Tone all-important if show to hook young demographic

LIGHT AND BREEZY TONE: Seven Sharp with presenters, from left, Jesse Mulligan, Ali Mau and Greg Boyed.
LIGHT AND BREEZY TONE: Seven Sharp with presenters, from left, Jesse Mulligan, Ali Mau and Greg Boyed.

By the time you read this, Seven Sharp will be four shows old. Some of the nervousness evident in the first outing of TVNZ's new prime-time product will be gone - replaced, one hopes, by the easy rhythms and rapport so essential to this kind of television.

On the basis of that first outing, however, Seven Sharp does have a future. Traditionalists may balk at the judgment, but, to my eyes at least, the show has positioned itself squarely in the zeitgeist's postal code.

Seven Sharp's critics will object that the show lacks seriousness: that the economic and social challenges assailing New Zealand deserve something more from prime-time free-to-air television than the hip flippancy of Ali Mau, Greg Boyed and Jesse Mulligan.

Those critics will certainly get no argument from me concerning the seriousness of the problems facing New Zealand. Where we may part company, however, is over the tone in which a commercially driven television network might best address its target audience.

Just consider the 18 to 34 year-olds at whom Seven Sharp is directed. At the top of the band we're looking at people born in 1979; at the bottom, at kids born in 1995.

All of these young New Zealanders grew up during or after the Rogernomics "revolution". None of them have any personal memories of what "public service television" looks like. Most of them grew up with a TV remote in one hand and a computer mouse in the other. The doctrine enunciated by Lord Reith, the first director-general of the BBC, that broadcasting should "elevate, educate and entertain" the ignorant masses (and in that order) would be laughed out of court by generations X and Y.

Many older New Zealanders like to dismiss these generations as narcissistic know-nothings. But generations X and Y aren't so much selfish as sceptical. The grand transformational "narratives" of the 20th century were all busted flushes by the time they were old enough to even notice capitalised nouns like Socialism and Fascism.

And their relationship to the last grand narrative left standing - Capitalism - is analogous to the relationship of a fish to the sea. They live in it, they live with it and they can't live without it.

These are the generations who regard just about every attempt at communication - including their own - as a sales pitch. Only a sap takes words and images at face value. Maturity is defined in terms of how completely one is able to see through and decode the world's deceptions; by how finely tuned one's ears have become to its "spin". The name we give to those who guide us through the world's deceptions, exposing as they go the absurd reality behind the lies, and who then reward our attention with the gift of laughter, is "comedian". It's why, to so many members of generations X and Y, the journalists sound like clowns, and the clowns like journalists.

President Barack Obama owes more to comedian Jon Stewart's The Daily Show than he does to the New York Times or Washington Post. It's why YouTube has more to say to generations X and Y than TVNZ or TV3.

Seven Sharp's producers, Raewyn Rasch and Tim Wilson, get this - sort of. It's why they've set the ambient mood of the show to "sceptically humorous". Mulligan understands - sort of. And Mau and Boyed will pick it up soon enough. But they'll only "nail" that flibbertigibbet zeitgeist when they summon up the courage to ride their comedic horses off the reservation.

On Monday night's show it was Heather du Plessis-Allan who came closest to escaping TVNZ's leaden conservatism. Revealing a prime minister who eats Wattie's baked beans from the can at the end of a long day; somehow - please don't ask me how - that mattered.

But why oh why did Mulligan think it was funny to follow the lead of TV3's Patrick Gower and put horns on David Cunliffe? Since when do we laugh at comedians who kick the victims of political duplicity?

And why didn't Seven Sharp ask their army veteran what lay behind his post-traumatic stress disorder-induced nightmares? What had he and the New Zealand Army done to those Afghan civilians? The young people whose eyes Seven Sharp is so determined to capture will not stay focused on humour that butters up the establishment, or watch pre-recorded items that gloss over its crimes.