The Gruen Transfer returned to television this week. The Footy Show (both of them) returned last week. Before The Game is back next week.
Then there’s Spicks and Specks, The New Inventors, Collectors, Can We Help?, First Tuesday Book Club, Good News Week, RocKwiz, Q & A, Insiders, Meet the Press, Good Game… panel shows are everywhere.
More are on the way: Shaun Micallef’s Talkin ‘Bout Your Generation is coming to TEN, Anh Do’s sports panel The Squiz is coming to SBS.
But panel shows are not necessarily foolproof. Glenn Robbins’ Out of the Question couldn’t seem to emulate the same success he’d enjoyed with The Panel. Seven’s Todd McKenney-hosted You May Be Right was widely seen as its own attempt at Spicks and Specks. It lasted only a handful of episodes.
So, with a few rare exceptions, commercial networks struggle to hit a successful panel format when the ABC has them in abundance.
“I think a one hour panel show on a commercial network is really challenging,” says the ABC’s Courtney Gibson.
Gibson was Head of Arts & Entertainment when Spicks and Specks sprang to life. She has overseen several in the genre develop into dependable ABC formats.
“The ABC half hours really are 28 minutes long and that’s a good pace at which to rocket along. I think when you do a one hour panel show on a commercial channel and you’re looking at a 48 minute show it’s very hard to create a discernable shape for it. It becomes like a list of segments if you’re not careful. There’s very few ABC panel shows that are one hour long.”
Gibson, who is now ABC TV’s Executive Head Content Creation, says one of the key’s to Spicks‘ success is the element of game.
“If you stripped away the game you just have seven people sitting around talking about music, and it absolutely wouldn’t work as a format. It’s the competition of the two teams and the forward momentum of the rounds and the discipline of the time limits that are applied by the game that actually make that work as a format.
“The alchemy of the guests is important. I think one of the ways it works is that you become the vicarious extra guest in the group. If you look at something like Q&A it’s live, it’s interactive and it’s as much about the audience as it is the panel. Last night I was streaming it and Twittering with friends about it. So you’re actually having your own panel show in the side bar of the actual panel that you’re watching.”
Gibson says the ABC always subtly refreshes shows and fine-tunes them over the Christmas break. The Gruen Transfer is back with extra new faces -a much easier task since the show became a hit.
“Now people in ad land can see what the show is so I think there was more confidence in people sticking their hands up wanting to come on. You can imagine (production company) Zapruder’s ringing people up and going ‘hi we’re doing this ad show can you come to this workshop?’
“I remember when were starting Spicks we were recording on a Friday night and everyone was doing gigs and unavailable. About 8 weeks in there was a queue. It stopped being a one way booking process. And I think the same with Gruen series two there’s lots of exciting new guests.”
Many panel shows feature the literal panel desk, though some prefer a more relaxed lounge atmosphere. The mediator host is mandatory, an affable individual with ability to steer, coax, and challenge the guests. Males continue to dominate the field. Points to Julia Zemiro and Jennifer Byrne for staying the distance.
Another key element of panel shows is the inclusion of an audience. First Tuesday Book Club moved from having no audience to adding one. Whereas Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton on At the Movies, a ‘panel of two,’ thrives because there is no audience.
“It’s about the engagement about the two of them,” says Gibson. “So you don’t want an audience because then they’re not going hammer and tongs at each other. Suddenly they’re playing to the room. I think it’s a very key decision about ‘to audience’ or ‘not to audience’ depending on what kind of show you’re doing.”