EXCLUSIVE: In Part 2 of an interview with TV Tonight, Tracy Grimshaw shares her thoughts on the changes that have encroached upon the landscape in the battle between A Current Affair and Today Tonight.
In the last two months there have been major developments to a once-familiar contest.
Anna Coren has vacated the TT chair, taken up by sports presenter Matt White. So far the Seven show has won the national ratings stoush. But this doesn’t tell the whole picture.
After years against local TTs, WIN Television has also begun locally-produced editions of ACA in Perth and Adelaide, leaving Grimshaw and White head to head only along the East Coast. In the game of television when it has traditionally been near-heresy to name, let alone acknowledge, the opposition, Grimshaw is more pragmatic.
“Channel Seven are a very strong network at the moment,” she acknowledges. “Very strong. And I think their performance at 6:30 is probably underpinned by their performance across the board. I don’t think anyone would deny that.
“Obviously the WIN stations have taken steps to address this. Our national figures have been undermined for all the years that I’ve been doing the show by the under-performance in Perth. That’s as much as 120,000 a day which is very often enough to make the difference between a national win and a national loss.”
As a result, Grimshaw says she looks more closely at East Coast figures which are much closer.
“By and large we’ll win Melbourne and they’ll win Sydney. Brisbane is more of a floating market.”
But these qualfications rarely go reported. Grimshaw, bluntly, points towards “lazy writing” by television columnists.
“We get lumped in the same category by television writers who look at national figures,” she says, “and who don’t understand that there have been local editions of Today Tonight in Adelaide and Perth for many years, and they still think that it’s valid to compare national figures. You can’t compare national figures when TT has an East Coast version and an Adelaide version and a Perth version. The national figures become less legitimate that way. It’s not the same show.
“Constantly those national figures keep getting trotted out, and it’s lazy not to look any deeper into the issue.”
She agrees there is sense in WIN’s decision to produce local ACAs. It is particularly relevant in Perth, she notes, where the East Coast ACA can be 2 or 3 hours behind a locally produced live Today Tonight. For a News-driven show it can be a major influence.
“The fact is you can see daylight in Perth between what we were doing at 6:30 and what the locally produced opposition was doing. Given that there’s (up to) a three hour time lag, I think people in Perth were saying ‘we’ll take our current affairs show live, thankyou,’ with more of a Perth slant.
“In order to directly compete it made sense for WIN to do their own local version. I think it will take them a little bit of time, but hats off them for doing it,” she said.
Grimshaw doesn’t regularly watch Today Tonight, she says, which is on air at the same time she is presenting. But she is familiar with the show’s style and the “pickles they get themselves into.”
But both ACA and TT have been hauled over the coals by ACMA with some regularity. ACA has breached the Broadcasting Code five times since 2005, prompting a meeting earlier this year with senior Nine staff to review compliance issues. In September CEO David Gyngell organised a meeting with his news chiefs and ACMA’s Chris Chapman to improve the situation.
Despite the transgressions, Grimshaw defends that there are differences, albeit subtle ones, between Nine and Seven shows.
“I think it’s those sorts of things where they cross the line and we won’t, that I think makes the difference for us. But frankly, I think it must be obvious in the way that we handle things because I get that sort of feedback from people all the time. That there’s a line that we won’t cross that our opposition will regularly cross. It’s more viewers perception than it is mine because as I say I don’t watch it.
“But I’d like to believe that we bring a level of integrity to what we do. I know from talking to our reporters, I hear them when they come back to the office and they’re pitching their stories and they’re absolutely passionate about someone who’s been done over by somebody, or some new medical treatment that they want to do a story on. They’re completely passionate about it.
“I think if you have a level of passion and a level of commitment, if that underpins what you do then you have to trust there’s a level of integrity in what you do,” she said.
Sometimes it is a struggle to illuminate the differences when many are quick to lump shows together.
“‘Trash TV, Tabloid TV,’ those sorts of headings are attached to us. It doesn’t make allowances for any kind of differences that might exist. People will read that. If you read something often enough, perception becomes reality. It is frustrating. But you can’t do anything about it. You just do what you do and hope that people who watch can see a difference.
“I don’t think everything that we do is tabloid, and by the same token I don’t think that everything that’s tabloid is bad,” she said.
One of Grimshaw’s visible attributes in hosting ACA is her ability to conduct a decent interview. Whether its an exclusive with the former wife of Greg Norman, or her opening line to Gordon Ramsay (“Gordon Ramsay how the F*** are you?”) Grimshaw has an astute ability to reflect the editorial weight of the story.
“I’ve done a couple of interviews with Gordon when hardly anybody knew who he was,” she says. “We did a cooking segment on the Today show and it was funny and I liked him a lot. And I did another with him on ACA when he released his book just before he became famous. He was known of course for Boiling Point but he hadn’t really taken off here. So we’d developed a bit of a rapport.”
The Ramsay interview earlier this year (pictured) was a rollicking, cheeky exchange between subject and host.
“I like Gordon a lot and we obviously do get along. It was fun. I think he flirts with everybody, it’s part of his schtick.”
During a mid year break there was also a week when Eddie McGuire took the ACA chair. When he landed big figures on his first night (it was the end of a long weekend) many media were quick to crow that he scored higher than Grimshaw. By the end of the week the figures were exactly the same, but it was old news by then and went largely unreported.
“Eddie and I joked about that,” she laughs. “He came into my office not long after one of those stories had run that suggested he was about to take over, and I was out, and he said to someone ‘where’s Tracy? Tell her to get out of my office!’
“Eddie and I have known each other for a long time. I wouldn’t even worry about any of that stuff.”
Both commercial 6:30 shows also make a habit of misleading viewers before they end their shows with a now-infamous ‘coming up next / still to come’ tease, which invariably leads to a mere plug for the following evening. Grimshaw is more than aware it’s a viewer bug bear.
“You know what, if I was sitting home I’d throw something at the telly!” she laughs. “I don’t get everything I want on the show!
“We’re not fooling anybody that we’ve got another story coming up. In truth we should re-word that. But it’s been done that way for a while. I just have to trust that our viewers are smart enough to know what we mean when I say ‘coming up’, I mean ‘not really coming up, tune in tomorrow!'”
There are just two more full weeks of the ratings year, which has fuelled speculation that Grimshaw is set to take up a role on 60 Minutes, or that Karl Stefanovic is poised to front ACA in 2009. Either she wasn’t letting on, or it’s a gameplan that is news to her.
“Karl’s very happy doing the Today show and I’m very happy doing ACA,” she affirms. “That’s media speculation. Honestly, I’ve never had a conversation with anybody about that stuff.
“So far as I know, unless somebody knows more than me, I’m doing what I’m doing, Karl’s doing what he’s doing and 60‘s doing what they’re doing.”
But such is the nature of having a prime-time spotlight. Whether viewers like or loathe ACA and its genre, or state-based editions come and go, Grimshaw seems set to keep her head down and get on with the job. And very happy to do so.
“I’ve got very broad shoulders and I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know it is what it is,” she says. “We put ourselves up there every night, so we put ourselves up there for criticism every night, and everyone’s entitled to perceive it the way that they perceive it.”