The Idiot Box


Modern life bombards us daily with so many absurdities it's hard to know which one to protest about the most, so I've made it my mission to focus on what my Dad still calls The Idiot Box. In other words the telly.

My first televisual experience wasn't a good one. We lived in the depths of Southland and in the 60's the best picture we could get was of faint outlines behind a blizzard of Canadian proportions. It was hopeless as a form of entertainment but as the television was packed up to be taken back to the shop, I clearly remember insisting in a heart-broken voice that the reception was perfectly fine. The Lone Ranger had been on and my lasting memories of the show are of the hero and Tonto delivering justice in a heavy snowstorm. 

It isn't television per se that bothers me, it's television programming. Have you noticed that the more sophisticated television technology becomes, the more awful the programmes? Is TVNZ trying to dazzle us with high definition to detract from the utter rubbish that is prime time television (Campbell Live is an exception)? Take cooking shows for instance. We would need to live on takeaways just to keep up with them. And have you noticed that they are frequently shown right at the time when we should be in our own kitchens? "Reality" crime shows are another offender. It's bad enough that we have to wait out New Zealand cop shows, we also have to sit out Australian versions. It is a very perverse New Zealander who enjoys watching Aussie cops hassling aborigines. 

The problem with such awful programming is that the intelligent population is either mesmerised by it or they switch off altogether and risk missing the rare occasion when something good is on. And there is no effective avenue to complain. It's only if broadcasting standards are breached that action can be taken, and even then it has to be pretty bad. The "privatisation" of TVNZ is the 1980s is cited as the root cause of cheap, nasty telly, but I don't buy it. There is no reason why good quality television cannot turn a profit, even if it's not a big profit. The real issue is that good television - as well as being more expensive - has the power to subvert. Take for example John Pilger's documentary on South American politics and the role of the CIA broadcast recently on Maori TV. The show was five years old and was made when Hugo Chavez was still alive, but wow was it powerful. This is the quality of documentary that should be shown in place of snippetty gloss-overs like 60 Minutes and Sunday. But such programmes might just incite the population to think, or worse still, act.  

Some of you will remember the time when Sunday nights in front of the telly were happy family occasions. The marvellous documentaries of Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough were screened on Sundays after tea and before bedtime because programmers understood that this was the best time for adults and children to gather around the box. I would go so far to suggest that these programmes were not just educational and entertaining but that they enriched family life and instilled in New Zealand children a love of the natural world. Now what do we get of a Sunday evening? Too many ads and reality shows while David Attenborough's fascinating new series on the Galapagos Islands is screened at 8.30pm on a Tuesday when most primary school kids have been packed off to bed. 

As a publicly-funded broadcaster, TVNZ has a responsibility to provide viewers with a range of good quality programmes and to screen them at reasonable times. Margaret Atwood's brilliant dystopian novel, Oryx and Crake, warns of the dangers of televisual rot to the mind and spirit. We should all take note.