When TV execs let Jesus take the wheel…

Mitch McTaggart has rifled through the archives Australian telly for his Binge series, and found joy in its exquisite ordinariness.

For one so young Mitch McTaggart has an unhealthy affection for small screen history and an astute eye for how Australian television constantly tries its best.

Yet he actually doesn’t mind when it haphazardly falls short of excellence.

It all makes perfect fodder for his new season of The Back Side of Television, a six part look at all the ridiculous, dispiriting and outright shameful moments in our wild TV history.

According to McTaggart, who has rifled through more archives of obscure television, Australian TV cycles and recycles through its own mistakes.

“TV doesn’t learn. We just keep doing it again and again. It’s not necessarily depressing. I think, in many ways, it’s quite endearing, that they’re all just ‘doing their best,'” he tells TV Tonight.

“I mean that quite genuinely. I don’t think people in TV, by and large, are doing anything maliciously. They’re not deliberately setting out to anger people or destroy society in any way. I think every decision that has been made by executives is based around ‘How can I not get sacked today, and how can I still have a job tomorrow?’

“They’re just wanting to hold on to their own job”

“Which is actually quite selfish, because they’re not really thinking about any broader impact of anything that they do. They’re just wanting to hold on to their own job. And they just kind of let Jesus take the wheel…is that the expression?

“Obviously there are little diamonds in amongst the garbage. I mean, statistically, that’s bound to happen. You throw enough jelly in a tree, and eventually some of its going to stick. But most of the time, I don’t reckon people in TV really care about TV or watch that much TV. It’s just a job.”

“We can go back and revisit things that are just a bit silly and over the top”

Season Two of The Back Side of Television (Season One was on SBS) dispenses with its approach to themed episodes, which has been a freeing experience for McTaggart to take aim at all kinds of aspects of TV, from theme tunes to Mike Whitney’s $50 dares in Who Dares Wins, to Nine’s (mis)scheduling Aussie sci-fi Farscape.

“There’s a lot of stuff forgotten by history and rightly so. It wasn’t necessarily hugely important in the grand scheme of things. This is the only kind of show where something like that could be discussed. There’s absolutely no justification for Media Watch to suddenly do it. I think in it’s pettiness it also makes it more worthwhile and entertaining, because we’ve established that flavour now. We can go back and revisit things that are just a bit silly and over the top.”

Passionate about his research, McTaggart draws from forgotten DVDs bought on eBay, YouTube and calling upon the National Film and Sound Archive in Melbourne.

“My favourite part going into see those guys is explaining why I’m interested in a clip, because most of the time there has been zero interest in the clip that I’m looking for. They’ve almost asked me why I’m interested in the clip, as if I’ve wrongly requested it!”

“I didn’t realise that time and time again, Channel Seven and Nine were at each other’s throats”

One Goggle search uncovered a historic scandal around Bingo on Television which becomes a recurring TV game.

“I think I just typed ‘television illegal’ and then it just came across this Bingo thing …like what the hell is this?” he recalls.

“I didn’t realise that time and time again, Channel Seven and Nine were at each other’s throats, specifically over Bingo. It goes all the way back to 1965!

“Technically televised Bingo is illegal, so every time there’s been Bingo on television, it’s never actually been Bingo. It’s been some vague lottery-type game.”

And yes, he expands into seven’s short-lived National Bingo Night in 2007.

“That’s the main focus of the segment, actually…. there’s a weird period in the 2000s, where Tim Campbell just hosted failed game shows.”

McTaggart will even undertake the unthinkable this season -putting Play School in his crosshairs and taking aim. Shameless!

Another story looks back on a classification debacle in 1979.

“I always love a good story about petty fallout and I think this is a segment that just really sums all that up quite well,” he continues.

“I’m not sure if any of your readers will be aware of the hoo-ha that was caused when the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal introduced C-classification.

“One of the shows has not been rebroadcast since its failed airing in 1979.”

“Networks were apparently having a hard time trying to figure out what constituted a Children’s program. They were offering up these terrible, terrible programs, of which we look at quite a few of them. One of the shows has not been rebroadcast since its failed airing in 1979. We look at that one extensively and it’s one of my favourite shows.”

Nothing is off limits -from kid’s TV, game shows, drama and news.

“There’s an episode where we talk about how commercial news has changed, which might sound obvious, but it’s surprising how much it has changed. We look at it over a 40 year period, about how this subtle creep has really taken over the quality and direction of news.

“News these days is much more focused on keeping us frightened, when that just wasn’t really a thing in the early 80s, for example. It may have happened, but nowhere near as much,” he suggests.

“News has had to become a lot more shouty and not necessarily in a volume sense, but it has had to respond somehow in order to keep people watching broadcast TV. It’s shocking how much it has pivoted.”

“There’s an inexhaustible supply of content”

But what about Pay TV? Is that fair game now that McTaggart has moved from SBS to the Foxtel group?

There are occasional references this season to Pay TV and Streaming, but the bulk of the show remains Free to Air for good reason.

“Never say never. I think I just haven’t really been paying much attention to Foxtel stuff because it isn’t Broadcast TV. Australian TV history is already quite niche, I’d be overwhelmed if I also included Pay TV and Streaming stuff, which we kind of touch on anyway.

“But there’s an inexhaustible supply of content…generally the focus is Broadcast.”

“I did have someone someone tweet at me, Mitch, ‘Why can’t you make it available on Free to Air?’ Like how am I supposed to do that? What power do I have here?

“I can put food on the table when it’s behind a paywall!”

All six episodes Monday July 10 on Binge / Weekly 8:30pm Tuesday August 1 on FOX8 (+ On Demand)

6 Responses

  1. I did not plan to but ended up watching all six episodes of season two last night, it was too good to wait. The commentary around Farscape and Carrots was brilliantly crafted. I’m still chuckling about this comment from this article almost a week later “there’s a weird period in the 2000s, where Tim Campbell just hosted failed game shows”. It is so true, forgettable, but brilliant that someone researched early 2000s games showed and found this correlation.

  2. Great interview David. I’ve just watched the first two episodes – I’m trying not to rush through it but I expect I’ll watch it all again a number of times for as long as it’s available. Sharp, funny, well worth anyone’s time if you don’t mind the swears…who knew about Play School, hey? Won’t make me like Teo Gebert any less, though….

  3. Season 1 of ‘The Back Side of Television’ on SBS was great fun and a pleasure to watch. Knowing that season 2 is behind a paywall is almost enough to make me subscribe to pay tv.

    That says a lot about Mitch McTaggart’s research, presentation skills and general mastery of the medium. It also says a lot about the quality of Australian free-to-air television that a viewer would rather pay to see a program analysing it than wasting time watching what’s broadcast every day in the first place.

    I write this as someone who generally spends more time reading about television here on TV Tonight than ever actually watching it.

  4. David,
    Hope Mitch got plenty of stories, maybe some from you?
    Like when his mmention of when the “C” classification came in… and that meant the free tv Networks had to come up with programs that were specificly aimed at Children and Educational to boot!
    One Network that shall remain nameless (Think 11 minus 1) tried to justify further repeats of Gilligan’s Island – as it would teach children how to survive if stranded on a desert island…and the main character behaved like a child!!!!
    I’m not making this up, you know.

    1. was that the same network that somehow convinced the broadcasting authorities to allow The Wonder Years, a US sitcom from some years earlier that was not at all aimed exclusively at children, to be classified “C” so they could run it at 4.30pm?

      This was probably around the same time that shows like Fat Cat, that had been going for years, suddenly being no longer suitable for pre-schoolers..

      Who was making these decisions?!

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