No laughing, this is New Zealand TV

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Once, satirists Jon Gadsby (left) and David McPhail ruled the small screen. Picture / File

By John Drinnan

Many New Zealanders like to take the Mickey out of celebrities and lampoon politicians' pomposity.

It seems a bit grand to call this brand of Kiwi humour "satire". Put more crudely, producers and writers I approached say New Zealanders like comedy that takes the piss.

Nowadays, there is plenty of potential material. New Zealand politics is in a state of ferment over water, poverty and pollution, and MMP machinations offer lots of scope. Yet free-to-air television has largely abandoned the political comedy genre.

Once, shows like A Week of It, McPhail and Gadsby, Spin Doctors and the Gibson Group comedies Public Eye, Facelift and Skitz rated extraordinarily well. Now, five months out from the election, networks have no plans for a specific comedy tilt at politics.

Meanwhile, the media's great and good have been mourning the death of John Clarke, arguably the best satirist in this part of the world. Maybe we should be mourning the death of TV satire instead.

Andrew Shaw is general manager of commissioning and production at TVNZ. There was a time when political satire was the dominant form of comedy on NZ screens, he says, but it fell away.

"It is fair to say that our democracy might be healthier and more interesting to the public at large with more political satire shown on air and online," he says. "TVNZ would welcome innovative ideas from the creative sector." Yet some programme makers are sceptical, saying TV networks are nervous about the risks in backing comedy.

TV3 has kept its hand in with Seven Days and the brief satirical segment on The Nation featuring Paul Ego and Jeremy Corbett.

One producer, who would not be named, says TVNZ in particular "lacks courage" to challenge authority with political satire. Others say is more about fear of the commercial risk associated with comedy, rather than TVNZ worrying about offending political masters.

Dave Armstrong is a comedy writer who wrote on many of those Gibson Group shows as well as Spin Doctors.

He says lack of interest over several years has stopped innovation.

"Of course we need something new and younger," says Armstrong. "I can't think of a situation where they have really tried to develop satire about New Zealand's cultural values.

"You have to have balls, and I don't mean males," he says. "Some female producers have balls as well."

Satire is also seen as something liked by the 50-something audience, I believe, which is not keenly sought after by the networks.

Continued below.

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Armstrong notes that other media are offering satire, from people such as Steve Braunias and Toby Manhire at NZME, and Ben Uffindell at The Civilian website.

"On TV we don't take the piss so much," he says.

Journo in the news

The relationship between the Ministry for Primary Industries and the fishing industry has come under scrutiny, with industry body Seafood New Zealand taking a central role.

The industry group is well resourced. Its communications boss is Lesley Hamilton, formerly a press secretary with John Key's office. National Party president Peter Goodfellow is a key player, as a large shareholder and director of fishing company Sanford.

Seafood NZ's chief executive Tim Pankhurst, meanwhile, has been a key journalist for Fairfax NZ, as editor of the Dominion Post, Waikato Times, the Press and the Evening Post.

I asked Pankhurst how it was being a news topic, rather than an arbiter. Given his journalism background, I was surprised when he said the media should be more positive.

"I was a fishing reporter in the mid 80's, which is the mainstay of the Nelson community, and most of them would have been positive stories of interest to the community about the catches and new boats etc," he says.

"When I was an editor I had a rule we would have a positive story on the front, at the Press, Waikato Times and the DomPost, because I firmly believe that good news sells as well as bad news.

"My attitude was that we are actually pretty fortunate in this country and we live in good communities and most people are happy." He does not believe the industry is getting a fair run in the media.

But aren't media just focused on the story, and was it any different when he was an editor?

"Every story is partisan to some extent, that is the nature of the structure," says Pankhurst. "I may have even been guilty myself of saying to a news editor 'take a stick to it'.

"I think television has become way more populist. We are extremely wary of giving TV interviews. Very rarely do we think it is presented fairly. They come to the story with their mind made up and place the interviews accordingly and it's pretty hard to get a fair shake.

"I do weigh up, is it worthwhile doing TV interviews," says the editor turned industry body chief executive.

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