16 Aug 2015

TV3's new news show. What's the Story?

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 16 August 2015

Colin Peacock - @MediawatchNZ

When TV3 axed Campbell Live earlier this year there was much angst about the future of serious current affairs on screen. The successor would be "light and fluffy", critics complained. 

Duncan Garner and Heather du Plessis-Allan

Duncan Garner and Heather du Plessis-Allan. Photo: TV3

So is it? Mediawatch took a look at what was promised and what has been delivered by replacement show, Story, during its first week on air. 

Back in May Mediaworks' news boss Mark Jennings told Mediawatch "You don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. People value Campbell Live for its good strong reporting and journalism. We are going to continue to do that."

But he also said this about the show which would eventually replace it: "That doesn't mean it won't be entertaining and some of [its] stories will be lighter".

After strongly-denied rumours that comedians, celebrities and even MP Judith Collins had been mooted as hostsTV3 appointed two TV news professionals - Duncan Garner and Heather du Plessis-Allan.

Both have worked in the parliamentary press gallery, and several of Campbell Live's key reporters were also retained for the new show, calming the fears of some viewers who feared all-out infotainment.

Between 3pm and 6pm each weekday, Garner also hosts Drive on Radio Live.

The way he picks up issues and runs with them on radio amply displays his commitment to hard news. But would he be over-committed signing off on the radio just one hour before going live on TV3 with Story?

In fact, the show's first week showed the two roles can dovetail neatly. On the Friday before the first Story, Garner tore into the issue of electronic monitoring on Radio Live.

The monitoring system was a "fraud and a joke," he said, condemning the chief executive of Corrections for failing to front up on his show.

"Ray Smith: the public want answers," he barked.

Just before his radio show wound up for the week, a caller claiming to work for a security company called in to say it was easy to remove the devices, and poorly paid security workers like him had little incentive to monitor people thoroughly.

This, almost certainly, sparked the piece on Story that was broadcast on the show's debut.

When the national commissioner for Corrections appeared on Story for what shaped up to be an on-camera grilling, he emerged lightly toasted at worst, as the interview only lasted three minutes.

Also featured on the first show was another hot news topic - house buying in Auckland. In a scoop, Story hired an actor to ask estate agents to find him houses to buy before they went to auction, so he could buy them at a cut price rate. He would then renovate and sell them again quickly, he said. He promised to engage the same agent to flick it on.

This, Story said, amounted to "dodgy real estate deals that hurt buyers and sellers".

Story said two out of four agents they visited accepted the unethical offers, which were caught on concealed camera. Du Plessis-Allan then tried to confront the agents at their own homes, but was shown the door. 

Fairfax's media reviewer Kathrin Goldsworthy reckoned the story felt more Fair Go than news. "Bringing in the head of Ray White real estate for a live interview only slightly dispelled this feeling. Du Plessis-Allan's interview was brief and hectoring, and didn't leave me any more informed than I was 10 minutes before".

Fair summary. But one thing viewers did learn the next night on Story was that one agent left her job straight away after the exposure, and the other has been suspended.

Heather du Plessis-Allen confronting an agent at his home.

Heather du Plessis-Allen confronting an agent at his home. Photo: TV3

The subterfuge of hidden camera recording should only be used sparingly and only when the public interest justifies it. If Auckland agents are prepared to do dodgy deals, then it is in the public interest to reveal it.

But it's also possible an agent keen for new business might be unwilling to turn away an equally keen customer – even one with something dodgy in mind – yet they might not actually go through with the deal being proposed.

Story’s real estate scoop last Monday was over in a flash. Only snatches of the secretly-recorded encounters were broadcast on Story, leaving some viewers wondering whether there might be more to know about those encounters. 

On the second show, the camera was in plain sight when Story focused on the scourge of sporting sideline abuse. The piece picked out one punter at a Porirua club rugby game endlessly abusing the referee, and those who told him to stop doing it. But while they found "a live one" there, he was the only one in the crowd behaving badly.

Viewers were told Story 'visited five games of local rugby to gauge the scale of the problem', but were never told what was witnessed at the other four.

It was another short, sharp story for which startling shots were crucial, but they didn't give a full picture of the issue at hand.

On Thursday's show, the pictures of Porirua's mouthy man were run again. Garner called him "a horrible bugger" and said the local council was actively trying to identify him. After TV3 made him the unacceptable face of sideline aggro, that shouldn't take long.  

On Wednesday another issue cropped up which Duncan Garner pursued doggedly on his radio show - uninsulated, unhealthy rental homes.

Over several days in June, he grilled officials and pointed the finger at the Housing Minister.

But the minister wasn’t grilled about this on Story. Instead, a scripted statement about upcoming rule changes was read out on air.

Campbell Live’s modus operandi in such cases was to persistently demand an interview, and comprehensively "empty chair" a minister who failed to front up. By contrast, Story seems to want to keep things short – and keep moving.

Tellingly, politicians hardly appeared at all during Story's first week. Labour’s Phil Goff and Kelvin Davis appeared in one update on the electronic tagging controversy, but their dueling soundbites took up barely thirty seconds altogether.

The new show also seeks to be interactive. Sometime that helps. On Tuesday night, a viewer pointed out it was the Building Act, rather than the RMA, that explained the high cost of insulation permits.

Online polls were another feature. A Lachlan Forsyth report on cycling asked if bike riders, like drivers, should be registered. Viewers were told that 32 percent of those who went online say they should. 

By Thursday morning, only 21 percent agreed. But how many people voted? TV3 didn’t post the totals, making the percentage meaningless. A Lachlan Forsyth article was far more informative – and funnier.

So was what was touted as a backgrounder on Solid Energy ending up in voluntary administration ("fancy talk for the company that's gone bust and it's going to sell off all its stuff"), and didn't mention either Pike River or how the company's disastrous business expansion strategy pre-2013 contributed to its crippling debts of more than $300 million today.

And that item lasted just two minutes on air.

The fast pace of Story is no surprise. Back in March, TV3's news chief Mark Jennings told Mediawatch they’d already made that change towards the end at Campbell Live. “We’ve been stacking the show with more and more content. Shorter snappier stories. People want more in less time,” he said.

The lighter reports on Story this week - a North vs South geography quiz, the ethics of supermarket snacking - could easily have screened on the Campbell Live show too. But while Campbell Live earned a reputation for campaigning on big issues – and pressing for accountability in interviews. Story’s mission seems to be acting as watchdog on issues on the news.

The evident need for speed and variety leaves it feeling like Fair Go on fast forward for the viewers. It addresses significant issues with energy, but there's too much time set aside for joshing and mock-bickering between the hosts, and too little spent on giving viewers important details for the stories - on the evidence of week one, at least.