It feels like current affairs coverage on New Zealand television has been the hottest topic for the last month or so; Seven Sharp was written off before it began and debuted to negative reviews before taking a dive in the ratings, Campbell Live cashed in on the buzz around its nearest competitor and increased its share of the audience, and Sir Paul Holmes - the father of talking head telly in this country - passed away last month.*
It was in this already heated climate that 3rd Degree launched on TV3 last night, fronted by former TV3 political editor Duncan Garner and former TVNZ political editor Guyon Espiner. The show seems designed as a replacement for 60 Minutes (which has landed on Prime), with the final episode each month given over to a pre-recorded debate in front of a live audience.
My impression of the show is pretty much in line with that: this was just 60 Minutes with a new coat of paint, and a final act in which a special guest - last night's guest was Anna Guy; more on her in a second - is grilled by Garner and Espiner.
The first half hour contained Melanie Reid's excellent look at car-clamping in New Plymouth - clamper Daniel Clout has repeatedly clashed with customers and police while simply doing his job, raising the question of why police are even getting involved. It was interesting and fairly balanced; after the mayor accused the clamper of irritating the offending parkers, Reid went straight back and asked Clout directly if his approach was part of the problem.
The second half of the show was turned over to Anna Guy, the estranged wife of murder accused Ewen MacDonald. This story was a little more problematic for me: Garner addressed concerns from within TV3 about running the story, and it was clear why questions were being asked - this was a puff piece through and through, with Guy saying "I think everything happens for a reason" and telling her story in her own way.
As with most media "celebrities" in this country, I'm left asking why I should care about any of it. The whole point of the story seemed to be that Anna Guy is moving on with her life, that she's looking forward to happier times. I'm mostly surprised the piece didn't end with something inspirational. Journey's Don't Stop Believin', perhaps. As it stands, it's hard not to view the whole story as a stunt to try to grab a few viewers.
Since the stories are just like those its predecessor would do, it fell to the hosts and the hot seat to give the show a different flavour and I think they achieved it. The banter between Garner and Espiner might have felt forced at times, but it's clear there is some rapport between them, and, in the final segment, they sat Guy down in the studio and asked her directly if she thought MacDonald killed her brother, a question she avoided answering like a pro.
I do have a couple of questions though. First, if the 3rd Degree-branded episodes are going to do in-depth stories a la 60 Minutes, then why not just keep the 60 Minutes brand alive? Sure, it might seem a little tired to some viewers, but creating a near-identical show in-house seems akin to creating a longer version of Campbell Live without Campbell. Both of last night's stories would have been right at home on TV3's flagship current affairs show.
It makes little sense for TV3 to do two shows that are so similar in content, which leads to my second question: if Garner and Espiner are considered assets in this new franchise, experts in their field, why not let them run amok more often?
The pair were fine in that final segment, even if Guy perhaps wasn't the best subject, but I think it would have been great to have a little more analysis from them during the rest of the show - bring us stories that work to their strengths, and let them go to town more often, providing their take and debating the issues around what we're watching.
Was it a great hour of television? No. Current affairs shows like this, that take a deeper look into two or three stories, aren't going to nail it every episode. But 3rd Degree seems like it could be a must-watch on a regular basis, especially if the hosts get more involved - and I'm excited for the monthly debate episodes, starting on March 27.
Did you watch 3rd Degree last night? What did you think? Are Garner and Espiner a good fit in prime time?
(*) It's also worth mentioning that Media3 is airing on Wednesday nights too, after Nightline. Check it out!