ABC’s Barrie Cassidy has something to crow about.
“This year for the first time Insiders is the highest-rated morning programme any day of the week,” he declares.
“We have 361,000 viewers and Sunrise is in the low 350,000s and we’re well ahead of Today.”
Some context is required.
Insiders is averaging 264,000 metro viewers every Sunday morning on ABC, but pulling another 97,000 viewers on ABC News 24. Combined that puts it well ahead of Sunrise‘s 329,000 viewers on a single channel, in a somewhat uneven race.
The political show has also risen by an impressive 25% in 2015, more than any ABC News & Current Affairs show this year. Not bad for a show in its 14th year on air.
“We would never have anticipated that when we set out. All we wanted to do was find a place in the market for our own particular style of coverage. We were up against Sunday, Meet the Press but we knew we had a particular thing we wanted to do.
“The idea was to get a place in the market.”
So what’s behind the surge in viewers? What could possibly possess so many Australians to sit down and listen to a programme discussing politics, when so many primetime shows avoid the subject at all costs?
“People were so frustrated with the lack of political cohesion and the constant leadership changes, they were looking for programmes like ours to fill the story out –or maybe even give them some hope,” Cassidy explains.
“Our panellists are not only the people who break the stories out of Canberra, they are the most engaging.
“They are journalists who can tell the story well, and break the stories and on some occasions they break them on air.”
The hour long show includes a political interview, newspaper headlines, panel discussion and ‘Talking Pictures’ but Cassidy admits to some frustration that Insiders is sometimes referred to as a programme for ‘political tragics.’
“It goes way beyond that. There aren’t that many political tragics in the country!” he maintains.
“It draws an audience who have been busy during the week and they miss a lot of this stuff and they see it all pulled together at a time that’s convenient to them.
“They can lay back and watch it casually on a Sunday morning.”
He also believes the average demographic of the audience has skewed younger, acknowledging the social media pull of the clips by brilliant editor Huw Parkinson.
“Huw’s contribution can’t be under-estimated because he’s brought a whole new feeling (to the show).
“He wasn’t even working fulltime for the ABC. He was a casual employed mainly to do Insiders and News Breakfast (editing). He put forward an idea and said ‘What do you think?’” he recalls.
“Once he had delivered 3 or 4 of these finally it occurred to them in Sydney that they had better get him on staff! So now he is permanently on staff.
“When you come up with something like Christopher Pyne, The Fixer, it almost identifies the guy. I thought The Killing Season mixed with The Breakfast Club was outstanding. A lot of people liked Bronwyn Bishop with Arrested Development!
“Universities and even high schools now watch the program as part of their studies. So younger people are starting to come on board.”
Parkinson was later invited to contribute something for a Russell Brand UK pilot and now has a Walkley Awards nomination.
“We have not once had to apologise or do a retraction.”
Even when the ABC was criticised as supposedly not playing for ‘Team Australia’ Insiders had no trouble in drawing politicians from all sides. Cassidy says Canberra’s relationship with the show ebbs and flows, reflected by the wider political mood.
“It depends on the circumstances at the time. When they are travelling well they are comfortable. When they are not, they’re antagonistic. But through that whole period, with an array of Prime Ministers …we’ve never had any difficulty in drawing Prime Ministers onto the programme. Or Shadow Ministers, no matter who was PM at the time,” he continues.
“In the 2 years when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister I never interviewed him but when Fran Kelly stepped in for me while I was on long service leave, he did do the programme.
“He was the one PM who was probably the most elusive.”
Yet he holds some disappointment that the political interview has been trimmed from 14 minutes to no longer than 10.
“It bothers me a little because sometimes there’s not a lot you can achieve in 8-10 minutes. You can get the basic story out there, but you can’t do an adequate cross-examination in 8 minutes, but you do the best you can.
“The thing I am most proud of with almost 15 years on air in a free-wheeling, Live to Air, unrehearsed television programme, we have not once had to apologise or do a retraction.”
“Andrew Bolt was a better commentator …when his views were challenged”
Some of the robust panellist exchanges have provided Sunday morning fireworks.
“We’ve had some classic battles between David Marr and initially Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt, now with Gerard Henderson. And it can go on in the Green Room before and afterwards!
“But the key to it is that they share a cab to the airport afterwards.
“I’ve always seen my role as a Facilitator of the discussion, and the key to it are the other 3. But even within that limited framework, my influence over it is I decide where the conversation is going to go,” he says.
Analysing the political mood of the nation are regular commentators from News, Fairfax, The Guardian, and ABC.
“We don’t sit down and go Male / Female / News / Fairfax.
“But if you have people who are identifiably from the Left or the Right then it’s important in those circumstances to make sure there is somebody there who will take them on.
“The key to it is no matter what somebody has to say, if you have somebody there to challenge then I think you’re covered in terms of the bias element.
“I always thought Andrew Bolt was a better commentator for it, when he was on Insiders and his views were challenged and he would rise to the occasion.
“Whereas to sit there on a Sunday morning and just put out the ideology and the dogma without being challenged is less convincing. Intellectually, I don’t think it’s the right way to go.”
News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt parted ways with Insiders in 2011 to launch The Bolt Report on TEN. Previously the shows went head to head in the same timeslot, but now Insiders runs an hour prior.
“It’s up against Offsiders at 10:00 and Offsiders beats it. It’s a sports programme on the ABC –that’s niche marketing and it’s done very well.”
Corrected: Offsiders is averaging 176,000 in 2015.
In addition to Saturdays and Sundays, plus weekday pre-production, Cassidy is a regular on Jon Faine’s ABC Radio programme, ABC News Breakfast and writing for The Drum. He is also mulling ideas for a fourth book. The only downside to Insiders weekly routine is it prevents opportunities for travel, except at the end of year break, in early December.
“After 15 years I am starting to miss some of the other travel, in particular. I would really like to travel a bit more. But I am committed to it for the time being, certainly from now until the next election.”
Insiders airs 9am Sundays on ABC / ABC News 24.