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Pop CultureMarch 15, 2017

Sunday is a rare polar bear in the current television climate. Will it survive?


Waiting cautiously in camouflage behind a piece of shrubbery, Calum Henderson observes a rare endangered species in its natural habitat: current affairs television. 

You almost don’t want to make too much noise about Sunday in case someone in an office somewhere remembers it still exists and realises they’ve forgotten to cancel it.

TVNZ 1’s weekly hour of current affairs is a rare bird, keeping its head down while all around other members of its species are being driven to extinction. It used to feel like you couldn’t turn on the television in this country without having some current affairs rammed down your throat – now Sunday is pretty much the only remaining New Zealand-made example of the genre in its native primetime habitat.

This week’s episode was the fifth one already this year, in every respect just an ordinary episode, but it was illustrative of the power well-made current affairs journalism has always had. That is, it managed to take a boring-sounding topic and make it interesting.

Sunday goes inside the Kiwi experiment that’s looking for answers to mental health problems in our food” the programme guide promised to bore us to death. Host Miriama Kamo tried to juj it up with some delightful rhyme: “Tonight on Sunday: can you improve your mood with food?”

It’s the kind of topic that these days you’re more likely to encounter in the form of a rabid 5,000-word blog post or an out-of-control 300-comment Facebook debate. “It’s controversial,” tiptoed Kamo, which is what made Sunday’s calm, even-handed approach to the topic from the kind-faced telly immortal Ian Sinclair so welcome.

Sinclair – one of four New Zealand reporters on Sunday, all of whom seem like they have been on television since approximately the dawn of time – took us to Christchurch to meet a couple of people involved in a clinical trial of ‘micronutrients’ as a way of helping treat ADHD, as well as speaking to the University of Canterbury professor leading the study and another professor who said there’s no evidence to prove that it works.

Micronutrients are basically the vitamins and minerals found in vegetables, in concentrated form. Implying people’s mental illnesses are simply caused by not eating enough veggies seems fraught, but Professor Julia Rucklidge is just doing her research: “As scientists we should be studying things that are controversial, that are challenging to our current way of thinking” she told Sinclair.

One of the kids trialling micronutrients was a funny, smart 8-year-old called Dylan. “How hard is it to swallow those pills? They’re big aren’t they?” Sinclair asked. “Piece of cake,” Dylan replied. “Or as other people say, a walk in the park.” His mum said the pills made him calmer, but they didn’t help him concentrate at school and that, in that respect, Ritalin was more effective.

Rucklidge said 50% of patients in the adult trial reported improvements after taking micronutrients. One of those was a skateboarder called Tim, who said “I just thought I could be as nutty as I liked” before he was diagnosed with ADHD. Taking the big pills full of vitamins and minerals and amino acids improved his quality of life a lot.

But Professor Shaun Holt, a medical researcher, told Sinclair the sample sizes were way too small and the results basically didn’t mean a thing. “Generally we need several hundred people per trial and several trials,” but, he added, “it’s interesting and we need more research.”

In other words, it’s complicated – though we could probably all stand to eat a few more vegetables either way.

Sinclair’s story approached the topic in a way that captured the humanity behind the science. It was a good story, the kind we used to see way more of on television, or at least it certainly seems that way. It was just another episode of Sunday.

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