Get serious

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 September, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 September, 1998, 12:00am

Presumably ATV's decision to broadcast United States President Bill Clinton's full testimony on Monday night, in place of Ally McBeal (unforgivable!) and the film In the Army Now (thank God), is part of the new re-launch as the Channel of Record and Serious programming. It cannot, surely, have been because executives expected anyone to sit right to the bitter end.

Long-suffering viewers of the two terrestrials have known for a long time that neither handle live broadcasts of world events very well. Some have been handled particularly badly, notably Nelson Mandela's maiden speech as the president of the new South Africa, and the unforgettable, endless footage of Jiang Zemin's plane on the runway during last year's handover celebrations.

So despite a few painful moments, Mark Tung's effort to prime viewers for the Clinton tapes on Monday night was well above average. Unfortunately for Tung, there was a delay of about half an hour before we got to see Mr Clinton, and in the meantime all we got was what looked rather like a home video about working in a recording industry.

Tung was primed for chat with a pile of notes, including an Associated Press interview with some politicians who had already seen the tapes. He managed to keep talking for about 10 minutes before he ran out of steam for the first time and fell back on the obvious. 'This is actually live,' he said uncertainly, of the endless shots of the beards playing with their tape machines, as if that made it any less boring to watch.

This was the only time Tung tried to ham it up. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for his colleagues on CNN, who were so over-excited about the broadcast, they treated the build-up as if it was the moon landing. No detail was too trivial; we were even treated to a description of the video tape: 'It looks about, what? Six inches by three inches?' TVB decided against screening the lot because it feared the unedited version might be too raunchy for their delicate viewers. If only it had been: the prosecutors tried and tried but Mr Clinton stuck to euphemisms like intimate areas. The most daring part was dwelling on what bits of Monica Lewinsky Mr Clinton had allegedly kissed. Are TVB viewers really not ready for the word 'breast' used in a sexual context? Other commentators are better qualified to rate what Mr Clinton said and how he said it. As a TV critic, I have to say the quality of the tapes was shocking. For the first hour or so there was so much rumbling it sounded as if the microphones had been fastened to Mr Clinton's abdomen.

This is especially disappointing as Tung told us Kenneth Starr had permission to show the tapes weeks before the president was due to appear. So why did he not use the time to get decent equipment?