#TVT10: Bong-smoking dogs, bans and screaming down the phone line

Behind the scenes of a decade of blogging (and a few war stories I really shouldn't be sharing...).

It’s honestly such a blur trying to pinpoint key moments across a decade.

TV Tonight began as a blog on January 5th 2007.

Back then there were just 5 channels and Foxtel.

Every TV journo or critic was aligned with News Ltd, Fairfax or TV Week. Eddie was the CEO at Nine, Daryl was hosting Dancing with the Stars, while The Rich List, 1 vs 100, The Catch Up, National Bingo Night and Celebrity Dog School all debuted that year.

Boy, how things have changed….

After 400,000+ comments and nearly 50,000 posts I could never have foreseen the changes that would come to the media landscape. Multichannels moved in, many TV journos moved out, Streaming arrived, TV fragmented.

TV Tonight actually began several years earlier, both as a segment on JOY94.9 and as a column in the gay press, MCV. I was writing for Screen Hub, filing for TV.com and CitySearch, running live script readings at ACMI. Prior to this I had a background in theatre performing, writing, WA Academy, TV subjects at RMIT Screenwriting. I used to listen to Age critic Ross Warneke on 3AW doing a daily morning segment discussing ratings, reviews, news & talkback calls, drawn in by all the machinations. So I volunteered to do a Drive segment on JOY, telling listeners what to watch “on TV Tonight.” After 3 years someone said they had missed the spot, could they read my notes online? I thought “What’s a blog, how do I do that?”

In Australia we only had TV fan blogs or a messageboard such as the excellent Media Spy. I saw room for something more industry-oriented. I had built up local publicity contacts, but there was no path to follow on how to get traffic, how to get noticed, how to break a story, how to get the bloody recognition for breaking the story. In the early days a lot of journos used to lift my stuff without attribution (occasionally some still do, tut tut). I was once told by a publicist “some networks thought you would be doing this for 5 minutes.” I guess they hadn’t factored that I’d already had a lifetime in the arts -blogging was just another form of storytelling.

So I just kept sharing my passion for all things telly, talking to actors, writers and producers in the independent sector, discovering shows, acknowledging shifts in TV history, avoiding “gossip” and throwing in a bit of humour.

I once recall defending a show that was getting slammed in the mainstream media because public monies were going towards “an SBS comedy about a bong-smoking dog.” I wrote that it was a Tropfest winner and we should encourage our emerging artists. The team behind it were very grateful for another side to the conversation. Wilfred would later go on to have its own US series. You can see one of its creators in the birthday gallery this week….

But timing is everything. Not too long after I launched the site networks became trigger-happy removing shows from schedules ad nauseum. Viewers would open up their print guides (remember those?) and wonder why their show wasn’t on, turn to the internet and end up at my site. Usually I could answer their question or act as a middleman between audience & network to get answers. Sometimes I joke I have built up a blog on the back of bad programming….

Over time the site has found an audience with both industry & public alike. I never overlook this rarity, because it’s usually one or the other. Journos and radio often get in touch for quotes or to mine the vast archive. As many print journos began to leave the building, the independence became an asset. I’ve been accused of bias against every network at one stage or another, been asked to keep personal opinions out (umm it’s a blog?), or to put more in. You can never win on moderating comments, but I think we can agree the site is not a forum for reader brawls that can be vitriolic elsewhere. Whilst viewer criticism can be robust, I’m reminded of Charlotte Dawson when working out what to approve. Always try to play the ball, not the man.

Of course, there have been disagreements with publicists, temporary “bans” from Programming depts upset that I keep filing their various changes (don’t shoot the messenger), accusations about balance, ongoing reader debates about what is and isn’t a Spoiler, the odd DDoS attack (ouch!), or the time one programmer -possibly under the weather- rang me up to have a go. Years later they sent a bottle of champers for a job well done. Another was so upset with one post, they wrote they would “eat my hat” before taking programming advice from me. The rest of it was such a bullying email I asked if it was on the record and for publication? Execs have a remarkable tendency to reach out to tell you off, but rarely to say thanks.

There was the time I got a programming amendment that a failed cooking show was being replaced by YouTube cats. I thought primetime had hit rock bottom, and let fly in a colourful post. Several other journos then re-reported the calamitous move, the show scored big ratings and a certain programmer sent me a thank-you note that I had saved their arse. We laugh about it still.

One hairy moment that sticks out was in 2008. I was coming through Melbourne airport on a day when the media scrum were trying to get pictures of Tony Mokbel’s girlfriend, slipping in from Singapore. But in Qantas domestic I saw Nick Etchells from A Current Affair pursuing a blonde in sunglasses who was ignoring his questions about “reputation” and “shame.” I snapped a quick photo on my phone and posted a yarn that ACA had the scoop. Several media, including TEN News, republished them while Nine sat back and blissfully refused to comment. It turned out to be an escort who had been involved with Wayne Carey. At the time Eddie McGuire was hosting ACA (go figure) and brashly remarked, “Fellas, you got it wrong.” I conceded I had, and it taught me to run as a rumour when you’re not solid enough on your info. It also taught me networks will let anything run awry and incorrect for the sake of ratings.

…which reminds me of the time an upcoming show was attracting plenty of bad headlines.  I advised someone in publicity about a possible injunction that threatened to derail the launch. They did a little happy jig declaring “Controversy! Controversy!” They got their ratings.

Once I copped a phone call from TEN screaming down the phone at me because I had broken news Rob Mills would host a Young Talent Time revival, just an hour before then-CEO Lachlan Murdoch was set to announce it at Upfronts. They thought another journo had leaked it to me and I had broken an embargo. But I wasn’t at their Upfronts or under any embargo, and for the record it wasn’t another journo. You do have to pick your battles, but that was an old-fashioned scoop plain and simple.

And there was the time OzTAM got very shirty about all the ratings info being distributed which was costing them clients, but we’ve found a happy balance, I think. Even the folk at ACMA are avid readers, not bad, given robust posts.

Seeing Noni Hazlehurst inducted into the Hall of Fame was a lovely nod to the site’s campaign for more women to be recognised by the Logies. Caroline Jones & Denise Drysdale next please! Winning the People’s Choice Award in the Best Blogs 2012 was also very fab.

But how can I possibly recall all the interviews, set visits, radio chats, conferences, Upfronts, awards (hey, I’ve still never been invited into the Logies nor asked to judge), the scoops broken, the scoops lost because a network asked me to please hold a story? Programmer’s Wraps are now an industry staple, TVT Awards, Audience Inventories, Multichannel Surveys, Random Acts of Carpetness, Vales, morning ratings wraps -these are all regular features of the site. I’ve endeavoured to put info at your fingertips, all linked with tags to be as self-service as practical.

I’m relieved the couriers no longer arrive with DVD previews (or even VHS tapes!), I once had a bedroom full of disks I didn’t know what to do with. God bless links. But there are so many platforms bringing us TV it is dizzying just trying to keep up. I’ve had to focus reviews on first-run seasons as a result. Just not enough days in the week to review House Husbands Season 5 nor My Kitchen Rules Season 7, at least not formally.

Over a decade of vast media change, I see several unequivocal truths:

– Free to Air has obviously lost ground
– but Free to Air is still far and away the dominant platform
– the audience now has a lot more power
– no matter your age, device, or genre preference -we remain connected to storytelling

Special thanks go to David McDonald, Roberto Parlavecchio, James Spinks, Ben Murray, colleagues such as James Manning, Peter Ford, Andrew Mercado who have been great supporters. And there are just too many publicists to name, some of whom I consider friends, plus fervent producers who fight to get me on set and stars who have championed my independence. Thanks to radio folk, especially Fran Kelly, all those with news tips, everyone who comments and the thousands more who don’t but read quietly with interest.

Couldn’t have done it without you.


23 Responses

  1. One thing I’ve admired about the site is that you’ve managed to make it national with stories about regional television as well. I could never imagine Veritas in the old Sunday Mirror running stories about viewers of WIN Television in regional WA being forced to watch an endless slide show of pretty pictures because WIN refused to sign a programming deal with Channel Nine.

    I suppose that is the nature of the Net, but to have industry news from all over the country – and indeed the rest of the world – at the touch of our fingers – is a huge achievement in a country that has often been parochial and localised when it comes to entertainment.

  2. Again, Happy Birthday and another great article. I remember how I found you – it was when Peter Ford mentioned you in his weekly report on 3AW and said it was the best TV site by far in Australia – so naturally I had to take a peek – and have done so everyday since. NB: I now no longer listen to Pete for showbiz news!!!

  3. Happy 10th birthday TVTonight!

    I first found my way here via the Boxcutters podcast around eight years ago and it’s testament to your hard work and interesting content that TVT is one of the few websites that I still keep coming back at least several times a week after all these years.

    Thanks for everything you do, David, and hearty congratulations on reaching this milestone.

  4. Fantastic insights. Would love to read more war stories! Didn’t realise you started in the pink press. Not a shock at all and I personally appreciate TVT’s inclusion of stories about ‘diversity’ programming whilst maintaining an objectivity and balance that would otherwise offend readers with less tolerance.

  5. Congratulations David. In this growing age of click bait and fake news, you have proven through your resilience and professionalism that if you’re passionate about something, you can achieve anything. Here’s to another 10 years and beyond!

  6. Many congrats David, not only for making it to 10 years – a feat for any blog – but for the well-deserved affection and respect you’ve gathered from industry & viewer readers alike (even if the road has been rocky at times!).

    Looking forward to the changes and challenges of another 10 years. It’ll be interesting times, I’m sure…

  7. Just want to wish you a huge congratulations on TVT turning 10 David! It’s a huge testament to how widely respected you are in the industry.
    I used to listen to you on JoyFM all those years ago and I remember getting to my destination and refusing to leave the car until your segment was over. Today I visit your site at least once a day as I know that everything I read is well researched and factual, not just hearsay gossip. I love that you always do the hard yards and do your own research to create original content that’s not just copy and pasted from somewhere else.
    Personally, I always love it when you come in for a set visit. It always adds an extra spring to my step on the floor knowing you’ve taken the time to come in and watch. Yes David, I’m a fan 🙂
    I wish you and your site another 10 years of success 🙂

  8. “… temporary “bans” from Programming depts upset that I keep filing their various changes…”

    That is just bizarre. Don’t they realise that you’re doing them a service? Something which they should really be doing themselves, which is to keep their audience informed about where and when they can watch their favourite shows.

    I can’t remember which show it was now but it was trying to find out what had happened to a show (on either 7 or 9 of course) which led me to your blog all those years ago, when I was unable to find any information about it from the network itself.

    This is the one thing that really puzzles me about TV programming depts – why are they so bad at communicating changes to their viewers? Do they think that people will just watch whatever is on anyway?

  9. I used to enjoy Ross Warneke’s to the point tv segments on 3aw when I had the opportunity to listen to it. There was and has not been anything quite like it. It was nice to hear that was inspiration for your radio tv segment which led to this blog.

    This article was a great read in seeing how much the industry has changed. Commercial free to air networks have been and continue to be extremely short sighted with their constant timeslot changes and delaying overseas programming reaching our shores. This has irreparably damaged free to air and its now a shell of its former self. Whilst I agree its still the dominant platform now will that be the case in the next 10 years? I guess I will have to continue reading your blog to find out!

  10. This is a good piece….I really enjoy your writing….and yes…always makes me laugh when folk forget or just do not realise ..that this is a personal blog…with one person doing all the work…and long my you continue to do so.

  11. Congratulations again! It has been good to see the growth in this site over the past few years and I’m amazed that just one person is behind it all. If you ever expand and need new employees let me know where to apply! Would love to be part of this.

  12. Congratulations David, what a stellar effort. I am an avid fan of your blog, and with RSS feeds, i am kept in the loop for your postings. Hope the next 10 years (god forbid you say) can be as ground breaking for you as the last 10.

  13. An interesting read explaining the origins of TVTonight. I’m a relatively new follower, picking up the feed on Twitter. I’m now an avid reader. How else will I know where my favorite program has gone and when different series will return to our screens. Thanks and happy!

  14. Wow, once again as a loyal TVTonight reader and a Aussie drama fan. Love this site. I can’t recall when I started using it, but I recall your Blog Win and the Orange design.
    Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply