Damien Venuto: The power of the 1pm briefing – the Governments Americas Cup level grip on attention

OPINION:

New Zealand has what can be described as a tremendously depressing Super Bowl moment at 1pm every day.

All eyes of the nation tune in to see the performance of the team (of 5 million) and the lion’s share of the focus is placed on a superstar quarterback (Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern) who distributes information rather than footballs.

The sheer number of Kiwis watching shows how compelling this live programming can be – particularly when a large portion of the nation is stuck at home.

Data from researcher Nielsen shows that since the first 1pm press conference on August 17, TVNZ’s daily programming has more than 2.5 million New Zealanders.

The largest audience on a single day for any of the Covid-19 announcements during this lockdown on TVNZ 1 was the 3pm update on August 20, which had an average audience of 808,000 people.

To put the scale of this attention into perspective, the America’s Cup programming on TVNZ 1 reached just north of 2 million viewers over the course of the regatta. And the final was ultimately watched by just over 1.3 million Kiwis.

Those are the types of numbers television organisations don’t mind handing over because they tell the story of a medium that remains as popular and relevant as ever.

As most of the country returned to work during the five-week lockdown, the average audience dipped to reflect who was watching the drama unfold.

The first two weeks of lockdown commanded average audiences of around 700,000; this dropped below 450,000 by the third and fourth week – largely attributable to shifting lockdown conditions across the country.

There was, however, another spike on Tuesday this week when an average of 463,000 tuned in to see another week added to Auckland’s level 4 lockdown.

What’s staggering about these viewership statistics is that they come from only one media channel. The reality is that when the 1pm (or 3pm) briefing rolls on, it’s difficult to avoid the press conference on local media.

It’s also front and centre on the New Zealand Herald, RNZ and Newshub. The Covid focus has been a major contributing factor in the Herald’s daily readership growing by 300,000 readers compared to the same time last year.

Even the notoriously moody Facebook algorithm often gives the live streams hosted by news organisations a prominent spot in feeds.

When you have that level of undivided attention, it’s little surprise that the Prime Minister was willing to take the calculated gamble of ditching her regular spot on the country’s most popular commercial breakfast show.

Few stories in any political tenure command that level of attention for even a few days – let alone a solid five-week run.

Opposing political parties have expressed concern about the amount of media time the Government is being afforded in the current context.

Just this week, the National Party tweeted an op-ed by Chris Bishop with a statement saying: “The PM commands the airwaves every day at 1pm and it’s important for the Opposition voice to be heard.”

It would be optimistic to expect parity between the opposition and the Government, even when you aren’t dealing with a pandemic. Journalists – and the public, for that matter – will always be more interested to hear from who’s in charge rather than the opponents shouting from the periphery.

But the regular press conferences that come with the pandemic have tipped the attention scales even more in favour of the Government – meaning that opposition parties need to work harder to make their talking points heard.

What we often have during the 1pm briefing is an unedited monologue from the Government and health officials on the latest statistics on our cases and vaccine rollout, followed by a series of questions from journalists.

Depending on how your country is performing, this giant platform can be a blessing or a curse. If you lose control of the pandemic, then you become the face of news that becomes progressively worse. In the Australian context, it’s no wonder that New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian decided to cut her 11am press conferences as cases continued to climb in the country.

No politician wants to become the symbol of a situation that is tumbling out of control.

In contrast, the local response has seen the Government detailing a progressively improving story. This is certainly good news for the country, but the one-sided presentation of information via live media is never something we should take lightly – particularly not when you have so many people tuned into the daily proceedings.

History has clear examples of how media can be used effectively to pull voters one way or the other. Much has been written about how JFK’s command of television and Trump’s wielding of Twitter helped those politicians secure election victories.

In the current context, there is no more powerful media platform than a simple podium at 1pm.

It would be naive to think that the press conferences are simply public service announcements and not political in any way. Everything in politics is political and can be used to shape perception.

The Labour Party has previously used favourable snippets from the briefings on its social media channels. And the Government has also been accused by National and Act of delaying the release of information on the signing of its deal with Pfizer until the week of the 2020 election. The Government has denied this was the case, but the debate shows the potential of press conferences to be used as strategic tools.

One thing that’s clear is that press conferences are well within Ardern’s comfort zone. Crisis after crisis, she’s cut a calm and collected communicator under tough circumstances. This ultimately played a vital role in building the perception that the country is in a safe pair of hands.

If JFK was the first TV President the world had seen and Trump the first social media leader, then what does that make Ardern given the powerful grip she has on those channels every day?

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