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FeaturesMay 27, 2015

The Campbell Live Diaries: Seven Nights of Selfies and Belated Epiphanies

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Guilty of being an apathetic audience member in the target demographic, Josh Drummond sat down and diarised a week of Campbell Live.

He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
My lord, I think I saw him yesternight.

Campbell Live! Campbell Live, the best thing on telly! Campbell Live, consistently among TV3’s best-performing shows in ratings! Campbell Live, under managerial review, its titular host under a cloud, its future uncertain!

It was under these circumstances that I decided to do a thing: each night for a week I would watch Campbell Live and write about it. To make it relevant to the digital age, and because I’m not one of those fabled people with a magic Neilsen ratings box, I would take a selfie while watching the show, to show that I was there, that I was watching. Me and John, against the world.

7:18 PM
On a Monday

Tonight’s stories are classic Campbell Live. They include a desecrated children’s graveyard, property prices in Huntly compared and contrasted to Auckland, a Christchurch couple’s ongoing wait for a house to replace the caravan they’ve been living in for years, and a woman named Justice and her search for justice. I didn’t make that pun: Campbell Live made sure they beat me to it, as many times as possible.

The desecrated graveyard story is a tiny, senseless tragedy. Some dickhead has gone and munted a bunch of kids graves in Papakura. Locals suspect council maintenance gone wrong, the Council has no idea who did it – but it wasn’t them. Tensions simmer. “Who would do that?” wonders John, visibly moved. A seamless segue from the host, and the next story is about a Auckland couple who bought property 90 kilometres out of Auckland. John visits them at their new home.

“Welcome to Huntly,” say Dean and Nafiza.
“Thank you, thank you very much!” says John. “I’m stoked to be here!”

These words have almost certainly never been uttered about Huntly by any other moneyed-up Aucklander, but because this is John Campbell, we believe him. John’s stock in trade, although it feels wrong to call it that, is not just his famous empathy – it’s his sincerity. When he says his trademark “marvellous,” I truly believe that he truly believes whatever he just witnessed truly is marvellous. In any other broadcaster it would come off as glib, or insufferable smugness. (For a test case, imagine Mike Hosking saying it about anything that wasn’t a pinot noir or a freshly-laundered Maserati.)

Dean and Nafiza bought their Huntly home after watching a Campbell Live story on house prices in the small Waikato town, and how they compared to Auckland. Like a soap opera, Campbell Live thrives on storylines. There are recaps and revisits and call-backs aplenty. The programme is genuinely interested in the lives of its subjects, and there’s an innate understanding that the story isn’t over when the cameras stop rolling.

In this follow-up, it transpires that Dean and Nafisa were on the phone to the bank the very next day. The story follows them into their new home, which is indeed lovely. The couple stand on their deck with Campbell and the camera, admiring their million-dollar view. Dean’s hands caress the rail of their new deck; there’s a constant sense of amazement at their good fortune. Except for the bit where they have to get up at 4:30 AM every morning to commute 90 kilometres to Auckland. This is an opportunity for another callback to a former storyline – the need for a commuter rail link (running on existing railway lines) to service the communities south of New Zealand’s biggest city.

It’s around now that I actually start watching the show in real-time. All of the preceding recap is from TV3 Now, MediaWorks’ website where you can catch up with several weeks of archived footage. I had committed to a week of watching Campbell Live, but my problem is that after a couple of years of getting media on demand via the internet – music, radio, TV, movies, everything – I’m not used to sitting down and watching a show at a particular time. At 7 PM I’m usually still working, or cooking, or drawing, or doing whatever it is I do, but it’s almost never watching telly.

Even though I’m absolutely Campbell Live‘s target demographic, and it’s the type of current affairs that I enjoy watching and think is immensely valuable, I don’t actually watch it. When I do take in a Campbell Live story it’s usually online, with my trusty adblocker nerfing all the hated ads. Ads that pay for Campbell Live’s irreplaceable, anachronistic, public-service journalism on a commercial channel.

I’m sorry, John. It’s my fault. I killed Campbell Live.

I take my #CampbellLiveSelfie anyway. It’s horrendous. John looks tired, disapproving. I look like a gormless corpse in a beanie. Later, I’ll post it on Twitter, and it’ll be retweeted a bunch of times, including by the official @CampbellLive Twitter account, who are apparently happy to amplify even the corniest show of appreciation for what they do.

Back to Campbell Live, actually live this time, and Campbell ain’t dead yet. A story is starting on a couple in Christchurch who have been living in a caravan while they wait for a new house. They’ve been doing this for three years! Three fucking years! Three years of being done over by insurers and the EQC. I wouldn’t put up with it and neither would you and neither, thank God, is Campbell Live

“Just give them a fucking house!” I yell at the TV. It feels good. The yelling, that is, not the poor people who’ve been living in a caravan in their backyard for three years. Campbell won’t shut up about Christchurch and it’s a goddamn good thing too. Well, only for actual humans. A recent NZ Herald story revealed that MediaWorks regarded Campbell Live‘s incessant advocacy for the likes of Christchurch and Pike River Mine victims as “a liability,” and that they were “specifically singled out by management as having led to ‘viewer fatigue.'”

This says a lot more on its own than anything I could come up with, so I’m just going to leave it there.

7 PM
On a Tuesday

I’m watching Campbell Live. Well, actually, I’m in a restaurant. I’m having a lovely time with my wife Louise, but when I think of what I’m meant to be doing I feel pretty stupid. Who fails at the first hurdle when the challenge is watching a TV show?

It’s back to 3 Now, and tonight’s topics include the new flag, “megathrust earthquakes” and a boy who hears again for the first time. John is as ebullient as ever, and the stories are relevant, but I am tired and full of nice food and I have so much stuff that needs doing. I skim through the episode. I had planned a selfie, but taking one in front of my computer screen seems stupider than even the original idea, so I don’t bother. Is this the famed ‘viewer fatigue’?

6:55 PM
On a Wednesday

I’m doing it, I’m actually watching Campbell Live! Last night’s failure fades fast. I’m early to make sure I don’t miss anything. Silver fox Mike McRoberts recaps the day’s news followed by the weather. It’s boring, so I toy with my smartphone. I surface in time for the opening credits of Campbell Live. John Campbell, looking thrilled with his Mazda 6, just the sort of car a proper newsman drives.

The lead item is a Christchurch story, this time about the “prohibitive” cost of their new convention centre, according to John Key. I spend a lot of this one trying to get a good #CampbellLiveSelfie, but Gerry Brownlee keeps getting in the way. I don’t want a picture with him. The next story is about a Housing New Zealand estate in a terrible state, and Campbell shifts gears from Christchurch with the smooth transition of a new Mazda 6.

“Jesus!” I yell at the TV, when I see the pictures. I’d expected another a story about shitty Housing NZ tenants, and this one is too, in a way, except the tenant went to jail a month ago and since then the place has morphed into a junkie flophouse, complete with used syringes. Pots and pans lie about. “I don’t know if they’ve been used for food or… other purposes,” says the reporter, ominously. The neighbours have had it and Housing NZ clearly doesn’t give a shit. Their stiff email reply to the show’s queries is read out on-air. Apparently they’re coming soon to clean it up.

I tune out a bit for the next couple of items, except for when John cracks a joke about waiting for the housing market to explode “like Mr Creosote”. This has me barking with laughter, but then a story on refugees in Syria has my full attention. I know very little about Syria, or the current situation there. All I’ve been able to deduce is that it’s a clusterfuck that’s killing a lot of innocent people.

The Campbell Live report gives it a human face. It’s about child refugees, and is harrowing and heartbreaking. Everyone has lost homes and family members, but the kids are happy. A shot shows a bunch playing ring-a-rosy around a camera tripod. I get teary. It’s pointed out that New Zealand’s annual refugee quota is only 750 per annum. I sit straight up. “What? 750?”

Louise says, “I’m surprised you didn’t know that.”

“But that’s not nearly enough,” I yell. John agrees. “Surely we can do better than that,” he says.

Then, ads. Tile Depot, Lighting Plus, Harvey Norman, various insurances. Pitches to the middle-class. For the purposes of this experiment, I’m forcing myself to sit through them all – without even muting anything. They’re horrible. There’s an ad for some kind of deodorant that has “intellispheres” or some such bullshit that can tell when you’re sweating and release antiperspirant. “So there’s stuff in your armpit, and when you rub it, it bursts. It sounds like a cyst,” Louise says.

There’s more Campbell – a great, feel-good story about an excellently-named company called KaiBosh. They are providing food to the needy from supermarket surpluses – but I am worn thin. As soon as Campbell Live is over I turn off the TV, and the sudden silence is a relief.

7:03 PM
On a Thursday

Campbell Live learned its fate today. Twitter went nuts with it. John is leaving, having refused what – reading between lines – looked like a Faustian pact with MediaWorks that might have extended the show’s life, albeit in a new form. The remarkable ratings rally that’s seen folks like myself abandon media-on-demand habits and return to the Campbell Live fold has been, probably realistically, ruled unsustainable. I’m so busy catching up with it all that I miss the start of the actual show.

I tune in to a simple story: the day-to-day life of a working mum. She works two shifts – one doing childcare for other people’s kids, and one, at night, as a cleaner. In between, she cares for her own children. The toughness of her life is illustrated unflinchingly – perhaps just a touch too much pathos works as a sop to the harsh reality. John is up to meet her in her driveway early in the AM as she comes home from a shift. Her tiredness is palpable, radiating in the lines on her face. It’s never stated, but the message is clear – she deserves better than this. No-one should have to work this hard to keep a family afloat.

This story is Campbell Live at its best: telling a story straight and true, and letting the viewer come to their own – inevitable – conclusion. It’s raw empathy, televised, putting you in their shoes. Nothing could be further away from Paul Henry’s goblin smirks and that chimaera Mike Hosking’s judgemental pronouncements from atop his tower of privilege. Soon it will be gone.

Then we’re back to the studio and John Campbell looks like he’s been crying.

His voice shakes as he reads in the next item. “Oh no. The poor guy,” Louise says.

The rest of the show – a trans-Tasman grocery shop price challenge, Ali Ikram gently taking the piss out of public art while showing a genuine appreciation for it – is a blur. John is going. Campbell Live has been a part of my life since I was a kid, and John Campbell is the reason I got into journalism. It’s the thing I wanted to do ever since I watched him and Nicky Hager cut the wire at the Waihopai spy base and stick a camera in the window.

I think about the thrill of that moment as I watch him now. How can he be going? I had honestly thought the ratings surge would provide the show a second chance of sorts, but clearly the decision had already been made.

I watch a man struggle on, during what is almost certainly his worst day at work. He holds it together, a consummate pro. I can’t help but think that he’s too good to be dumped like this. I’m so cut up about it that I forget to take my selfie.

7:00 PM
On a Friday

John is back, and looking much better – which is great, because people seemed to think he’d just kind of disappear. He does a shout-out to the cameraman Jonesy, who has picked tonight’s ironic intro music, and “who’s much cooler than I am.” It’s the latest of a nightly series where John highlights the work done by the Campbell Live team. “We really do want to applaud you for sticking with us,” John says. “Thank you so much.”

There’s a mighty SHOOSH as the Campbell Live logo flies by. Tonight’s stories: a West Coast rates hike near Hokitika, revisiting Christchurch battlers two years on, and Auckland’s most successful real estate salesperson George Fong stars in a story about who’s buying property in Auckland.

“Tonight: stuff that matters,” booms John “Because! It matters! But first…”

But first, we return to Gloriavale, a settlement housing a loathsome West Coast Christian cult led by a convicted sex offender, as Campbell triumphantly tells us that the Department of Internal Affairs are looking at revoking their charitable status. “Good!” I yell.

As the show goes on, I take my #CampbellLiveSelfie next to a curiously appropriate freeze-frame of John. He looks tired, yet also somehow impish, enthused. His hands are balled into fists, almost like he’s ready to throw a punch. I tweet it:

A reply comes quickly from @CampbellLiveNZ: @joshua_drummond no!!! Keep going. We’re here next week!

So I think I will.

After the show ends with John’s trademark “Ka kite ano, and a very good evening indeed”, I reflect on what I have learned over the course of my week’s sojourn.

I’ve learned that those know-nothing drones heading MediaWorks are almost certainly on to something. People like me, and there are lots of us, are departing traditional media in droves for the convenience of online delivery. They will have to find ways to either play catch up, or better cater content for their remaining demographic, whatever that is.

I’ve also learned that Campbell Live is sterling, first-class entertainment. I don’t mean that in any kind of pejorative way. The reason Campbell Live is entertaining is because of its passion and sincerity and empathy, combined with its commitment to actual journalism. Campbell Live has long held the noble triune goal of not being dicks, giving dicks the middle finger, and sharing joy in seeing dicks get what they deserve.

I’ve learned that I will miss Campbell Live, the show I wish I’d watched.


Campbell Live‘s final episode will air at 7pm on Friday May 29. Click here for the rest of our marvellous Campbell Live coverage

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