Public Television in a Small Country: the New Zealand ‘Experiment’ 20 Years On 
 Trisha Dunleavy / Victoria University of Wellington  

NZ On Air

New Zealand’s public broadcasting agency

This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the neo-liberal styled restructuring and deregulation of New Zealand television which began in 1988 and was completed in May 1989. Since then, the repercussions of this ‘experiment’ have continued to resonate, underlining its impact as a major turning point for New Zealand public television – philosophically and institutionally – from which it has been almost impossible to withdraw. Offering an interim assessment of the impacts, Graham Murdock concluded that it was “a venture that [had] conspicuously failed.” ((Murdock, G. (1997) “Public Broadcasting in Privatized Times: Rethinking the New Zealand Experiment”, pp. 9-33 in P. Norris and J. Farnsworth (eds.) Keeping it Ours: Issues in Television Broadcasting in New Zealand, Christchurch: New Zealand Broadcasting School.)) Although not inaccurate given the ailing condition of ‘public service’ television (PSTV) in the late 1990s, Murdock’s judgement was issued at an early stage in the life of the new system and also preceded the strengthening of PSTV provisions and outcomes in the period 2000-08. Accordingly today, a full twenty years since the implementation of New Zealand’s TV experiment, seems an appropriate moment to reassess its PSTV consequences.

New Zealand television’s greatest challenge has been reconciling the limitations of a small national audience with the voracious appetites of a relatively expensive medium. With New Zealand-made programmes often lacking commercial viability and imported TV shows remaining comparatively inexpensive and abundant, television output has consistently been dominated by American, British and Australian programmes, leaving domestic productions comprising only 30-35 per cent of the total. Accordingly, PSTV objectives in New Zealand have focussed on maintaining a desirable range of New Zealand-made programmes in categories such as drama, documentary, comedy, children’s, Maori language, arts, and music, whose commercial fragility leaves them dependent on public funding.

Television’s 1988-89 restructuring and deregulation coincided with the final phase of a lengthy monopoly for the public network, Television New Zealand (TVNZ). The impending launch of TV3, New Zealand’s first private network and the expected arrival of other networks later, had helped to foster an overwhelming sense that New Zealand television needed major deregulatory as well as structural change. But highlighting the influence of neo-liberal ideology on this, it entailed the unprecedented rejection of traditional approaches to PSTV. Although the impacts were broader, restructuring and deregulation yielded two enduring changes – the commercial transformation of TVNZ and the creation of public broadcasting agency, New Zealand on Air (NZoA) – whose ‘public service’ consequences have been a distinctive feature of New Zealand television through the last twenty years.

TVNZ logo

TVNZ, New Zealand’s public television network

TVNZ was given a ‘strictly commercial’ remit, this reorientation also replacing the PSTV components of its tradition. The door to TVNZ’s commercialisation had been opened long before, in that this network had always operated semi-commercially, with advertiser funding increasing in proportion and influence through the 1970s and 1980s as public funding declined. What was new from 1989, however, was that TVNZ became more than 90 per cent dependent on advertising revenue. Although these details help quantify the philosophical departure from existing models of public television, TVNZ’s transformation went further, in that it emulated the ‘corporatization’ strategies that neo-liberal ‘reform’ had applied to other state-owned New Zealand companies. ((Kelsey, J. (1998) The New Zealand Experiment: A World Model for Structural Readjustment? Auckland: Auckland University Press.)) Commercially reliant and also profitable in this capacity because of its ratings dominance, TVNZ would thenceforth be required to return a share of its profits (an annual dividend) to the New Zealand Treasury. As a result of this reorientation towards commercialism, TVNZ was obliged to discontinue its historic practice of cross-subsidising PSTV programming with advertising revenue.

Having been downscaled following their 1988-89 removal from TVNZ, PSTV objectives in New Zealand programming were vested in the newly created public broadcasting agency, NZoA, whose statutory role was to allocate public funding to broadcast projects that could “reflect and develop New Zealand identity and culture.” ((New Zealand Broadcasting Act (1989).)) Exerting a profound influence on the kind of NZoA that developed, however, was its obligation to consider the “potential size of the audience likely to benefit” from the projects it funded. ((New Zealand Broadcasting Act (1989).)) Although NZoA has also funded TV programmes for minority audiences, this instruction underlined that it was intended to facilitate a form of PSTV programming that valued accessibility, important to which would be TV programmes with broad appeal. Particularly because NZoA’s funding pool for television has always been limited, ((In 2008, for example, this was $NZ74.3 million (around US$43.9 million).)) its money has gone only to projects/programmes that broadcast networks have agreed to air. Three other elements of NZoA’s operation have been important to its ability to reconcile a large ‘public service’ remit with a limited funding supply to maximise the PSTV outcomes. One is that its funding is disbursed competitively, an approach geared to match public funding with strong programme ideas. Another, that this money is disbursed directly to producers rather than to networks so that it buys programmes, not services. And third, that the resulting TV programmes can screen on private as well as public networks, provided they air on broadcast channels with national reach.

MaoriTV

Maori Television is the flagship channel for New Zealand’s Maori network, MTS.

With Helen Clark’s Labour government providing an opportunity from 2000, ‘third way’ political thinking came to replace the neo-liberal agendas of the 1980s and 1990s. Although this government could not reverse TVNZ’s commercialisation, a revitalisation of public television was at least attempted. This effort centered on three main policy initiatives, two of which required new legislation in 2003. ((Both passed in March 2003, these were the Television New Zealand Act and the Maori Television Act.)) One was the return of ‘public service’ objectives to TVNZ through the imposition of PSTV Charter. Another was the long-awaited establishment of a non-commercial Maori TV service (MTS). Operating since 2004, its flagship channel, Maori Television, has aimed to address general as well as Maori audiences. Involving the creation of three more non-commercial TV channels in 2007-08, the third initiative was technologically facilitated by the establishment of a New Zealand version of the British Freeview service, a low-cost digital platform designed to maximise audience access to new digital TV channels, particularly those whose public status makes this important. Publicly-funded and together providing vastly increased outlets for PSTV programming, the new channels are TVNZ6 and TVNZ7, which complement TVNZ’s advertiser-funded channels, TV One and TV2, and Te Reo, whose Maori-language orientation complements the broader audience aims of its sister channel, Maori Television.

Testifying to the broad political and public perceptions that the NZoA model has been very effective, there have been no significant changes to it since 1989. There have, however, been some fluctuations in NZoA’s funding level, which underline that its key vulnerability (with the potential to reduce the range of TV programmes it can facilitate) remains the purchasing power of its annual government grant. Although it is ideally used to augment traditional PSTV institutions rather than being a replacement for them, the NZoA system has demonstrated some benefits for the delivery of PSTV programming, particularly where this needs to involve commercially-operating TV networks. Allocating TV production funding on a contestable, project-by-project basis, NZoA’s model encourages a competition between proposals in terms of their innovation and quality. Because it allows private as well public networks to air the resulting programmes, these can more flexibly follow viewers across the broadcast TV system, even though its ‘audience size’ requirement has necessitated that NZoA decisions match higher-cost TV productions with broadcast outlets involving higher levels of audience share.

The most significant problem arising from New Zealand’s television experiment has been the compromised position in which it has left TVNZ. Although this network now has two non-commercial channels to increase its PSTV potentials, TVNZ remains highly reliant on advertising revenue, ensuring that commercial imperatives drive its decisions. A formal part of TVNZ’s public remit since 2003, the TVNZ Charter has been supported by a very small public funding grant of just NZ$15 million (US$8.8 million) per year. Although a well-intentioned, highly appropriate attempt to return a public role to TVNZ, the Charter’s flaw was its expectation that TVNZ reconcile a set of ambitious, yet under-resourced PSTV expectations with its more significant obligations to advertisers. Even though it was hoped that its Charter expectations would facilitate a far stronger PSTV performance than was possible in the period 1989-2002, TVNZ has remained subject to the dividend requirement given to it in 1988. Accordingly, notwithstanding the benefits and potentials of the enhanced array of channels it now offers, TVNZ’s continuing conflict is that while its audiences still expect it to reward their loyalty with a ‘cultural dividend’ in the form of programmes, its government shareholders want TVNZ to maximise its profitability so as to maintain its financial dividend.

So what lessons might be extracted from New Zealand’s 1988-89 experiment in public television? With twenty years of operation and a substantial record of successful TV programmes now behind it, the resounding triumph of this experiment has been public broadcasting agency, NZoA. Designed to operate in a deregulated broadcasting system in which TVNZ would operate without a ‘public service’ remit or direct public funding, NZoA began as a radical alternative to existing approaches to PSTV in other countries, notably in the period 1989-2003 when it was the only institutional facilitator for PSTV programming in New Zealand. Gaining additional incentive from the very high stakes that were attached to its success in these years, NZoA pioneered a way to fund ‘public service’ outcomes on advertiser-funded networks and a system through which PSTV programming could be profiled despite New Zealand television’s increasing channel capacity and limited public funding. Becoming the experiment’s most problematic legacy in ‘public service’ terms, the TVNZ experience shows that, although it is not impossible for a public network to deliver PSTV outcomes when advertising revenue is part of its funding mix, the nature of that mix is the key determinant of its success or failure in this effort. Whilst TVNZ still struggles to reconcile the conflicting expectations upon it, its ‘public service’ potentials have at least received an overdue boost from the 2007 addition of two non-commercial channels, these operating to complement those of Maori network, MTS, to yield a more favourable rebalancing of commercial and ‘public service’ elements in New Zealand’s television system overall.

Image Credits:

1. NZ On Air
2. TVNZ logo
3. MaoriTV

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Strategies of Innovation in ‘High-End’ TV Drama: The Contribution of Cable 
 Trisha Dunleavy / Victoria University of Wellington 

Mad Men

The cast of AMC’s Mad Men

Reviewing American TV drama output for 2008, Heather Havrilesky ((Havrilesky, Heather (2008) “The Year the Small-Screen Fell Flat”, Salon, 13 January. http://www.salon.com/ent/tv/feature/2008/12/28/year_in_TV )) pronounced it “one of the worst years of TV in the last decade” and lamented the apparent return of the risk-adverse commissioning practices of the past, as a result of which, in her opinion, “all of the momentum and promise of the past few years” has receded into “a haze of crappy, unoriginal new programming.” ((Havrilesky, Heather (2008) “The Year the Small-Screen Fell Flat”, Salon, January 13. http://www.salon.com/ent/tv/feature/2008/12/28/year_in_TV)) Notwithstanding Havrilesky’s prognosis and convincing list of “lackluster” examples, my own view is that any apparent trough for American drama in 2008 is but a blip on an otherwise eventful creative landscape.

Aside from the repercussions of 2008’s writer’s strike, there has been much to celebrate in American drama output of this decade. Indeed, Havrilesky’s ‘golden age’ assessment of successive pre-2008 shows acknowledges an unusual degree of innovation. Focussing on the creative peaks rather than the unavoidable troughs, this column contends that post-2000 innovation in American TV drama has been most striking at the ‘high-end’ of the hour-long series and serial area, this encouraged by the conspicuous success of indicative cable-commissioned examples. Although hour-long drama involves a range of programme types and budgets, the ‘high-end’ descriptor I invoke here refers to drama’s crème de la crème, whose episodes can cost upwards of US$3 million each. This drama is conceptually adventurous and narratively complex, is often created by writers or hyphenates with ‘auteur’ credentials, and uses 35mm film (or its digital equivalent) to achieve a cinematic quality.

Before 2000, mitigated by the market share implications of this drama’s exorbitant cost, the commissioning of ‘high-end’ American series and serials was generally monopolised by broadcast networks with the requisite market share and revenues. But all too routinely, this broadcast drama was creatively constrained by the “safety first” conservatism ((Gitlin Gitlin, Todd (1994) Inside Prime Time, Revised Edition, London: Routledge.)) of complacent institutions too terrified to accept the commercial risk of genuine creative experimentation. Broadcast drama has been further limited by daunting expectations of immediate success and then, if delivers the requisite ratings, by sometimes over-blown attempts to prolong its life and profitability (known in the trade as ‘jumping the shark’), one objective of which is to amass enough episodes to maximise syndication and other ‘back-end’ revenues. With such considerations bearing down particularly heavily on broadcast commissions, network timidity continues to set the creative limits on much of TV drama output.

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks is often heralded as a classic example of “quality TV”

Writers and producers were undoubtedly grateful for significant progressive change in American hour-long drama during the ‘quality TV’ turn of the 1980s and 1990s, which yielded what Robert Thompson ((Thompson, Robert J. (1996) From Hill Street Blues to ER: Television’s Second Golden Age, New York: Syracuse University Press.)) argued was a second ‘golden age.’ ‘Quality TV’ flourished following the success of breakthrough shows like Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-87) which demonstrated an under-exploited link between conceptually inventive, aesthetically edgy drama and the delivery of the affluent audience segments for which advertisers were prepared to pay several times the ‘general audience’ rate ((Feuer Feuer, Jane (1984) “MTM Enterprises: An Overview”, in Feuer, J., Kerr P., and Vahimagi, T. (eds.) MTM ‘Quality Television’, London: British Film Institute, pp. 1–31.)). With Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-91) among its other ‘classic’ examples, the creative legacy of ‘quality TV’ was to extend and rework conventions in drama concept design and narrative style, to mainstream intertextual and self-reflexive referencing, and encourage production values in a cinematic direction. In these ways, the ‘quality’ turn in American drama answered the challenges of intensifying competition, market fragmentation, and the loss of broadcast audience share to cable. Although ‘premium cable’ networks HBO and Showtime began commissioning original drama as early as 1983 (Edgerton, 2008:6), increased creative experimentation in renewable hour-long drama formats seemed to follow their late-1990s entry into the hitherto broadcast-dominated competition in this costly area of drama. With HBO’s The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Deadwood finding critical acclaim and luring very large audiences, it was the unexpected success of these and the cable-commissioned dramas that followed – to which the broadcast networks were obliged to respond in their own commissions – that catalysed the broader, more sustained innovation in ‘high-end’ hour-long drama that is now eliciting perceptions of a further round of ‘golden age’ achievements in the current decade.

Innovation in contemporary ‘high-end’ series and serials – which has also been evident in such broadcast examples as CSI, 24, Desperate Housewives, Lost, House, and Boston Legal – has centred on the use of five strategies which, although not new to ‘high-end’ TV drama, have been more consistently deployed in American examples since 2000 ((Dunleavy Creeber, Glen (2004) Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen, London: British Film Institute.)). These are:

  • Inventive ‘generic mixing’ in concept design;
  • The profiling of ‘authorial’ input;
  • Increasing ‘narrative complexity’; ((The concepts of ‘generic mixing’ and ‘narrative complexity’ were first explored by Jason Mittell (2004: 153-7) and (2006: 29-31).))
  • The use of serial narration to foster a ‘must-see’ allure; ((The idea and objectives of ‘must-see’ allure in drama were first examined by Mark Jancovich and James Lyons (2003:2-3).)) and
  • The pursuit of a visual quality that has further reduced aesthetic distinctions between television and cinema.

Helping to disperse these strategies across leading American drama series and serials post-2000 has been an increased willingness by its network and studio investors to accommodate the creative demands of what they regard as ‘star’ producers ((Pearson, Roberta (2005) “The Writer/Producer in American Television”, Chapter One, in Hammond, M. and Mazdon, L. (eds.) The Contemporary Television Series, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, pp.11–26. )) and to support production budgets of around US$3 million per episode ((Higgins Higgins, John, M. (2006) “American TV Rebounds Worldwide”, Broadcasting and Cable, 18 September, pp.18–19.)) in the hope of amortising the extra cost in later sales.

Lost

The first season cast of ABC’s Lost

As the most successful drama ever produced for cable TV and the most innovative American drama serial in a creatively eventful decade, HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-06) successfully pioneered the above set of strategies to yield a sense of innovation at its peak. Offering a concept with no TV drama precedent, The Sopranos proposal was rejected first by Fox and then by CBS and ABC, before being finally being accepted by HBO ((Creeber Creeber, Glen (2004) Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen, London: British Film Institute.)). The sense of novelty that lured viewers to this serial, is grounded in an inventive generic mix whose components include “the gangster movie, soap opera, and psychological drama” ((Nelson, Robin (2007) State of Play: Contemporary “High-End” Drama, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.)). While authorship claims in long-form drama are often exaggerated, The Sopranos exemplifies the progressive potentials of drama that is able to develop under authorial control. Its ‘author’ was David Chase, the award-winning writer, producer, and director who, having conceived The Sopranos, remained head writer and the “driving creative force” (McDonald, 2007) through its six seasons.

The Sopranos was shot on single-camera film and fully exploited the cinematic regard for visual style – most evident in its feature-like cinematography, subdued and textured lighting and richly detailed sets. Important to the point of difference that this visual quality helped it achieve, was HBO’s decision to invest US $2-4 million per episode, more money than other networks were spending on drama at this time ((Edgerton Edgerton, Gary, R. (2008) “Introduction: A Brief History of HBO” in Edgerton, G. and Jones, J. P. (eds.) The Essential HBO Reader, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, pp.1–20.)). The Sopranos demonstrates the full range of textual strategies implied by ‘narrative complexity’ ((Mittell, Jason (2006) “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television”, The Velvet Light Trap, Number 58, Fall, pp. 29–40.)), these including the use of multiple perspectives, dream sequences for psychological revelation, temporal manipulation, and self-reflexive referencing, among other forms of intertextual play. Finally important to the ‘Not TV’ distinction of The Sopranos, is that it was a ‘premium cable’ commission. Its compelling serial narrative was designed to entice viewers to remain with HBO rather than submit to ‘churn’. Accordingly, The Sopranos cultivates ‘must-see’ allure, demanding unfaltering loyalty from its followers. Facilitating the more risqué or violent representations that also characterised The Sopranos, its cable domicile freed the emerging drama not only from anxieties about FCC content rules, but also from the other constraints on a TV drama’s design, content, and style that can be attributed to the context of an advertising-funded broadcast network ((Rogers, Mark, C., Epstein, Michael and Reeves, Jimmie L. (2002) “The Sopranos as HBO Brand Equity: the Art of Commerce in the Age of Digital Reproduction”, Chapter Six in Lavery, D. (ed.) This Thing of Ours: Investigating The Sopranos, New York and London: Columbia University Press and Wallflower Press, pp. 42–57. )).

The Sopranos

David Chase’s narratively complex Sopranos

The Sopranos achieved sufficient popularity and profile to draw ‘network-sized’ audiences to HBO and, having done this, raised the stakes on innovation for other networks, placing particular pressure on the broadcast sector. The conceptual originality and aesthetic edginess of ‘high-end’ series and serials appearing after The Sopranos – as exemplified by 24 and House (Fox), Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and Carnivale (HBO), Lost, Desperate Housewives, Boston Legal, and Pushing Daisies (ABC), Dead Like Me, Weeds, The L Word, and Dexter (Showtime), and Mad Men (AMC) – underlines that the creative strategies it so successfully pioneered have since been applied across a broader range of drama-commissioning networks. Deployed to articulate distinctiveness in an evermore crowded, competitive TV landscape and lure hard-to-get, yet lucrative audience segments, innovative ‘must-see’ drama has become a necessity for established as well as for newer networks. Adding to the pressure on leading network providers, is that this kind of ‘high-end’ American TV drama – as the award-winning Mad Men demonstrates – is now being commissioned by ‘basic cable’ networks.

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Hybridity in TV Sitcom: The Case of Comedy Verité 
 Trisha Dunleavy / Victoria University of Wellington 


NBC\'s The Office

Michael Scott and Core Cast, The Office (NBC, 2005-)

In 2004, registering the arrival of a ‘new wave’ of situation-based comedies, indicative of which were BBC’s The Office (2001-3), ABC Australia’s Kath and Kim (2002-5) and HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-), Brett Mills underlined that “something is happening in sitcom,” an assertion that ran counter to the predictions being issued by TV industry commentators that the live action sitcom – a primetime staple through more than 50 years of television – was dying. ((Brett Mills (2004a) “New Jokes: Kath and Kim and Recent Global Sitcom: Something is Happening in Sitcom”, Metro, Issue 140, p.100.)) Later that year, Mills described The Office as ‘comedy verité,’ a label that acknowledged its hybrid innovation as a comedy that fused the conventions of traditional sitcom with those of ‘reality’ TV sub-genre, the docusoap. ((Brett Mills (2004b) “Comedy Verite: Contemporary Sitcom Form”, Screen, Vol. 45, No.1, pp.63–78.)) This column considers the hybrid nature of comedy verité and – arguing this label’s relevance to the increasing array of sitcoms that reference the concepts and aesthetics of ‘reality’ TV – the set of conventions that now constitute it.

Encouraged by the conspicuous success of the above innovators and by the continuing popularity and prevalence of ‘reality’ TV programming, new examples of hybrid sitcom – including Arrested Development (Fox, 2003-6), The Office (NBC, 2005-), Extras (BBC, 2005-7), Flight of the Conchords (HBO, 2007-) and Summer Heights High (ABC Australia, 2007) – have continued to appear and succeed. Although these examples different from each other in concept, narrative approach and visual style, the comedy verité label – which recognises their conceptual and aesthetic debt to ‘reality’ programming – is one that can both unite them as a sub-genre and distinguish them from the three other variants (multi-camera, single-camera and animated) of contemporary sitcom programming.

Instances of genre hybridisation in television have often been overstated, particularly where the flexibility and fluidity of TV genre – defined by John Fiske as “a shifting provisional set of characteristics which is modified as each new example is produced” – is being underestimated. ((John Fiske (1987) Television Culture, London and New York: Routledge, p.111.)) Yet, if hybridisation is evident anywhere in television, it is in forms whose blend of conventions can be sourced to generic categories which have been historically distant from each other (such as comedy and documentary), as opposed to those (such as drama and comedy) which have been closely related. Comedy verité’s hybrid status is justified by its blending of conventions from sitcom and ‘reality’ docusoap, the latter being itself a blend of “observational documentary” and “character-driven drama” as Annette Hill has noted. ((Annette Hill (2005) Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television, London and New York: Routledge, p.27.)) This fusion of elements is apparent in the following six main conventions that characterise and distinguish comedy verité programmes:

  • the use of a situational premise that reconciles the progressive potentials of ‘reality’ docusoap with the sitcom’s conventional stasis and entrapment;
  • narration through ‘reality’ TV’s verité-styled aesthetics, specifically its ‘on-the-wing’ camerawork and direct address;
  • characters who, exploiting the additional opportunities afforded by verité-styled aesthetics, acknowledge the camera and/or try to manipulate what is being recorded;
  • the striking of a narrative balance, down to the structure of the individual episode, between the self-containment and circularity of sitcom and the seriality of most docusoap;
  • a focus on the kind of flawed, incorrigible characters whose entertainment credentials were established by sitcom and adapted by ‘reality’ docusoap via the recruitment of suitable figures from real-life;
  • a self-consciousness in comic performance which, encouraged by the verité-styled interplay between characters, the camera and sometimes including the programme-makers, increases the edgy discomfort of the resulting humour.
  • Conceptually, comedy verité marries the sitcom’s situational stasis with the usually progressive, real-life situations constructed in docusoaps. Proliferating on British TV in the 1990s, docusoaps have favoured institutional settings, although as evidenced by pioneering example, Sylvania Waters (BBC, 1993), family milieux have been equally appealing, albeit more contentious options. What characterised these programmes as docusoaps and not documentaries was that “rather than proposing an argument about the function or role” of the milieu at issue, as Ben Walters underlined, their focus was “strong characters who were entertaining in their own right.” ((Ben Walters (2005) The Office: A Critical Reading of the Series, London: British Film Institute, p.63.)) Using situations that emulate those of docusoaps, verité comedies create a premise that is more overtly grounded in humour and brings sitcom’s potential for seasonal longevity. Whether workplace-oriented (like The Office and Summer Heights High) or primarily domestic (like Arrested Development and Kath and Kim), the comedy verité concept emulates that of the sitcom as an entrapment scenario in which characters – juxtaposed to foreground their conflicting personalities or ambitions – are inescapably ‘stuck’ together. ((Mick Eaton (1981) ‘Television Situation Comedy’, in Tony Bennett et al (eds.) Popular Television and Film, London: British Film Institute, p.37.))

    Kath and Kim

    Title characters, Kath and Kim (ABC Australia, 2002-5)

    As an aesthetic that informed both the ‘direct cinema’ and ‘cinema verité’ documentary movements emerging in the 1960s, verité’s aesthetic markers have included a handheld ‘on-the wing’ shooting style, actuality images and sounds, direct address to camera, and ‘loose’ editing, these indicating reduced subjectivity in documentation. ((Brian Winston (1995) Claiming the Real: the Documentary Film Revisited, London: British Film Institute, p. 211.)) As ‘reality’ TV developed in the 1980s, these aesthetics were adapted to the different purposes of light entertainment and programming geared to interrogate ‘the personal.’ As exemplified by The Office, Arrested Development and Summer Heights High, verité comedies use the above markers of a proximity to ‘the real’ in the highly constructed context of a fictional situation and a scripted narrative that is performed by actors. With their verité aesthetics helping to maximise self-consciousness in performance, these comedies gain potentials for humour that are unavailable to other live action sitcoms. ((See Mills (2004b) pages 69 and 71.)) Their characters ‘act up’ for the camera, try to manipulate what is being filmed, and offer additional self-revelation through ‘confessional’ interviews. Verité comedies produce their most cringe-inducing moments as a result of interventions of this type – a ‘classic’ being the jealousy-inspired, yet excruciating dance that David Brent performs for his colleagues just prior to his being sacked in Episode 5 of Season 2.

    David Brent Dance

    David Brent, ‘Dark Horse’ Talent, The Office (BBC, 2001-03)

    In narrative terms, verité comedies offer more structural flexibility than other live action sitcoms. Sitcoms have been distinguished within television narrative by their resolute stasis and circularity – things rarely change, if at all. ((Eaton, ibid. p.33.)) Hence, sitcoms are conventionally structured as self-contained, circular stories, whereas in docusoaps the tendency is cumulative, serialised narrative. Verité comedies blend the docusoap’s seriality with the sitcom’s containment and circularity, featuring resolving, episode-specific stories or material but often framing this as cumulative developments in season-long story arcs. Yet narrative structures vary between different comedy verité examples, underlining their structural flexibility. Whilst the episodic tendency of Kath and Kim and Flight of the Conchords is consistent with that of conventional sitcoms, The Office and Summer Heights High blend ‘series’ with ‘serial’ features, using their ‘stories-of-the-week’ to inform and progress their serialised central narratives.

    Characterisations in comedy verité combine the sitcom’s preference for flawed and incorrigible characters with the docusoap’s emphasis on opinionated, difficult, or deluded individuals plucked from real-life. Vital to the ability of docusoaps to generate very high ratings (as BBC’s Driving School did in 1997 and MTV’s The Hills has done more recently) has been their ‘creative casting’ of participants as ‘characters’ whose conflicting personalities are juxtaposed to heighten viewing pleasure in the resulting display of ‘naked’ emotion. Being scripted fiction rather than opportunistic faction, however, verité comedies maximise these character possibilities via their reliance on actors, well-rehearsed movements and scripted dialogue. As exemplified by The Office’s David Brent, Summer Heights High’s Mr. G, and Flight of the Conchords’ Murray Hewitt, comedy verité’s most legendary characters are aspiring but failing professionals. Their dreams of career success are thwarted as much by the gap between their over-inflated self-image and inadequate performance as by their persistent, sometimes spectacular, inability to see themselves as others do.

    Greg Gregson

    Greg Gregson, aka ‘Mr G,’ Summer Heights High, ABC Australia, 2007-)

    Although comedy verité is but one strand of the broader diversification of sitcom since 1990, its rising prominence is exemplified both by the enduring popularity of NBC’s version of The Office (2005-) and the international success – as finished programmes and/or format adaptations – of the other examples mentioned above. Exploiting the new outlets for humour facilitated by its hybridity, comedy verité has upgraded the live action sitcom for a popular culture now steeped in the aesthetics, concerns and even the jargon of ‘reality’ TV. Working alongside multi-camera, animated and single-camera form as a fourth variant of contemporary sitcom, comedy verité has also contributed to the necessary revitalisation of one of television’s oldest, most cherished genres.

    Image Credits:
    1. NBC’s The Office
    2. Kath and Kim
    3. David Brent Dance
    4. Greg Gregson

    Please feel free to comment.