Talking about TV

The five ingredients for a talkable television news story: Test Case Chloe Smith interview on Newsnight

Jeremy Paxman’s interview with Chloe Smith on Newsnight illustrates the point I made a few days ago about why people weren’t really talking about Euro2012.  The football tournament lacked the ingredients that encourage viewers to talk, but this interview had all of them.  Or did it?

Our research had found five ingredients of news stories that enabled them to promote themselves via word of mouth:  Humour, Trauma, Hubris, Heroism and Scandal.  One or two would be enough, but this interview, concerning a sudden government decision to postpone a planned 3 pence per litre increase in fuel duty, may have managed the Grand Slam:

Humour: Comments have gone overboard on the analogies between large creatures toying with small ones, and then there’s this

Trauma: This is the odd thing.  Many of the tweets and posts on forums implied that the interview was a bloodbath – shocking, dreadful and painful to see: car-crash TV.  It wasn’t. It was awkward at times, but to me, the hyped up descriptions illustrate the power of television to impress, and the way online comments are ramped up.

Hubris: The pleasure in seeing the high and mighty fallen…  Well, Smith is a government minister, but she has been a Conservative MP for less than three years, and is barely 30 years old (Paxman is 62).  With a comprehensive school  and non-Oxbridge university education she is not the obvious candidate for hubris, but many comments, such as this one, regard her pay and status as a factor in reinforcing the interview’s shocking nature.

Hero: For many, Jeremy Paxman’s acerbic interviewing style over the years has made him a heroic figure, and this interview burnished his credentials.  He’s done it again... The fact that he is a very highly paid establishment figure (in contrast to his interviewee) has not damaged his reputation as an iconoclast.

Scandal: Whether the Treasury department decision that Chloe Smith was defending was a government U-turn, an omnishambles, a reasonable response to worsening economic conditions, welcome help for households, or none of these, stories about fuel costs have the potential to leap up the political agenda.  Much of the online buzz after the interview was less about the efficacy of the decision than the typical ingredients of a scandal – who knew, and when did they know it.  And in relation to the interview itself people were scandalised by the decision to put up Smith to defend it, rather than George Osborne, or another senior politician.

And finally… the consensus of online comment was that Smith had a terrible experience and that it all reflected badly on the government. I didn’t agree, but either way the verbal response from viewers watching together may have been different – we know that face-to-face conversations are less hysterical and more gentle than ones online.  And they are far more frequent.  But Newsnight is scheduled in the late evening when relatively high numbers are watching on their own – the internet may have been a place to express themselves at a time partners were asleep and it was too late to call friends.  And it illustrates what many of us believe – the internet badly needs TV programmes for material to get excited about.


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