Dateline reinvents to reach 40th year on SBS

With just two staff reporters, Australia's longest running international current affairs show has had to stay nimble to become a TV survivor.

In the cutthroat world of television, Dateline is a survivor, this year chalking up 40 years on SBS.

But to reach such a milestone Australia’s longest running international current affairs show has had to reinvent itself from the show that began life as a studio show with experts discussing issues via news footage around the world.

Today it is a half hour documentary programme screening 29 episodes a year.

Dateline has just two staff reporters, Calliste Weitenberg (pictured above) who has been with the show since 2014, and Darren Mara (pictured below) since 2021, after seven years at SBS World News.

Since it moved to the ‘VJ’ (video journalist) model, the show has survived by being nimble.

“The VJ model is about being agile and travelling light and being able to get access to places and people without having a huge film crew. Everybody on the Dateline team has a hybrid role – a reporter/ producer or a shooter / editor or shooter / producer. We’ve always only got two people on a story,” says Executive Producer Georgina Davies.

“So somebody could be doing camera, sound and producing… all of the setup, all of the logistics and even asking the questions. Sometimes you would have a model where you would send a person with a local fixer for example, or sometimes they’d be teamed up with a staff member so that the crews are still very light and small.”

Dateline focusses on the people at the centre of its international news stories, and prides itself on covering underreported stories.

Foreign Correspondent‘s style is very much in its title, I think, a bit more about the correspondent bringing you a story, whereas I think Dateline is more about meeting characters to tell their own story, perhaps. There’s a slight difference there. We are looking at similar stories but there are probably differences in budgets and timeframes and things like that.

“I remember a few years ago, Foreign Correspondent and Dateline were on at the same time and I think we were all worried about that, but then we realised it didn’t really impact our ratings terribly, because we must have different audiences.”

Under its former hosting model, the show has been presented by Paul Murphy, Mark Davis, George Negus, Yalda Hakim, Helen Vatsikopoulos, Anjali Rao. SBS now also draws upon other news staff for select episodes including Mark Fennell, Janice Petersen, Kumi Taguchi, Karla Grant. It also buys-in select titles to screen under the Dateline banner.

“We make about 18 original stories a year and we also run maybe two or three repeats a year. Then we have about 10 episodes that are combination of acquisitions and co-pros. We started co-pros around 2017 – 2018, where we work with filmmakers based around the world. They might have a great idea, but they need a couple of broadcasters to buy in on it,” she continues.

“So we might become a partner on a bigger project and we get our version of it and the other broadcasters get their version and we all kind of combine forces.

“We also work with independent filmmakers who are working on a bigger feature-length project, which they might be working on over several years. But they feel that they’ve got a great amount of footage and they’re not quite sure what they can do with it. So we get into a conversation with them about having a look at it and seeing if we can make a Dateline out of it and collaborate with them on that.”

So what makes a story suitable for Dateline?

“I get a lot of pitches, both internally at SBS and externally, and I feel like a lot are the same stories,” Davies explains.

“I often get pitched stories that feel like a newspaper article. I look at it and I think,’Where are the pictures?’ We’re a TV programme, it needs to be visually interesting. So if it’s a whole lot of people talking and no action, nothing happening, I don’t think that’s quite right for us. It needs to have a documentary feel where we’re following some kind of action.

“The main thing in choosing what stories we do comes down to what we already have in the space. So it’s about creating a series that has light and shade, Australian connections in some story that might be under-reported from far-flung corners. I don’t want to do stories that are too similar or too many from the same region, the same kind of topic.”

This week’s episode will see Australian performer, playwright, and CODA (children of deaf adults) Jodee Mundy (above, left) travel to Pennsylvania to join the first Asian-American CODA camp for Deaf parents and their kids.

“It has an extra layer of identity. It’s not just about the hearing and the deaf world, but they’re Asian-American CODAs. So they’re dealing with their Asian heritage as well as the culture that comes with being deaf or a CODA,” says Davies.

“Jodee who is herself a CODA, and the only hearing person in her family, has that connection to the talent and also communicates with them, most importantly. Even though she’s speaking Auslan and they’re speaking American Sign Language there’s enough crossover that she could communicate with them.”

Also coming soon is Kumi Taguchi reporting on the obesity crisis in America, particularly looking at how children are being encouraged to have bariatric surgery.

“We have a young young girl who’s 13, who’s had bariatric surgery, and talk to her family. And we have a story from Calista about the webcaming industry in Romania, on the back of the Andrew Tate scandal, finding out why Romania is the global capital for the webcam industry.

“We’re also doing a piece out of Syria, but I can’t say much about that, because we’re filming at the moment.”

SBS will mark the 40 years of Dateline with a special episode in October.

“We will be looking back into the archives for our last episode of the year. We’re wanting to look at some of the big global events of the last 40 years and how Dateline reported it, and where those stories are now.”

For a show which has endured shifts in viewing and budgets, and survived two years without international travel, a 40th milestone is certainly something to celebrate.

“There’s a lot of support at SBS for Dateline…. it’s very much to SBS’ charter and I also think it’s a great place where people who come into the newsroom at SBS aspire to come and work as well,” adds Davies.

“A lot of journalists come into the industry and they have a desire to do long-form journalism, getting into the meaty subjects and having more time to explore issues.”

Dateline: Camp Coda 9:30pm Tuesday on SBS.

One Response

  1. These so called reinventions are only because of budget cuts from management, seems odd to celebrate the long term decline of a quality and original program.

    More dateline and less cruising with jane mcdonland or generic american food programs.

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