Those who watched Patrick Gower: On Booze last night now know that Newshub’s star reporter is an alcoholic. Gower made the admission while coming to terms with his binge drinking during filming of the documentary.

Gower’s drunken antics with students who currently reside at his old flat in Wellington were a central feature of the film.

Gower told Newsroom he was supposed to be “merry” for the interaction with the students but his drinking “went off a cliff” and the cameras kept rolling.

The documentary took a hard look at Gower’s heavy drinking and what lay behind it, but it didn’t provide many answers as to New Zealand’s longstanding problem of alcohol abuse.

The weight of that will fall on tonight’s panel hosted by Gower, who says he hasn’t had a drink for four months.

While the show looks like a positive step into the now distant realm of current affairs, Three would’ve been roundly criticised if it hadn’t followed the documentary with some serious analysis of the harmful drinking problem.

Patrick Gower: On Booze threw out a few figures – Alcohol raises $1 billion in tax revenues each year, while harmful drinking costs the country $4 billion – but mainly it was about Gower’s personal battle with drink.

At times, it was an uncomfortable watch as the journalist’s personality was brutally laid bare.

When he was asked by a woman at his old flat “What’s your motivation for drinking?” a heavily intoxicated Gower replies: “When I was younger, and people thought I was ugly, and I couldn’t communicate with people unless I was drunk. I had no confidence, eh?”

Director Justin Hawkes, who made documentaries about marijuana and P with Gower, says the journalist’s willingness to expose his emotions draws in viewers from all demographics.

“Everyone else has a boundary but I think Paddy is so successful and popular because he is willing to open up. I think he is a rare person.”

Gower’s ability to emotionally connect with the people he is interviewing and get them to “freewheel” or forget about the camera is one of his strengths and it allows Hawkes to make fast-paced, entertaining documentaries – documentaries that can rate on a commercial network.

“Entertainment is number one – we have to make these highly watchable with an underflow of information. We try hard not to make it a lecture.

“I’ve ruined my attention span, so the pace (of the documentary) is quite extreme.”

Hawkes uses Gower’s sessions with a psychologist to form the narrative backbone of the film. The idea occurred to him while watching The Sopranos over the summer.

Gower’s insistence that heavy drinking is actually normal finally ends with what his psychologist calls an “awakening to booze”. He has “survived the Titanic” and had a “psychic shift”.

Gower attributes his “awakening” to a conversation with his friend, RNZ broadcaster Corin Dann, “who hit me head-on about my drinking”.

Gower with Corin Dann in the booze documentary.

Dann, and his wife Lotta, who wrote a book on giving up alcohol, will be part of the panel in tonight’s live show.

Others on the panel include Michelle Dickinson (aka Nano Girl), Matt Chisholm, Kieran Read, and 42 Below founder Geoff Ross.

Gower, as he did with the leaders’ debate at the last election, will be hell bent on making the discussion as entertaining as possible.

Still, plonking a group of talking heads into the middle of an entertainment schedule is not something that free-to-air TV does these days, and it is risky.

The days of current affairs in primetime, apart from the under-resourced Sunday programme on TVNZ, are long gone.

The only places politicians get properly grilled on TV these days are the publicly funded off-peak weekend shows Q & A and The Nation. News bosses argue that the breakfast shows fill some of the gap left by the demise of Campbell Live and Close-up but rarely does a power broker get upended on these shows.

Local TV had an opportunity to revitalise current affairs in the past two years as the crises of Covid, climate change and conflict have impacted the world, but they have stuck with light entertainment.

Newshub’s director of news, Sarah Bristow, describes tonight’s live show as “current affairs in a little bit of a different way”.

She says the show’s cost is being split between the news and programming departments and she didn’t have to twist any arms to get the 8.30pm slot.

“Paddy’s docos capture attention in a big way. Everyone [at Three] could see there was an opportunity to continue the conversation.”

So, what will the panelists discuss? Towards the end of his documentary Gower looked at what Iceland had done to go from having Europe’s highest rate of binge drinking among teenagers to the lowest.

It banned alcohol advertising, raised the drinking age from 18 to 20, and allowed its supermarkets to sell low alcohol beer only.

Controversially, it also has a 10pm curfew for children aged 12 to 16. Teenagers out later are picked up and held at a police station while their parents are contacted.

Gower doesn’t think New Zealand should adopt the Icelandic approach.

“No, what they did won’t work here but it shows that if you have big ideas as a country, you can have a shift.

“What New Zealand can do is have a hard look at its drinking and do something. Iceland can be an inspiration.”

If Gower’s panel can inspire some new ideas and rate well tonight it just also might be the “awakening” current affairs in New Zealand TV needs.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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