R&R and Back Benches are seriously entertaining — but you need commitment to catch them.

Last week saw the launch of two pieces of two new local productions; one on TV3, the other on Prime. Each is publicly funded - one by NZ on Air, the other by Te Mangai Paho - and each attempts to engage the intellect in matters of public interest.

So, naturally, they play at 10.30pm on a Wednesday night and 9am on a Sunday. Prime time is no longer a place for the earnest thinking to be done, and hasn't been for a while now. Perhaps the last major foray into issues-based discussion on a major network was TV3's admirable The Vote, abandoned after a single season in 2013, just before it might actually have influenced a vote in the 2014 election.

Now when TV3 launches new current affairs products they're safely in the weekend morning wastelands - R&R tags in immediately after three hours of religious programming on TV3. The show features host Robert Rakete tackling a different substantive issue each week with a rotating panel.

It's so old-fashioned in every conceivable way. The discussions run long, there are no segments, no packages of pre-recorded footage. It's almost monastic in its veneration of human conversation. Even the packaging feels '70s, with panellists cut into two, three or four windows the only visible piece of what might be called style.


The first issue approached was, hilariously, journalism. The panel consisted of Mana magazine's Leonie Hayden, Newshub's Mike McRoberts and ... me. We assembled at a furniture shop in Parnell on a brisk Sunday morning, two days after McRoberts' co-host Hilary Barry had announced her resignation, and three days before his boss Mark Weldon would announce his. Despite this backdrop McRoberts was the consummate pro, speaking longingly of the newsrooms he cut his teeth in at Radio NZ and TV3, while also wondering whether they would even exist in future.

Rakete was a deeply engaged host, clearly passionate and well-informed about the subject at hand. He was also familiar with both the history and current status of Mana, and he and Hayden assayed the challenges of funding Maori journalism in this area. The irony of a comparatively well-funded television show asking that question of a largely unfunded magazine was not lost on anyone, but to our credit we managed to move on. After 25 minutes it was over - a conversation among adults conducted at a natural, unhurried pace. That's not how you'd describe Back Benches, which returned for a ninth season on Prime last Wednesday. The pub politics show is the last surviving remnant of TVNZ7, now securely ensconced on Prime.

It has had a major change this year, in that the co-host role has been handed from the excitable Damian Christie to the more contemplative Hayley Holt, which has had a noticeable effect on the energy and tenor of the show. Holt functioned as a back-up last year, so it's not her first time into the breach. But she seems more interested in the substance of what her guests have to say, rather than the chaos of having the mic in as many faces as possible. That might just as easily have been a function of having Nicky Hager's pensive face in the crowd, though. It's pretty hard to assess the Panama Papers and tax havens in a cute grab.

The show's metabolism is as ever defined by Wallace Chapman, who faced off against a panel with a little star power: the Greens' energetic rookie Marama Davidson and National's workmanlike Tim Macindoe were joined by Auckland's mayor-apparent Phil Goff and Act's David Seymour, who looks like he's maybe been hitting the gym.

The advantages of beer-loosened tongues and a baying crowd remain, along with depressingly familiar tropes of political discourse: talking over one another, devotion to party lines etc. And while the conversation never quite took flight, the show remains a rare opportunity for less prominent political talent to be tested under brighter lights, and as such is well worth watching. Provided, that is, you can stay up that late on a school night.

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