John Campbell and Checkpoint: a vision of television’s glorious past, today

You can’t move for a symposium or petition bemoaning the state of current affairs on television today. Yet John Campbell’s Checkpoint is a throwback to exactly the kind of programming people say they want, writes Duncan Greive.

Yesterday on Face TV, a channel I have never knowingly before watched, we got a glimpse into TV’s past and potential future as Checkpoint debuted on a non-RNZ channel. Checkpoint is New Zealand’s longest-running current affairs programme on any medium, and currently hosted by John Campbell, the most beloved (if not the most popular – that’s inarguably Hosking) 21st century New Zealand broadcaster.

Despite its new arrival on Sky, Checkpoint is a deeply traditional show in most ways, a look back into television’s past in an era in which there’s an increasingly vocal demand for the values and style of current affairs that have so quickly vanished from our screens.

The interviews are very long: in the first half hour of the show, there were four topics covered outside of the news. By comparison, The Project NZ, the show currently occupying Campbell Live’s old 7pm slot on Three, will often get through as many topics before the first ad break.

Those are another modern encumbrance Checkpoint simply doesn’t have. Watching the show, you realise how much you rely on ads just to breathe with certain kinds of programming. Ninety minutes is already a long time, but feels longer without any interruptions.

The length gives the segments an opportunity to go far deeper than they would on any other daily current affairs format. At its most effective, this invites us into the inner world of the show’s subjects. We met Ian Malzard, wearing a Holden hat and shirt, standing out front of his still-unfixed home in Christchurch. More than six years since the quakes, he and his family are staying in their lounge, and not in their $4,000 bed. “Six years – you must be exhausted,” says Campbell, Malzard replying in a cracked voice that his wife is a nervous wreck. The particulars of their claims with the EQC and their insurance company go unexamined – this segment is less about the specific circumstances holding up the remaining homes than marvelling at the fact, six years on there apparently remain thousands of homes unrepaired. And asking whether we as a nation can live with that.

If this interview was Campbell’s Checkpoint at its best, the opener revealed the show’s limitations on what is manifestly its secondary format, after radio. John Clarke’s death was announced late morning and out of the blue, leaving producers scrambling to put together packages which captured the great comic and satirist’s extraordinary career.

What we got was probably brilliant radio – a mix of audio clips, biography and colleagues’ remembrances – but for long stretches we got a blue screen with audio waves running through it. For such a vital visual performer – whose work is easily available on the likes of YouTube and NZ on Screen – it felt like a prioritisation of radio over television that, if it persists, will impede its growth on the medium. Everyone wants more resource, and RNZ is in the midst of the biggest, most radical and successful transformation in New Zealand’s current media. But at times Checkpoint looks like it would really shine with a few more bucks.

The show is on better ground with a piece on Edgecumbe, wherein Ursula Mayo talked affectingly of the likelihood of abandoning her home of 45 years. Zac Fleming was on the ground in Kawerau with a camera in tow, and the sense of a community starting to come to terms with the reality of what nature had wrought was palpable. The interview was both illuminating and very long by contemporary standards.

And that ultimately is the challenge for Checkpoint – it’s making a rigorous show, full of heart and rock solid of vision. But in terms of style and pace it’s of a completely different era to its competition. When a huge news event strikes, few can match it. In between times, it can feel ponderous.

Wandering into it as a television product, when you’re used to current affairs which presents as somewhere between The Project NZ and The Hui, Checkpoint appears beamed in from another era. The news is read straight down the camera; the interviews lengthy, earnest and sincere; the visual embellishments are nearly non-existent. It’s what a lot of people say they miss from television, and expresses values and care which have largely vanished from the medium. Now we’ll be able to see whether people really do want their TV this way.

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