2011 Current Affairs taste test

Twelve months ago TV Tonight took a close look at a week of stories on Today Tonight, A Current Affair and The 7PM Project.

The current affairs shows love to brand test products, so it’s time once again to taste test the shows themselves, this time substituting 7PM for 6:30 with George Negus.

All three shows are head to head in the same timeslot. But what kind of content are they offering? How do they differ? And why is the word “Exclusive” now the most abused word in the business?

Last week our national headlines were dominated by the Carbon Tax and News Corporation’s hacking scandal. Neither was touched by Today Tonight or A Current Affair, but both were dissected by 6:30 with George Negus on more than one occasion.

Today Tonight and A Current Affair are covering such similar terrain that a promo for the following night’s story is frequently spoiled by the competitor. The shows are dominated by consumer stories and tales that champion an Aussie battler (especially those hard done by bureaucracy or a shonky tradesman). 6:30 with George Negus leans towards stories behind daily headlines.

Muslims, shopping, diets and celebrity were tackled by all three shows, but with different editorial angles.

Both Today Tonight and A Current Affair included cross promotions for other shows: Australia’s Got Talent (three times on TT) and Top Design (ACA) -indeed Tracy Grimshaw introduced Top Design as a “blockbuster” before the first episode had even aired.

Both TT and ACA had lengthy first segments of 19 minutes before the first commercial break. Four stories had passed before the first ad. 6:30 averaged three stories of 14 minutes before its first ad.

The word “Exclusive” was used liberally. On Today Tonight it accompanied around half of their stories. A Current Affair also used it with regularity, but on almost every occasion it was hard to ascertain what defined an “Exclusive” on either show. Does it simply mean “our cameras were there and nobody else was?” Stories about car park fines, summer fashions and comparing pizzas were all “Exclusives.” ACA‘s Gaga interview, which certainly felt like an Exclusive, didn’t carry the word. Comparatively, 6:30 with George Negus didn’t use it once.

Today Tonight won every single night, with A Current Affair second and 6:30 with George Negus in last place. Significantly, the TT east-coast edition does not air in Adelaide and Perth which have state-based editions and hosts, but those figures are added to its national tally. On the east coast the battle between TT and ACA is tighter, with TT winning Sydney and Brisbane and ACA winning Melbourne. 6:30 trails them by a country mile. It also had a late-night replay which adds to its overall viewing audience but may also diminish the need to watch where it matters most.

The show was hosted all week by Kylie Gillies while Matt White was on leave. But while both are confined to reading the autocue, it’s difficult to know what point of difference either brings to the show. It’s fair to ask how different the show might  be were it hosted by Grant Denyer, Daniel MacPherson or a media work experience kid. TT‘s appeal is not in with its presenter but the topics that connect with its audience, many of whom are older viewers.

Sometimes the subjects are seamless. One story on Wednesday night began as a story on supermarket loyalty programmes and somehow segued into a brand comparison of breadloafs.

But for all its headline-grabbing and provocative stories, this is a show that knows its audience well. A viewer poll asking “Should Muslims in Australia be ruled by Islamic Sharia Law?” resulted in 96% of respondents voting “No.”

Interview with Executive Producer Craig McPherson: unavailable.

* branded as “Exclusive”

An increase in Islamic Sharia Law practiced in Australia
* Profile of 6yo US Pageant Princess Eden Wood
4 children orphaned after death of father struggle with housing situation
* Property hotspots around the country.
Centrelink sting: identity fraud
* Scratchie ticket that doesn’t pay out

* Customer service at supermarkets: Coles, Woolworths, IGA, Aldi
* Appliances tested for power usage.
* Australia’s Got Talent contestant Jack Vigden has dental surgery
* Custody battle over frozen embyros
* Pizza wars: taste test between rival pizza chains

Supermarkets offer competitions and loyalty programmes / Bread brand comparisons
* Profile of Australia’s Got Talent contestant Chooka Parker
* Asylum seekers in Malaysia still plan to travel to Australia
Home owners lose money through Rent-to-Buy scheme

*ATM Security risk as hackers attack
* Teen mums.
Judge strips petrol station drive-off driver of license
Online car scams.
* Jack Vigden meets Perez Hilton
* Diet challenge: Neighbours test different diets.

Scratchie buyers ripped off over printing errors
Billboard campaign for Islam
* Waiting list for public housing grows
* Summer fashion campaigns for Myer
Seniors travelling during retirement

Ratings average: 1.25m

Several of the subjects tackled by TT were also covered by ACA, however Executive Producer Grant Williams points out some followed an ACA promo as a Spoiler.

ACA devoted Monday night entirely to having Lady Gaga in studio.

Unlike Today Tonight, Tracy Grimshaw remains the strongest attribute of ACA with her interviewing skills on display during the Gaga edition.

Interview with Executive Producer Grant Williams:

ACA‘s Point of Difference?
GW: “ACA offers big-event television. When it’s available to us, when the opportunity arises we embrace event television, the big interviews, the Nigel Brennans, the Lady Gagas etc. We are the only show on television, as Tracy recently pointed out, that conducts interviews that run 20-30 minutes long. 7:30 doesn’t run interviews as long as we do, when we embrace that scenario.”

Use of the word Exclusive?
GW: “We put Exclusive on what we genuinely believe to be an ACA-only story. Today Tonight puts Exclusive on everything. They copy everything we do and put Exclusive on it. So why wouldn’t I?”

Best Story of the week?
GW: “It was easily the Gaga special for different reasons. There were stories of more importance to the general audience but Gaga was certainly the outstanding event of the week.

“But you’re clearly not offering something to viewers over 55 if you’re going for a Gaga show. So you have to be prepared for some interesting ratings results when you take that course. When TT are leading with an anti-Muslim story and you’ve got Gaga then they’re going to have a lot of older viewers.”

* branded as “Exclusive.”

A Gaga Affair. One on one interview and musical performance.

* Car park rage: private car park issuing fines
* Identity theftS
* Honeymoon killer Gabe Watson to be extradited
US fashion and food labels to open in Australia
Chicken price wars
Gaga: behind the scenes montage

$1M giveaway at Woolworths
* Fallout of a “cougar” romance gone wrong
Bread test
Top Design: behind the scenes
Royal Diets. Has Kate Middleton gone too far?

Convicted NZ man has visa cancelled but Australia won’t deport him
Qld flood victims in dispute with tradesman
Potato chips cooked with reduced saturated fat
Germ test. How infected is your home?
Budget skincream test

* Bad customer service in retail and restaurants
* Cult group The Family selling real estate and ousting animal lover
* Partygoers question safety at Thailand’s Full Moon Party
Real estate salesmen with entertaining marketing videos
Winter meat suggestions

Ratings average: 1.04m

Negus opens each episode perched on the end of his desk, with an opening editorial and laconic greeting. Across the week the show tackled the serious topics, both national and international. It frequently feels like Foreign Correspondent-lite, without enough light and shade. But there were live interviews, and I especially liked Negus having post-story conversations with reporters such as Hugh Riminton.

Like Tracy Grimshaw, Negus is a strong interviewer, however he is swift to add editorial opinion (try and stop him) which stylistically may divide the audience.

One of the areas the show could improve in is in its ability to communicate stories. Many of the reports feel like they belong in TEN News. They are dry, factual, and delivered by a dispassionate observer. Both TT and ACA reporters personalise their reports very well, hitting the emotional notes of a story, showing us their reactions. Storytelling on 6:30 remains inconsistent on this front, although Hamish McDonald and Hugh Riminton are clear assets.

The show also had two stories produced by international affiliates (including hiding their watermark).

Ratings for the show so far are tepid, but Executive Producer Tony Ritchie says the show has had to start from scratch after the exit of the Neighbours audience and is often within striking distance of ABC’s 7:30.

Interview with Executive Producer Tony Ritchie:

Point of Difference?
TR: “We’re trying for a broader take on the day’s news with more meat on the bones, and providing something more about an event of the day, or a person of the day.

“It’s a traditional news and current affairs programme, providing a greater take on the day’s news and major events, but we’re not limited to that.”

Use of the word Exclusive?
TR: “We don’t try to claim every story as an Exclusive. But we probably run a number of stories that are our own.

“If you’re going to call something an Exclusive you want to be sure that it’s an exclusive. You don’t want to demean the word. It’s a powerful word so you go out of your way on the stories that really matter.”

Best Story of the Week?
TR: “On Monday we did a story about contaminated soil brought to Australia under the guise of fertilizer with farmers left holding the can because there was no ownership. No-one would take responsibility.”

* no “Exclusives”

Carbon Tax: selling the pitch
Negus discusses Tax with Hugh Riminton
Vox pops: Carbon Tax: good or bad?
Renewable energy industries. Will they benefit from Carbon Tax?
Christmas Island inquest into death of asylum seekers. Live cross.
Pilots strike looming. Live interview.
Farmers angry that fertilizer they had bought from China turns out to be dirt.
The rebuilding of flooded Grantham

Allegations that the Aust govt. is keeping Indonesian teenagers in adult prisons
Carbon tax: selling the spin
News Corp: Trouble continues in the UK
Warning labels on alcohol bottles
WA Mining Minister pushes for WA to secede from Federal Govt. (interview)
A woman in the US is living next door to her son’s killer

Carbon tax: Gillard / Abbott selling the spin in community. Interview with Hugh Riminton.
Italian government facing financial meltdown
Alcohol problems in Katharine.
News Corp under pressure.
Skin cancer. Call to increase sun screens to 50+
21yo Irish golfer Rory McIlroy. The next Tiger Woods?
Allan Jeans tribute

Department store marketing issues
Gillard: A shy girl?
Obesity in US children.
Christmas Island inquest. Update.
Murdoch: brief update
Cairo. What’s changed? (US)
Growing doubts over Peter Falconio case.

Losing the war on Heroin.
Interview with Hugh Riminton. Carbon tax update
USA: Hackers could be the next terrorists
Women in Afghanistan standing up for women’s rights
South Sudan’s rise to independence
Profile on Tom Jones (US)

Ratings average: 443,000 (6:30 edition)

Today Tonight
James Thomas filed a story from Malaysia which looked at the lack of status for refugees ahead of the government’s “Malaysian solution.” Although it included some Channel 4 & SBS footage (which was acknowledged) the story was empathetic to their plight rather than depicting them as “queue-jumpers” (NB: 6:30 with George Negus had Hamish McDonald in Malaysia covering a similar story several weeks ago).

A Current Affair
A Gaga Affair:  The rapport between Gaga and Tracy Grimshaw was evident, and whilst the veneer of Gaga made it difficult to warm to her, she made up for it with a lengthy live medley of 3 songs. This was heart-on-the-sleeve stuff and did more to connect her with a broad Australian audience than a single interview ever could. (NB: several acknowledgements and logos of media groups at the end).

6:30 with George Negus
Hamish McDonald files a follow-up to a previous story which claims the Australian government has been keeping Indonesian teenage asylum-seekers in adult prisons. This is a burning issue that should have received wider media attention.


  1. TT makes me laugh and especially thinking of all the people screaming abuse at their TV’s on stories about Pensioners getting paid too much or Burka’s. ACA, just can’t handle Tracy I find her too bland. I remember when George Negus was a hard hitting reporter and now he is just an autocue reader, I think that people get upset about that – I haven’t tune in to watch much of him yet.

  2. What an indictment on the mentality of the viewing public when more people watched an anti-Muslim story rather than a really interesting and revealing ‘exclusive’ with Gaga!! TT and ACA cater to the masses (they are a product after all) – unfortunately the masses are the idiots!

  3. Living outside the metros, I don’t watch any of them (NBN News continues at that time of night). ACA is good for a genuine laugh every now and then, though – but I’d go for 6:30, in spite of my political leanings, if I was after serious news.

  4. David I think it’s awesome that producers have taken the time to comment, it is great to hear what they have to say, however they have to expect that their statements are going to be scrutinised and possibly criticised just as any comments that you or I or anybody else may make are open to criticism.

  5. The only other real escapism is to get Cable TV and also check out Fox 8 Animated Sitcoms if you have that and digital TV Bonus points to you.If it were allowed 7 would give us 6:30pm nightly American Dad or Family Guy instead of making us suffer with Today Tonight.

  6. Moanique in Brisbane

    I have to agree that 6.30 with George is the only credible current affairs show on at that time. Although sometimes I am sucked in by TT or ACA promos of an interesting story, that usually turns out to be a beat up. In my opinion, Derryn Hinch is the best current affairs host Aussie TV has ever had.

  7. Great story David. I think 6.30 is by far the best, though Negus can be a little
    un-entertaining at times.

    If I want to better my understanding of actual news I watch 6.30.

    If I want to lose brain cells or find out the best laundry detergent to buy I watch TT or ACA.

  8. 6:30 needs that one story, that one ‘exclusive’, that does something to Australian society or culture that knocks it out of the park. Four Corners does it all the time. If 6:30 can do it, it will raise its profile immeasureably.

  9. William Campbell

    I have been referring to “A Current Affair” as “A Current Advertisement” for quite some time now. In the past when the likes of Mike Willesee, Mike Munro and Ray Martin hosted this show it actually was related to Current Affairs. In my wildest dreams I can’t imagine any one of those guys being willing to host the show in its current format. For longer than I can remember, the News and A Current Affair were my daily must seeprograms. Not any more. As soon as A Current Advertisement starts I switch over to “Everybody Loves Raymond”.
    I guess sitting on your lazy fat ar*e and collecting revenue advertisers requires far less time and effort than Researching for a Real “Current Affairs” show…

  10. @Bhudda

    don’t watch either…your brain will turn to mush…I gave them up years ago…just the promos are bad enough. Some believe Alzheimers will be cured if these shows are banned.

    @David, I liked your report, as regards whether producers speak to you or not, I don’t think it matters. If they speak to you that is all well and good, but many posters on here will pull apart the credibility of their comments and if they don’t speak…well I guess many of us will continue to take the p*ss and ridicule any potential credibility they think their shows have. I am only referring to ACA/TT with this.

  11. I think you’ll find that the ratings don’t point out that most people watching TT and ACA watched that channels news bulletins directly beforehand, and didn’t bother to change the channel. I believe if TEN could have more viewers at 6, 6:30 may perform better.
    I like to call it “Lazy viewers syndrome”.

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