The method of informing and educating viewers through satire has quickly become an accepted trend, writes Quinton O’Reilly
What way do you take your news? Are you old school, relying on newspapers and RTÉ News’ dedicated six and nine o’clock timeslots for your fix? Do you rely on the web, using news sites that update you through Twitter and feverously expanding their content like a hyperactive squirrel searching for nuts?
Or do you rely on 24-hour stations like Sky News whose definition of revealing breaking news every second moment is akin to refreshing your Facebook page every two minutes to see that, again, nobody has yet commented on your interesting status involving a horse and a balloon.
Basically the media is an ever-changing beast, taking many forms that reflect the many ways that we consume our information. Just by looking at a regular TV schedule any day of the week reflects this change; the majority of shows tend to be entertainment based. Factual and current affairs programming, while popular in their own right, don’t command the same viewing figures as The X Factor.
The process of capturing this demographic’s imagination, from the democracy of voting for X Factor hopefuls to the voting of political leaders, has never been the smoothest of transitions. Yet the line separating these two factions has become more and more blurred in recent times, becoming a near regular feature on our TV screens.
The latest programme to attempt this is 10 O’Clock Live, a new flagship show on Channel Four starring David Mitchell, Lauren Laverne, Charlie Brooker and Jimmy Carr. A mixture of interviews, debates, reports and sketches designed to complement the strengths of its cast while featuring a deeply satirical slant. If you’re familiar with their individual work before this, it’s effectively more of the same. Yet its recipe of balancing the serious and satirical between them sets it apart from what has come before.
Yet 10 O’Clock Live, while taking different steps, is treading a path that has become well worn over the last 30 years. Not the Nine O’Clock News and Spitting Image lampooned and ridiculed political leaders and popular culture during the late 70s and late 80s respectively. Their premise was simple and aimed only to poke fun at the world we lived in. Yet the most influential series, which spawned numerous panel quiz shows, is Have I Got News for You, which debuted in 1990 and to this day is one of the BBC’s flagship programmes.
Featuring the editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, and comedian Paul Merton (as team captains), the show managed to stay relevant through ridiculing the week’s events and simultaneously achieved the balance of being both informative and funny. While they focused more on the latter, the fact that they would cover the biggest stories of that week meant that those watching knew who Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott (whose weight was constantly ridiculed) were as well as members of other smaller political parties.
Perhaps the best example of those who benefited from this news audience was Boris Johnson, the current Mayor of London. Coming across as a bumbling, eccentric fellow, his appearances were chaotic and included a segment in which he was quizzed about then Tory party leader Ian Duncan Smith. Johnson constantly got everything wrong, including the title of his own book, which at the time he was writing. His appearances resulted in some of the shows most memorable comedic moments and yet his mayoral election victory could be partly attributed to his well-received stint on the show.
Other panel shows quickly followed the same format, but began to wander from the beaten track. Mock the Week, presented by Dara O’Briain, focused more on standup comedy. Meanwhile, the closest Ireland has gotten to this has been RTÉ’s The Panel, which went into a tailspin once O’Brian left for the BBC.
Podcasts such as The Bugle, hosted by comedians Andy Zaltsman and John Oliver, allow you to listen at your own convenience. Even QI educates viewers about culture and history while keeping its satirical origins. When commenting on Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s design and engineering of London’s sewage system, Stephen Fry mentioned that his great-grandson created Big Brother and effectively undid his work by “pumping shit back into our homes”.
Ultimately, what these shows have done is ignore the traditional methods of news reporting and informing, presenting it in a more accessible format. They package normally serious and sometimes tedious topics into more manageable segments with a light-hearted spin. There’s a reason why remembering jokes from The Daily Show is easier than remembering the exact quote from a party speech, its presentation and delivery are the factors that make such moments memorable.
But what’s happening isn’t a replacement of media platforms, but instead the ways in consuming the same information has diversified. Once, keeping up to date with current affairs was only for those who could sit through an hour-long news bulletin without falling asleep. These days, it’s there in a form that suits your tastes and lifestyle. Now to think up some witty jokes to cover the March general election…