Media Muse

media_F_RI am writing this while lying in the recovery position as I recover from a self-harming incident in the workplace. It was an accident, as I will be informing ACC, caused by a health and safety issue. I blame the government. Had fact-checking been added to the official list of hazardous occupations such as worm farming I would have taken greater care.

A media commentator must be ever vigilant. With so much spin hitting the fan these days it is my responsibility to find the precious few facts in the data tsunami breaking by the nano-second over the multi-platforms in the digital space.

So there I was actually working, fact-checking an article in the Sunday Star-Times of 14 February. Previewing the appalling “flashy new drama” Filthy Rich now screening on TV2, Escape writer Eleanor Black had reported that the show’s producer, Steven Zanoski, was “bouncing up and down on his heels” as he talked to journalists on set.

Alarm bells went off straight away in the fact-checking space. Surely one’s toes and the balls of one’s feet were the key drivers for bouncing up and down. Heels, on the other hand (or foot), are surely not conducive for bouncing up, or down.

And so it proved. “What were you thinking?” the doctor asked before prescribing bed rest until the pain subsided and the double vision settled down.

So here I am in the recovery position watching television on a 32-inch flat screen tipped on its side. But turning it to face the wall with the sound off is the only way I can endure Filthy Rich, so wooden is the acting, so banal the dialogue and feeble the plot.

It is possible that too much up-and-down heel-bouncing has damaged Mr Zanoski’s vertical hold on reality. But NZonAir still gave him and his co-producers and writers, Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan, $8.25 million to make it, and another $6.75 million for a drama called Dirty Laundry.

Described by TVNZ as being about a money-laundering matriarch channelling ill-gotten gains through various businesses (as you do) in Auckland (where else?), Dirty Laundry is said to have “a raft of acting talent” and “award-winning writers”.

Actors in this country are poorly paid and may have to travel by raft. But there is not a television drama writer alive who has not won some award.

Rachel Lang’s screen credits extend back through virtually all South Pacific Pictures drama output from Outrageous Fortune through Shortland Street to Marlin Bay. She’s now teamed up with Gavin Strawhan and Steven Zanoski in a television production company called Filthy Productions Ltd. Its funding from NZonAir reduces the total annual amount seen to be going directly to South Pacific Pictures, now ultimately owned by Discovery Communications and Liberty Global. With combined annual revenues of some $36 billion it is difficult to understand why this global media giant needs help from the New Zealand taxpayer. Explaining that could be a sub-plot in a heart-warming but quirky drama about a money-laundering matriarch in West Auckland.

In my last despatch from the digital space, I promised to reveal what had gone wrong and how to fix it. Radio and television broadcasting in this country followed a logical growth pattern up until 1987 when they fell into the clutches of the Treasury fronted by Labour finance minister Roger Douglas and broadcasting minister Richard Prebble. Radio stations and television channels, built from taxpayer funds and broadcasting on publicly-owned frequencies, were classified strictly as financial assets to be sold. On an assumption that New Zealand could “not afford” a non-commercial television channel, taxpayer funding for broadcasting was limited to radio. The balance of the revenue — about two-thirds of it — was dedicated to the making of television programmes for screening on commercial networks.

TVNZ’s production department, South Pacific Pictures, was acquired by John Barnett in a management buyout in 1998. His company then became the country’s leading state beneficiary, collecting somewhere between a hundred and two hundred million dollars in funding from NZonAir.

South Pacific Pictures was joined by other independent producers, now almost all foreign-owned, to create a screen production industry employing lots of starry-eyed job seekers in Helen Clark’s new knowledge economy. Eventually, though, the new industry came to resemble the hydro-dam construction era under the Muldoon National governments in the 1970s. Back then, new dams were justified by projections of growth in demand for electricity. But the immediate political payoff was from keeping a large, skilled workforce in jobs.

It’s the same today. Ratings for free-to-air television drama are in decline but they keep making the programmes because the producers need the money and the jobs.

Next time: How not to fix it with John Campbell.