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  • Rex Widerstrom

Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Weldon?

Sorry, the previous reference to Dad's Army made the post title sort of inevitable. The gentleman referred to is of course TV3's CEO, Mark Weldon.

But over the past few weeks, sitting by the deathbed of Campbell Live until it breathed its final, triumphant breath on Friday I have heard the mantra that it just isn't profitable for commercial television (or radio, or newspapers) to invest in quality, long-form current affairs.

Ironically, I've even heard that advanced by those lamenting the demise of the program, as well as those trying to justify it.

I have always believed them wrong. Mostly, that was based on gut instinct and anecdote, but I have never believed that New Zealanders, or Australians, are stupid; that they want bite-sized pieces of sugar-laden confection about the lives of celebrities and the happy-ending stories about cute animals.

In Australia, though, there's not much grumbling about the fact that both Today Tonight and the dreadfully mis-named A Current Affair - the commercial channels weeknight "current affairs" programs, are rubbish (I won't even pretend that The Panel - four vapid egos looking for a reason to attract attention to themselves, and failing, and one excellent newsreader / co-host hopelessly miscast - merits inclusion in that list). That's because both the ABC and SBS offer an exceptionally good array of news, current affairs and documentaries on everything from racism to space travel.

In New Zealand, if you weren't watching Campbell Live you were watching a soap opera about doctors and nurses, or a soap opera about one man's quest to anchor 30 minutes of television without appearing to be a hectoring, supercilious ass (spoiler alert: he fails). Oh, and one woman's quest to appear anything more than an afterthought to her co-host and producers (spoiler alert: she also fails).

Understandably, perhaps, people have responded to the cancellation of Campbell Live by pondering that "if only" we had a NZ version of the BBC / ABC then we'd have decent news and current affairs. Perhaps so, but inherent in that scenario is the acceptance that it's uneconomic for commercial television to provide. And that's wrong.

While he's been relatively quiet throughout (perhaps seeing the pitchforks gathering and the torches being lit), Weldon and his advisor Julie Christie have implied that Campbell Live is not uneconomic in its own right (and indeed Executive Produce Pip Keane confirmed it made a profit) but because it raised people's expectations of the intelligence of what was to follow... an extraordinarily arrogant and demeaning view of one's audience. And also wrong.

Just this week, my gut feeling / anecdotal evidence has been quantified and validated, in research by US company Pocket. They make an app which allows you to 'clip' articles and bundle them for later reading, and they found:

In the Top 500 most-saved articles from the first half of 2015... the average article length is 3,190 words, which would take over 15 minutes to read.

That's about a dozen news items in today's 6-second-soundbite world. Pocket also noted: stark contrast to the belief that our attention spans now last no longer than 140 characters, the longest article on this list is a twenty-two-thousand-word piece on treatment for heroin addiction from The Huffington Post. It takes just shy of two hours to read.

You might be asking yourself…but, wait, did anyone actually read that? In this case, yes, of those that saved this article, 43% read it in Pocket. That stat is a little lower than Pocket’s typical 50% Read Rate, but still high considering reading Dying to Be Free is the equivalent of watching two HBO shows in a row.

So are we, though, saving all that celebrity gossip and weird soft-porn-masquerading-as-news that site like the Daily Mail Online stuff their pages with, and "serious" news sites are increasingly emulating? No.

When looking at the content that rose to the very, very top of our most-saved lists — the Top 100, to be exact — we weren’t surprised to see articles about technology, culture and current events high on the list...

...what’s popular is thecommentary and aftermath analysis of what’s happening and how it’s impacting society, both today and for the future.

It’s the pieces that dig below the surface of an issue and give it deeper context and meaning...

If a population is served a constant diet of pre-masticated, bland pap it's going to consume it because it has to consume something. Add a few sprinkles of flavour here and there and they might even say they like it; but only after having been denied more robust fare for long enough or, tragically, having been raised to know nothing else.

But that does not mean that people will turn away if offered something more substantial, perhaps with a bit of spice and requiring some effort to chew through and digest.

Working journalists know this, because they have the same gut instincts and (if they're well connected to their viewers / listeners / readers) anecdotal evidence. And that's why we're angry.

All it needs is a media proprietor with the foresight, guts and intelligence to take a punt - backed by mounting evidence like this Pocket research - to create something that'll feed that appetite.

Who's with me?

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