Election 2020: Video killed the radio star

If RNZ wants to play with the multimedia professionals, it needs to up its game. Its televised coverage of election night was radio with fuzzy pictures and stuttering video production.

The state broadcaster’s coverage was carried on Freeview via Face TV, but it should have stuck to its knitting. 

Shut your eyes and its radio coverage of the unfolding results was up to its usual standard with heavy-hitters like Lisa Owen, Guyon Espiner, Corin Dann and Jane Patterson. Open your eyes and you were presented with studio image quality that runs a poor second to what I can produce from a stock-standard webcam and a couple of LED lights. Not only was it badly lit, the focus was ‘soft’.

Ironically, the live crosses included in the broadcast were better quality than the in-studio shots that made up the bulk of coverage. Equally ironic is the fact that Owen, Espiner and Dann are seasoned television journalists used to far better studio facilities.

RNZ made no effort to up its video game for election night. What we saw was the same fuzzy pictures from a spartan radio studio that we see in the weeknight televising of Checkpoint and the same barely-adequate video switching. The only difference was that guest commentators were also squeezed in to face the second locked-off camera usually reserved for news readers.

The poor production values highlight a broader issue facing RNZ. In a multimedia age it can no longer afford to be only a radio broadcaster. It has made some inroads. Its podcast production is very good, and it has made some effort with its website and mobile app (although neither is at the forefront of digital design), but its video production is woefully inadequate.

Maybe we will have to wait for Labour to follow through on its intention to revisit the merging of RNZ and TVNZ into a new entity before there is any improvement.

In my view, TVNZ was outdone on election night by Newshub/TV3 in spite of winning the audience ratings battle (193,000 live viewers compared with 140,000 for Newshub).

One News opted for a traditional approach to coverage anchored by Hilary Barry, John Campbell and Simon Dallow. It had the expected crosses to reporters in the field but opted to put political editor Jessica Mutch McKay outside the studio. She should have been part of the anchor line-up, but perhaps she was left out because the small desk was barely big enough to accommodate the four that were wedged in.

Newshub made no such mistake. Its political editor Tova O’Brien was a core part of the network’s effort, along with Duncan Garner and an ebullient Paddy Gower. They were ably assisted by a lineup of commentators that were more lively and informative than on the competing network. Linda Clark (a veteran of election coverage before opting for a legal career), Paul Henry and Matthew Hooton were joined by the surprisingly engaging duo of former politicians of the right and left Chris Finlayson and David Cunliffe. They made for better television than TVNZ’s choices of Nikki Kaye, Emma Espiner, Liam Hehir and Morgan Godfery. Godfery was the best of that lineup, although National supporter Hehir was refreshingly – perhaps brutally – honest about his party’s performance.

Simon Dallow made the most of TVNZ’s graphics that were far from cutting edge, as did the strutting and prancing Gower in the rival channel. Newshub’s use of virtual reality graphics on the floor of the actual debating chamber were visually engaging but neither network used data to their full potential.

Far better use of data graphics was achieved by NZME in its digital coverage. Data journalists Chris Knox and Keith Ng produced comprehensive interactive graphics on the night (and either side of the election) that were well utilised by reporter Will Trufford.

Broader election night coverage by NZME was firmly focused on NewstalkZB, a brand that the company is starting to feature more prominently than the New Zealand Herald.  Mike Hosking was centre stage throughout the night along with his fellow talkback host Heather du Plessis Allen. Herald journalists such as political editor Audrey Young, her Press gallery team-mate Claire Trevett, business columnist Fran O’Sullivan and senior writer Simon Wilson were cast in the role of commentators. 

I would like to give a view on how Stuff’s multimedia coverage of election night unfolded but my efforts to open it on my iPad resulted in a small circle that went round…and round …and round…until it timed out. There is a myriad of potential causes for such failure so I’m not laying the blame at Stuff’s feet. I know of others who experienced the same problem but, had it been widespread, social media would have been aflame with indignant frustration.

The next day, however, Stuff’s print team provided comprehensive coverage (the first 21 pages of the Sunday Star Times) led by editor Tracy Watkins and Stuff political editor Luke Malpass. Predictably, it was winners and losers. Watkin’s editorial described the result as ‘history in the making’ but Andrea Vance provided Labour with a very sobering reality check: “There is poison in the cup of victory, and as the post-election hangovers subside, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is facing a number of sobering challenges.”

The rival Herald on Sunday carried an overstated front page headline “Absolute POWER” but had a similarly comprehensive level of coverage including (unlike the Sunday Star Times) a full list of constituency results. However, its editorial back on page 48 gave every impression of having been written before the results were known. Nowhere does it state who won or by what margin. At first, I thought that it must have been a victim of the pre-press production schedule that dictates when pages are sent to the printing plant. Then I noticed that cartoonist Rod Emmerson’s Labour/National diptych “We have a mandate”/”We have a pulse” made it onto the page and concluded there was no-one left to write a post-election leader.

The Sunday morning television current affairs shows Q&A and Newshub Nation were notable for National’s campaign chair Gerry Brownlee taking it on the chin in the absence of party leader Judith Collins. Jack Tame and Tova O’Brien put the tough questions to Brownlee and, to his credit, he gave some honest answers. O’Brien, referring to leaks and white anting within the party, asked whether there was a cultural problem within the National Party caucus. His reply: “I hope not. I hope it’s more individualised but (with a wry smile) you may know more about that than I do.” And O’Brien has rightly been lauded by US media academic Jay Rosen for her autopsy on soundly-defeated former National Party MP Jamie-Lee Ross on Newshub Nation. When Lee said he believed he would have taken so many votes off Christopher Luxon that labour would have won Botany if he remained a contender, she replied: “You’re dreaming, mate”. Rosen said that “on the righteous pleasure scale this [interview] rates a 10 of 10.” I agree.

Come Monday there was further readings of the entrails plus an engaging but fruitless search for Winston Peters and that ‘end of an era’ interview. Intrepid Herald investigative reporter David Fisher shared with us the questions he had been unable to put to the silver-haired recluse: “What does 42 years in politics do to someone? Was it all worth it? Is this the last election I spend chasing you all over the countryside?”

Stuff’s newspapers turned their focus to local results but, if you are looking for an election keepsake, pick up a copy of yesterday’s Otago Daily Times for its 12-page “Decision 2020” supplement. On its front page, ODT political writer Mike Houlahan summed it all up: “Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern undeniably won the 2020 election for Labour, but equally undeniably National’s erratic behaviour and disunity meant it lost the 2020 election.”

And will that be a signal for every political journalist, commentator, and ego-driven radio host to engage in an ultimately insufferable series of offerings on how long Judith Collins can last?

2 thoughts on “Election 2020: Video killed the radio star

  1. From the UK, I awkwardly shifted youtube channels bringing the main streams Gavin lists here. Despite the poor studio quality, after initially starting with TVNZ, I preferred the more straightforward content of RNZ and their quality “heavy-hitters”. Having worked across radio and television, it should have been fairly obvious they needed to up their game from the normal webcam streaming of radio bulletins and programmes. If an outside contractor was involved, I wouldn’t be paying. But I disagree there was much improvement with the live crosses by RNZ, which were generally also such poor quality, that I’d switch back to the streams of the TV channels for the visits to party headquarters, etc. Absolutely agree that TVNZ made a huge mistake not having Jessica Mutch-McKay in the studio. I don’t think they needed both Hilary Barry and John Campbell. Campbell’s tendency to make it “all about me” had me racing back to the comfort of RNZ. Seems like most broadcasters missed a trick with the graphics. They’re always a huge part of election coverage here in the UK on BBC, ITV, C4 and Sky News. Good call for Newshub to have Patrick Gower on the catwalk, even if he did sometimes verge into infotainment. I didn’t stay long enough around NZME’s coverage to see its graphics, as one look at a panel, who’d spent the campaign telling us how we should vote, was enough to quickly flee.
    Maybe just me, but I was still wanting more analysis when they all upped sticks and went home at midnight – or maybe that was just the youtube feeds ending early. Here in the UK, the election results coverage not only goes through the night but continues through the next day.

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