”

Gillespie touched on the idea again in light of TVNZ’s impressive viewership figures for the first leaders debate of 2017, calling the event “a big TV moment”.

“In the country’s living rooms, pubs and bars, people were riveted by the debate. It was a galvanising event for so many New Zealanders.”

The emotive power of television was perhaps best captured in the weeks leading up to the event. The decision to appoint Mike Hosking as the moderator led to something of a debate before the actual debate, with various analysts and members of the public weighing in on whether he was the right choice. This was in part due to the enormous star power of Hosking, but also because the public really cares about these TV debates. Over 70,000 people wouldn’t sign a petition if they thought a medium was irrelevant. Hosking, of course, went on to show why he was selected, putting in a tough and fair performance. It will be some time before we stop hearing references to his opening line, ‘Bill English, why are you losing?’. 

Preparing for a ‘Youthquake’?

While Gower’s distinct brand of reporting resonates with New Zealanders of all backgrounds, Sutherland says his cut through with viewers in the 18-39 age bracket proves particularly strong; an age bracket traditionally associated with notoriously high levels of political apathy (in the 2014 general election, just 49 percent of 18-28 year old turned out to vote).

“I would wager that there are few other political editors in this country that are as well known in the younger demographic as Paddy. He’s got a very strong brand because of his TV work,” he says.

“There’s a lot of talk about young people turning off TV, but when I look at the viewing numbers for the 18-39 demographic, our 6pm bulletin more often than not wins that timeslot because we have a very strong and loyal younger audience.”

In an effort to leverage Gower’s clout with the youth demographic, Newshub took a multiplatform approach by launching its new online series, Ticked Off, earlier this year. The show helps viewers get up to speed with the latest in New Zealand politics, with 20-year-old newly minted reporter Mitchell Alexander at the wheel while Gower helps out in the passenger seat.

Over at Maori Television, the channel has also taken great strides to engage not just its usual Maori viewership, but its younger viewership as well. Its multiplatform coverage sees the network hosting its own debates, polls and live news stories from a perspective that differentiates itself from the country’s mainstream networks.

“Maori Television is the only network providing debates of the seven Maori electorates and the only media polling the Maori electorates, and the results have been keenly followed by mainstream outlets,” says Maramena Roderick, head of news and current affairs at Maori Television.

“From experience, we know that voters consider debates important in elections and good indicators of where candidates stand. The issues that affect Maori are the same issues that are important to all New Zealanders. Our point of difference is our style of coverage.”

Roderick says that one of the key goals for the channel’s coverage is to focus on the thousands of young Maori who make the effort to enrol but don’t make it to the polling booth. To do this, the channel has created special excerpts on each electorate from a youth point-of-view, put debate candidates through a ‘Beat the Buzzer’ challenge before tackling them with tough questions and is set to give stage to a special youth panel on election night where participants will be able to share their views both on-air and online.

“We’re actively encouraging young audiences by injecting personality back into politics,” says Roderick. “It’s a far more engaging approach for both the politicians and audiences.”

TVNZ has also been making a concerted effort to create space in its coverage for more youth-oriented election issues. Most notably, the network announced it would be holding its first ever Young Voters Debate hosted by Breakfast host Jack Tame which is set to be streamed on 1 News Now and broadcast live on TVNZ Duke. Earlier in the year, TVNZ Duke also began airing a late night political commentary show called Banter, modelled on popular American franchises such as The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.

“It’ll be interesting to see how the turnout for young voters might improve on 2014 and 2011, which were both terrible,” Gillespie says in light of the media’s more concerted efforts to focus on youth. “Overseas, we’ve seen these ‘youthquakes’ like in the British election, which made a huge difference. Whether that happens here or not, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Ultimately, whatever happens in this election— whether ‘Jacindamania’ sweeps Labour to power or a ‘youthquake’ really does shake up the result— one thing’s for certain: all eyes will be glued to the TV screen. 

  • This story is part of a content partnership with Freeview.

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