Friday, October 18, 2013

Happy News


A rich vein of work in journalism studies is that existing norms and narrative functions of the craft are seen as obsolete by a new generation of media-savvy digital natives. This funky crew wants performers who mash up satire, news & popular culture and break the fourth wall between medium and audience.

It's an exciting idea and one that draws as its inspiration successful US news/comedy/satire  hybrids like Jon Stewart's The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert The Colbert Report.

Here in Australia, there have been experiments on the ABC along these lines with Shaun Micaleff's Newstopia and, more recently (and more successfully) Mad as Hell, alongside The Chaser's Hamster Wheel. Channel Ten has had success with The Panel and The Project.

"It's news, but not as you know it," is The Project's marketing line. And it appears to have worked, with ratings turning up this year. The formula of wise-cracking comedian panelists making light of the day's news is really what breakfast FM radio has been doing for the last 30 years.

The networks like the panel shows because they are cheap. Many of the packages are standard items, revoiced. And most of the on-screen activity consists of the panel members trading witticisms, albeit in a safe, apolitical and on-threatening way that doesn't distance the advertisers.

There are couple of schools of thought about the blurring of lines between news, comedy, talk, satire and light entertainment. One, as expressed in this 2005 academic paper by Geoffrey Baym, is that his represents a long overdue reinvention and reinvigoration of stale and overly rigid news formats.
"Discourses of news, politics, entertainment, and marketing have grown deeply inseparable; the languages and practices of each have lost their distinctiveness and are being melded into previously unimagined combinations. Although some may see this as a dangerous turn in the realm of political communication, it also can be seen as a rethinking of discursive styles and standards that may be opening spaces for significant innovation." 
It's worth keeping in mind that this paper was written during George W Bush's second term, when Stewart's winking irreverence was finding a massive new audience seeking an authentic voice outside the heavily managed and manicured 'viewfrom nowhere' output of the major networks.

The possibilities of the new 'fake' news seemed endless at that time. It was interrogating power, deconstructing propagandist narratives and, most of all, exposing the complicity of the media  in reinforcing the established ruling structure. Indeed,  if you looked at the innovations in the right light, you might have dared hope that new radical forces were dismantling the propaganda model of mass media highlighted by Chomsky and Herman a quarter of a century ago.

But capitalism has a way of subsuming and co opting radical cultural initiatives, commoditising the products of those initiatives and constantly transforming active citizens into passive consumers. So the "radical" and "new" news programs are now just another version of the same old wallpaper, putting the dollar-driven values of entertainment above the civic-driven virtues of information. Journalists, while conscious of the constricting formats, are imprisoned by it.

This isn't to write off the satirical shows. Mad as Hell, for instance, is a sharply written and well observed as any of the US comedy programs. But we're fooling ourselves if we think light entertainment programming can replace serious journalism, which requires the asking of unpopular and uncomfortable questions, hard graft investigation and (frequently) seriously pissing off powerful people.

We still need this sort of journalism. You can dress it up, of course. After all, it has to be engaging to be effective. But not everything can be light and fluffy and funny. Indeed, most of the best reporters I've met are prickly, driven and anti-social people. It's their work that we need most. The biggest questions at the moment are how we pay for it and how to frame it in an innovative way without trivializing it.

'Happy News' is no substitute for the real thing.

11 comments:

  1. Ratings for the project are actually abysmal. It is a ratings FAILURE. ACA & TT & ABC news kill it every night.

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  2. One thing a lot of analyses of the 'news as comedy' programs miss is that the iconic shows in this category have politically astute writers and hosts who are superb at both critical/aggressive interviewing and relaxed 'extract the information' interviewing.

    In that sense, they're more a replacement for current affairs programming than front line news. And it hinges not just on the comedy, but on having people who could very easily slot into the best of the 'serious' current affairs interview roles.

    Simply getting comedians to discuss the news doesn't cut it.

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  3. Depressing but likely dead accurate, the implications send a shudder of desolation down this reader's spine.
    Another chapter in the comprehensive slamming shut of the window of opportunity for reform (in the true sense) o f politics, economics, society and culture that was offered between 2007 and 2011.
    p walter.

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  4. I watch The Project a couple of times a week and I can see how its an Aussie commercial television view of what constitutes hip and edgy viewing. That is, not hip and edgy at all. That said, if they dumped all the shock jocks they use as expert commentators it would be a big improvement.

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  5. lf we were to start the `happy-news` story a wee bit earlier, we would report that the embedded-media had been lulled into a coma to the global hit-tune `saddam-possesses-wmd` by the `lying-warlords`. At the time Colbert and Stewart in teh-usa, and the Glass-House and Chasers-CNNNN in Australia were exposing the factoids of bullshit that the embedded-media wouldn`t. l know the academics are probably pissed-off their students have failed to do their job during this era. The public are lucky the comedians can fill some of the gaps.

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  6. Ratings for the project are actually abysmal.

    I suspect advertisers care considerably more about the demographics of the audience than the numbers. Note the demise of that highly rated hospital soap that rated very well but only amongst middle aged viewers advertisers have little interest in.

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  7. I watched The Project in its early days - it was a novelty and quite an interesting experience. I won't though watch it now as it has become corporatised, predictable and a commoditised into a corporate product by the TV network it runs on (another cross-promotion or advert-buyer promo anyone?).

    The thing that most annoys and frustrates me about our traditional media, and even the new funky styles they try and develop, is that the breadth of news covered is so so narrow. And across all traditional forms of media there remains a focus on the six big stories of the day. Nothing else matters, and they cover very little else. When channel surfing, or even skipping between media, TV, radio, traditional print-online media, all the stories are the same. Where is the depth? the analysis? the interesting non-fluff stories that aren't tied to some corporate agenda?

    Its time for the new new. Which will more than likely not be on television, or in print, but be 'on-demand', and across video, audio and text.

    Perhaps the ABC needs to once again take the lead. The work done on Hungry Beast several years ago was excellent, and it is clear to see the influence that this young bunch has had, not least of all, on interactive graphics and methods of displaying information.

    *dismounts the hobby horse*

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  8. Surprising that not many people picked up that "The Project" was anti Gillard + anti Labor .... just like Murdoch only slightly subtler.

    "The Project" has now slipped back into innocuous prattle .... much the same as Murdoch .... with the premise that there is a sucker born every minute.

    Good article.

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  9. None of those Australian programmes are anywhere near to being in the same class as Colbert and Jon Stewart. They are relatively unoriginal, unfunny and un-insightful (if that is a word, which it isn't).

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  10. Mr D,
    "Happy news" or "News-Lite" is another low-grade form of media churnalism.

    It's local offerings like the Project for me are cheap-shot FM radio comedy shows in a visual form. If news and serious current affairs were going gang busters - no problem. We need better local sketch shows like the old Comedy Company et al or an Australian version of Seinfeld etc and better current affairs shows like the ACA of old.

    We can also have new news satire shows-website like the US "the Onion" - America's finest news source in the mix (like Mad as Hell) but its no replacement for some serious local content. Commercial TV for my money has been walking away from local new and current affairs quality.

    We are all worse off if clowns replace the role of a thinking free press.
    A poor free press and poor local comedy scene results in poor local culture.

    You can't outsource your own healthy culture - you have to grow it.

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  11. Great piece, Mr D. Good comments about the Daily Show in particular.

    Lived in the US from 2001-05 and it was simply essential viewing, almost the only show that "spoke truth to power". It was born (came into its own) at the same moment as political blogging and the two forms fed off each other. Each was probably impossible without the other. Or at least, they benefited from each other.

    Also, it almost wasn't a comedy show: it was news show that happened to be hilariously funny. That's the difference between it and its many imitators. Obviously there were brilliant writers involved, but Jon Stewart was just a cut above. Some of his serious interviews were precisely what you would hope an actual journalist would do, but I can't think of one who was capable of the sort of probing analysis he could do. Let alone his ability to make it interesting. Sad but true.

    Anyway, basically saying, Daily Show is a bit of one-off, a phenomenon, unlikely to be equalled.

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