Would the last journo out, please turn off the studio lights?

As expected, in a passionate speech at the Andrew Olle Media Lecture last night, Ray Martin didn’t hold back in lamenting the loss of news and current affairs from commercial television.

Martin shared his thoughts on everything from the axing of Sunday to media owners, ABC, SBS, TEN and WIN Networks, Sky News, brand loyalty, the need to embrace interactivity for viewers who watch television with laptops, the rise of Seven News, and a predominance of men overseeing television programming.

It’s a good read in full here, or here are a few excerpts:

It’s clear that 2008 has been, what the Queen might call, ‘the annus horribulus’ – for the news business – both here and overseas. Sackings and forced redundancies. Newspapers closing and TV programs dumped.

Yet, I think we’d all agree that the ABC with innovative, serious journalism – obviously backed by management – has had an exceptionally prosperous year.

(It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have to worry about advertising cut-backs. Or ‘crushing’ interest debts.)

Nevertheless. If you check the ratings, there’s a crystal clear message – if commercial programme chiefs bother to look.

If Tony Jones’ new ‘Q and A’ programme at 9.30 pm on Thursday nights – even with politicians on the panel – can beat The Footy Show…well, who knows?

That might mean there’s an audience out there.

Which, of course, there is.

I should also give SBS a tick for its news programs.

And Sky News, which has become a powerhouse in LIVE news events. If not in ratings, then certainly in its news presence.

By comparison, I’m sorry to say, the three commercial networks have gone AWOL -when it comes to journalism. Out to Lunch. Except for the excellent nightly bulletins, the redoubtable Sixty Minutes…and, every so-often, the much-maligned 6.30 nightly current-affairs shows.

That’s all there is on a regular basis!
—–
I earlier mentioned the American Presidential election.

The television coverage and the use of the so-called ‘new media’ has been remarkable. It’s been a revelation – of how far our Australian networks are lagging behind the Americans in adapting to ‘the on-line revolution’.

Let me offer one quick example.

On CNN, viewers were ‘encouraged’ to watch the debates on the television – WITH their laptops. To INTERACT with the live coverage, in a dozen different ways – from streaming news stories and profiles of candidates, to blogging and chat rooms.

The idea was to play with your laptop…give your opinion and get directly involved… while you watch CNN -during the debate and for hours afterwards.

Television is no longer a window on the world – it’s now a mirror.

Incidentally, Max Uetchtritz, who now runs Nine MSN News, cites Australian surveys which reveal more than half of our viewers also regularly watch TV with a computer on their lap.

The big difference is WE don’t give them anything to do which CONNECTS them to our news programs.

By way of contrast, the American networks are NOT waiting for the audience to come to them. They’re going after the audience – feverishly.

In fact, the boss of CBS said recently: ‘CBS is no longer a television company. No longer a radio company. It’s not an on-line company. It’s an AUDIENCE company.”
———
Who cares if today’s media Board Members – or executives – have great experience in banking or the oil business? It means nothing if their London family runs a great shoe empire.

Even if they cared they wouldn’t understand. It gets lost in translation.

When was the last time a Board Member walked into a TV studio, or a newsroom?

How would they know a great story? How could they recognise what makes a natural camerman or a brilliant tape editor? And how important such people are to corporate profits?

I’m reminded of that memorable line by the movie mogul, Sam Goldwyn. Asked what made him so successful in Hollywood

he said ‘I respect talent.’ And he did.

So did Kerry Packer and Sam Chisholm and the others who understood.

Alan Bond ONCE famously said that he ‘understood real estate, and banks and finance. But in television,’ he said ‘one plus one doesn’t always equal two.’

He was right. That’s why Bondy got out.

Australia’s NEWEST richest man, Frank Lowry said the same thing in his biography – about his disastrous encounter with Channel 10. Mr. Lowry COULD NOT get rid of the network quickly enough. He simply couldn’t understand it.

Now television – like newspapers – is certainly about business. We all appreciate that. It’s got to make money. But – as Bondy found out – it’s about much more than that.

It’s about egos and imagination and creativity – and, they are ALWAYS tricky and a bit ephemeral.

It’s about unique brands and brand loyalty…to customers who feel they ‘sort of own ’the business. That it’s an integral part of their lives.

With television you come into their home, you sit in their lounge room. They laugh and they cry with you.

——
Seven years ago, Mr Stokes told us here… ‘the role of the media’ is to make sure that all Australians are given the facts.

To make sure ‘they understand the issues.’

Mr. Stokes insisted that the media ‘must be part of the answer’

to Australia’s political and social problems.

He even suggested holding media debates.

YET, if you look at his Number One network, all we regularly get from Seven…regularly I’m saying …is ‘Today Tonight’ and news bulletins.

I acknowledge they both win the ratings convincingly. Night after night.

But, there’s no red-blooded campaign to ‘understand the issues’, as Mr. Stokes put it.

No sign that Mr. Stokes’ media is ‘part of the answer’ to Australia’s political and social issues.

Maybe that’s about to happen. I certainly hope so.

It’s worth noting that in recent weeks – and somewhat surprisingly – the Seven Network HAS presented a couple of half-hour News Specials, on the economic meltdown. Seven have led the way. Good on them, too.

Those Specials have rated well. Hopefully, they’ll encourage more such journalistic endeavours, because the cupboard’s been dreadfully bare.

—–

You can almost forget Channel 10. It’s just news bulletins and ‘ Meet the Press’.

What ever happened to a network’s ‘public responsibility and duty’ – as part of being granted a free-to-air licence?

Do Ten’s Canadian corporate owners ‘give a flying fig’ about journalism? Do they foster public debate in Australia? Do they care whether Australians are given the facts and helped to understand the issues?

They’re rhetorical questions. We all know the answers.

( PAUSE )

One could ask the same questions of Bruce Gordon, the powerful owner of the WIN Network – which now has a potential audience of eight million viewers across Australia. Mr. Gordon is another man who’s richly qualified for our Media Moguls Club.

That’s if he cares ‘two bob’ about journalism.
—–
So, WHO do we need to ‘get on-side’ to restore the power of television news?

Well, after the corporate owners – whom I suggest really couldn’t care less – easily the most powerful men in commercial tv are the Programme Directors.

And they ARE… all men.

Which is a media mystery in itself. After all, it’s no trade secret that women control the home TV sets.

Yet, a small bunch of blokes decide what women want to watch.

It’s also NO SECRET that commercial TV Programme chiefs have never liked NEWS programs. Beyond the absolute bare, basic essentials – like a nightly news bulletin.

They certainly don’t believe that News Specials or debates – or any more current affairs shows – are the answer to their ratings’ prayers. Well, I believe they’re wrong.

Maybe Channel 7 will prove how wrong …with their much-talked about Sunday night show, set to take on ‘Sixty Minutes’. If it ever gets on air.

I sympathise with the program bosses. I really do.

If it was easy to pick what Australians want to watch on TV, then every show would be a smash hit.

But, when will commercial TV ‘stop being scared’?

When will they take some ‘creative risks’?

What’s happened to the unpredictable, the cheeky and the edgy that you find on the ABC and Pay-Television? Instead of copying cheap Japanese game shows and running two or three episodes of the same American sit-com night after night?

It’s easy to argue that viewers are being DRIVEN to the internet…away from commercial TV.

———–
Would the last journo out, please turn off the studio lights?

Unless we can find a few NEW ‘media moguls’.

Or ‘fire up’ television managements – with passion – so they care once again about the true value of broadcast journalism. So they want a return to the pursuit of excellence. So, they want to still be in the business in 10 or 20 years time. Beyond next week.

Tim Long – used to be the razor-sharp comedy writer for David Letterman in New York. He’s now ‘one’ of the Executive Producers of ‘The Simpsons’.

Recently, Tim Long predicted:

‘The television business could have the long- term viability of the Soviet Union. We could all wake up one morning and it’s gone.’

Ladies and gentlemen, I think he was joking.

Thank you so much for listening.

Andrew Olle Media Lecture airs 10:10pm Sunday on ABC1.

12 Comments:

  1. Jerome, I have said this before, (back when he left 9 earlier this year) Ray Martin moving to 7 would be a step in the wrong direction. Too many of his friends work there and it would come at the expense of their talent that they worked hard to raise.
    (By the way David, the word limit is a good idea!)

  2. This summed it up for me: “Television is no longer a window on the world – it’s now a mirror. ” LOL
    Dangerous talk. When you think your television IS reality then you have issues. Ray may actually think in a small way he binds together all of existence. Grandeur much?

    Well Ray when you say “them”, “they” or “their”, your referring to me, and I got ABC news on Iview 9news online, Skynews live streaming 24/7, Youtube, Iinet, tucows wow, you name it, a million places to access Aussie news online, not to mention feeds and Diggs. And MusicTV? Ray, maybe actually use the net and watch a bit of TV before you make silly silly statements like that

    But sadly with all of Rays genius he has missed something, the internet, Pay-TV, Mobile Media its all about choice, people want to choose because we are individuals, people are not “them” “those” or “they’s”… we are all me’s And sadly Ray, in a world of choice, no one is going to choose you.
    Nick off and find some humility.

  3. In real peoples terms?

    “The whole time I was with Nine I was thinking of ABC, I promise…”

    Funny that NOW in Rays eyes all Commercial Television is crap and now ONLY the ABC are our shining light of warm fuzzy beacony truth.

  4. Current affairs have lost quality over the years especially Today Tonight which has made me give Seven the boot for news and current affairs because they lose the plot. ACA is better but they still have some less appealing stories but at least they have nice sets and Tracey does a good job. She isn’t as good as Ray or Jana though. Win must make sure that local ACA in Perth and Adelaide work and give viewers a good reason to stop watching Today Tonight. They should make sure that first shows capture the audience permanently.

    As for 60 Minutes, excellent program, can’t miss it. 60 minutes have more creditability that other commercial current affairs especially after mid April when they got back on the horse. The first month of 60 Minutes wasn’t strong but since April, i gave 60 Minutes a go and I wish nine could at least make ACA, an half hour version of 60 minutes in terms of quality, stories and that will get them ratings. Better news and current affairs can give Nine back the ratings crown if they only try. Time to fix them up in 2009.

    The ABC and SBS do well in current affair in terms of quality and sometimes ratings. The 7:30 report and Four Corners do well and the commercials need to have quality like them.

  5. i agree with almost everything here, about all of the terrible current affairs on TV.

    i guess this is exactly what seven wanted to hear in the lead up to their new show,

    would this say that ray will consider moving to 7?, he did seem to support them a lot
    eg. complimenting the 7 news specials and the “sunday night” idea

  6. The current affairs programs are much maligned for a reason. It’s a sad state of affairs when a quality show like Sunday is axed while lowest common denominator rubbish like Sunrise,TT/ACA and Seven news rate so well.

    Thank god for 60 Minutes and the ABC.

  7. When channel 9 has 10 episodes of 2 1/2 men a week, you really know that the network is desperate.

    It certainly is a rarity to see quality stories on TT and ACA, although I can’t say that I have seen a large decline in quality in the 6pm news.

    The internet: such a magical invention

  8. I’m not a fan of Ray, but by god, he is on the money here.

    The quest for the “all ighty ollar” by the big three has left us with nothing but the lowest quality journalism I have ever seen… and sadly it’s seeping into our print media too.

    Crap news and current affairs, and the crap programming in general has left them with the most apathetic and least connected audiences ever – no wonder people just don’t give a s**t anymore.

  9. I agree with much of what Ray says, but he was more than happy to be paid handsomely while contributing to the downfall of quality current affairs on TV himself. It was under his watch that ACA backed down to running tacky diet stories, etc. At least Jana had the guts to walk off the job when she was given that sort of content to present.

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