I have a confession to make. I’ve started watching ABC TV Media Watch again, after swearing blind a year or so ago that I’d boycott it because of David Marr’s blatant, hypocritical bias.
He’s no less biased or hypocritical now, but Marr is an amusing, eccentric character in his own right. I get great amusement from watching him deal with a subject of which he deeply disapproves; invariably something to do with crass commercialism or behaviour by a right-wing media personality or politician. Marr purses his lips in prissy outrage, arching his eyebrow in coy disdain. You can see he’d much prefer to be wearing rubber gloves and a surgical mask while he prods his subject with a very long stick to avoid offending his delicate, refined sense of smell.
Monday night’s treatment of alleged misbehaviour by the Nine Network’s Today program was a vintage example of Marr in action. He had two allegations:
- Today consistently exceeds the ABA’s rules for maximum advertising content (16 minutes per hour) by (on average) a minute or two between 8 and 9am each morning;
- Sami Lukis’s roving weather reports each half hour are a species of disguised “advertorial” for the venues from which she presents them, and Nine is being naughty in not making “disclosure” of this fact.
The second point is easily dealt with, so I’ll dispose of it first.
Commercial TV is full of “lifestyle” and other programs that make a buck out of “advertorial” material. In fact some of them (e.g. Getaway) consist of little else. Marr seems to think viewers (except him) are complete fools who are incapable of appreciating this fact. But it’s self-evident. It may well be that the ABA Rules contain provisions about disclosure of advertorial sponsorship, and that Nine is technically breaching them. But (as Marr notes disapprovingly) the ABA system is one of co-regulation, and enforcement action will usually only be taken where a complaint is received. I have some concerns with the current co-regulation system (although a lot of them have been satisfied with David Flint’s departure), but complaint-based enforcement isn’t one of them. It’s entirely reasonable to assume that viewers who aren’t naive half-wits are quite capable of understanding that commercial plugs during programming are likely to have been a result of some form of sponsorship (even if it’s only free travel and accommodation for the presenter and crew), and that the lack of any complaints is because no-one except Marr and his ilk has a problem with it.
The problem with Marr’s take on the first allegation/dot point (exceeding hourly “non-program material” limits) is that the ABA’s own rules (Clause 5.2 of the Commercial Television Code of Practice) allow for these sorts of non-scheduled, inadvertent breaches. The relevant part of Clause 5.2 reads:
5.2.2 The amount of non-program matter set out in the Final Schedules for an hour must not exceed the hourly limit in Clause 5.7. The only exception permitted is where non-program matter originally intended to fall in one hour (Hour A) is scheduled in an adjoining hour (Hour B) because of the length of a program segment or segments. This exception is subject to the following conditions:
184.108.40.206 the station’s earlier schedule prepared prior to the determination of break start times shows that the non-program matter falling in Hour B was intended to fall in Hour A; and
220.127.116.11 no more than one break intended in the earlier schedule to fall in Hour A is scheduled in Hour B in the Final Schedules; and
18.104.22.168 the amount of non-program matter contained in that break in Hour B in the Final Schedules, when combined with the amount of nonprogram matter contained in Hour A in the Final Schedules, would not have exceeded the relevant limit for Hour A.
Now, whether Nine’s situation satisfies these conditions is something neither I nor Marr knows. But Nine certainly asserts that it satisfies the rules (as Marr sneeringly noted), and Media Watch didn’t present any cogent basis for disbelieving them. Marr tried to argue that the fact that Today exceeds the 16 minute limit so frequently between 8 and 9am somehow proves that this is a planned rather than unscheduled outcome. But why is that so?
In an incompletely-scripted program like Today that runs for several hours each day, and which includes frequent live crosses to locations all over Australia and the world, it will frequently be impossible to avoid having segments running longer than the scheduled time. The cumulative result will often be that the station will be forced to “catch up” and screen unmet but contracted advertising commitments during the show’s final hour (8-9am). I don’t see anything even slightly wrong with that, as long as the total number of minutes of advertising over the entire 3 hours of the program averages out to 16 minutes per hour. In fact I assume that this is precisely the sort of exigency at which Clause 5.2.2 is aimed.
Marr didn’t claim that Today failed to comply with the 16 minute per hour limit over its entire 3 hour duration, in fact he was conspicuously silent on that point, and you can guarantee he would have said something if they’d exceeded the limit in that global sense. David Marr is quite entertaining to watch, as long as you don’t take anything he says at face value.