Judging by the early reviews and lacklustre ratings, TVNZ’s new 7pm news show, Seven Sharp, is proving critics right with its jarring mix of light entertainment, social media integration and the odd hard news story, proving disappointing.
Here’s one option for TVNZ if the Seven Sharp team can’t turn things around – ditch the 7pm news magazine format entirely. Yep, kill it.
It would be a huge departure for TVNZ, the loss of an institution in New Zealand largely thanks to the success of the Holmes show in cementing the format (RIP Paul).
Admittedly, since I’ve been in the US, I’ve found it strange not to have a news magazine show following up the nightly news bulletin.
But in the biggest TV market in the world, none of the big three US free to air networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, run a nightly news magazine show to follow the 6.30pm news bulletin – which is actually limited to half an hour on the three big networks. Local programming often kicks in after the news, which could include more localised news or sitcoms.
If the biggest media market in the world won’t do it, why should we expect a small market like New Zealand to sustain two nightly news magazine shows, particularly as the audience fragment further and digital natives bypass the 7pm slot entirely in favour of on-demand internet content?
Choosing your battles
It isn’t that the big three US networks aren’t committed to news and current affairs. They just save their powder for certain times of the week where the pressure to maximise eye balls isn’t as great.
For instance, ABC runs the half-hour Nightline news show, which has now been bumped to the graveyard slot of 12.35am (it still attracts 1.7 million viewers), to move forward the Jimmy Kimmel show so it can compete head to head with Jay Leno (NBC) and David Letterman (CBS).
NBC has Rock Center, an hour-long news magazine show which is hosted by Brian Williams and runs at 10pm on a Friday night. Over on ABC, you’ll find 20/20 in the same time slot.
The weekend in US network TV sees a similar clustering of news magazine shows. On Sunday morning, there’s politics show This Week With George Stephanopoulos, which airs at 10am on ABC. Face the Nation airs at 10.30am on CBS, while NBC chips in with Meet the Press at 9am.
On Sunday night, CBS airs 60 Minutes, which has been running since 1968, in the 7 – 8pm slot. The show regularly rates in the weekly top 10 rating shows, according to Nielsen Ratings. Rival show Dateline NBC runs in the same time slot. A whole series of news magazine shows are served up on cable TV stations such as CNN and Fox, which has only encouraged the free to air broadcasters to push news out of those prime time slots. Public broadcaster PBS also runs news magazines shows, like the excellent Charlie Rose, but has a relatively small audience.
The big US networks have basically cleared the decks of news magazine shows during prime time during the week to serve up more populist programming – see the list below of the top rating shows for the week prior to Super Bowl.
This move could be informative for New Zealand broadcasters. Those who want to watch news magazine shows are more likely to seek them out and therefore tolerate time slots out of prime time. I’d personally prefer one meaty weekly news magazine show later at night, late in the week, with interviews and story packages than a fluffy serving of infotainment nightly after the news.
Seven Sharp may yet prove a success, but we need to get used to the idea that the 7pm slot in future may include the type of programming we get over the summer break ie: Border Patrol which rates very well, cooking shows and other flavours of reality TV.
I’m comfortable with that as long as there’s a commitment to long form journalism somewhere else in the week. Journalism that sets the agenda and breaks significant stories, as 60 Minutes regularly does in the US. I’d rather see the likes of Sunday and Third Degree given the resources they deserve than see Seven Sharp limp on with a broken format. Maybe it would give TVNZ to try a real satirical news show, a type of Daily Show for New Zealand, unencumbered by the need to actually do real news.
As for the 6 o’clock news
The other format ripe for an overhaul is the 6pm news. As mentioned above, the three big networks in the US have half-hour news bulletins. Having watched these bulletins over the last month I’ve been in the US I like the pacey format – they make One News seem incredibly drawn out.
Again, a shorter bulletin at 6pm (with less focus on sport and weather) could free up resource to boost the 10.30 bulletin and maybe offer a late night news magazine show in the style of the US Nightline show.
The 6pm TV news will for a long time to come, be the most important news format. But even here, the audience is drifting away all over the world. According to the Pew Research Center, which identified an uptick in TV news viewership in 2011 :
“…the broad trend is unmistakable. Since 1980, the three commercial evening newscasts have lost about 28.4 million viewers, or 54.5% of their audience.
“For all the losses, however, the network evening news remains an extraordinarily popular news source for Americans. More than four times as many people watched the three network evening newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC during the dinner hour than watched the highest-rated shows on the three cable news channels (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) during prime time.”