Dissecting One News

01:43, Jan 31 2009

One News was recently named top news programme in the country. It is actually formal comedy, argues Nicholas Wright - not that it's funny, but it follows a comedic arc and always ends hopefully.  

One often hears it said these days that the TV news is too depressing to watch.

And yet TVNZ's 6pm bulletin is actually designed to provide a contiguous, up-beat and positive viewing experience.

Indeed, despite its assumed function the objective reporting of factual information TVNZ's 2008 bulletin actually takes the form of comedy.

Despite the harsh and incongruous nature of the News's disparate stories, the use of this generic form to structure the bulletin provides the viewer with the promise of consolation the mastery through form of a tragic world that is unfair and formless.

Comedy is the structure the News uses to create authority, to make its presentation of information seem natural and familiar, to compel, convince and entertain.

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Referring to the News as a comedy is not, however, to suggest that the News is funny only that it follows a structure that leads us to assent to a certain shaping of content, and to expect a certain narrative arc.

Traditionally, the arc of comedy moves from disorder, through the confusion of dramatic highs and lows, to restoration and reconciliation the happy ending usually signified by a marriage ceremony.

Within the comedy structure we also expect a certain cast of characters: an irascible fool (weatherman Jim Hickey), a selection of "lighter characters" (Andrew Saville, Mark Sainsbury and the reporters) and a noble, courting couple (Simon Dallow and Wendy Petrie) whose relationship forms the main plot.

We are plunged into the comedic structure at the beginning of the broadcast when Jester Jim addresses us with news of the day's weather.

Hickey is responsible for getting the comedic structure started; he is the "fool" whose jests are tempered by a weathered intensity earned from experience.

But if there is something a little dark and occluded about Hickey, his catchphrase ("Right now it's six o'clock") signifies the early promise of restoration precisely because of the catchphrase's role as cliche, as something constant, something to be repeated, something designed to seem instantly familiar.

But it's through the repetitious interaction of the "subplot characters" with the "royal couple" that the bulletin most compellingly attempts to master the harsh world of reality.

Indeed, one of the reasons TVNZ seems, this year, to have placed such an emphasis on in-studio banter and live reporting is because of the interaction between cast members (reporters, presenters, and anchors) it enables.

Moreover, this initiative helps transform reporters into personalities (characters): Saville becomes "Sav", Hickey becomes "Jimmy", and let's not mention "Veitchy".

The nicknames represent the show's drive towards consolation through their insistence on familiarity, character and humour.

Apart from such formal considerations, the News also relies on the idea of the purgative function of comedy. This is apparent in the bulletin content we find so depressing.

The "bad news", consistent with the turmoil and disorder comedies tend to portray between their bright beginnings and hopeful endings, reinforces a vision of an imagined New Zealand.

The coverage of "bad behaviour" serves as a kind of morality lesson for the viewing public it's there to remind us of what is "good", how we are supposed to live and how we are supposed to see ourselves as a nation.

It's no coincidence then that these stories usually feature countries, communities and individuals whose national, cultural or racial backgrounds most viewers of the bulletin will not identify with.

Ultimately, "bad news" is controlled by the comedic structure a structure initiated by the fool.

In Hickey we see the dark elements of the News contained within a character licensed to seem light and avuncular. Hickey is an important part of TVNZ's revised News format, which is why we see him at least three times during the broadcast (and also why we see Saville and "Falstaff" Sainsbury more often than we need); his role as fool is to remind us that what seems so much like tragedy might really be the absurdity of comedy, and that things will end well, as they do every night, when Jim finishes the weather and we cross to the royal couple.

After the light-hearted human-interest story, these two are seen once more together. The couple seems to be under instructions these days to mirror each other's posture, and to look and smile at each other as they take their turns reading their lines, their hands teasingly close to joining over Petrie's exposed mouse.

Such mirroring reflects a longed-for symmetry, designed to convince us of the programme's authority.

The choreographed rapport between the two protagonists, around whom for 45 minutes the world has turned, evokes the sensibility of comedy's happy endings order restored through the marriage of the lovers.

QANTAS AWARDS

Obviously the 2008 Qantas Film and Television Craft Awards judges don't agree. Here are awards won by TVNZ's news division: One News Qantas best news: One News Best news reporting: Lisa Owen Best News Camera: Jared Mason (One News and Close Up) Close Up Best news or current affairs presenter: Mark Sainsbury Best current affairs reporting for a daily programme: Robyn Janes and Steve Hopkins Sunday TV journalist of the year: Mike Valintine and Hunter Wells Investigation of the year: Mike Valintine and Hunter Wells Best current affairs series: Sunday  

Canterbury