First published in SMH March 12 2003
It’s going to be a big year in current affairs. We’ve got war in Iraq, terror alerts, fridge magnets, Shane Warne’s mum and Russell Crowe’s forthcoming wedding, which is bound to have a punch-up.
To cope with this big current affairs year, Channel Nine has rolled out the big guns. Those twin stars of the 1980s, Ray and Jana, are back.
The times might have changed but Ray and Jana certainly haven’t. Not a single grey hair has infiltrated Ray’s helmet, and Jana is still flashing her squinty eyes and looking soulful and enigmatic. Or at least trying to. The trouble with her 9am Sunday slot is that everyone at that hour looks soulful and enigmatic.
But what Nine hopes to achieve with the duo is dubious. The content of A Current Affair hasn’t really changed, no matter what the publicists says. It is still essentially about shonky builders and clothes-line diets, with a few looks at the war room and an exclusive with the next-door neighbour of an al-Qaeda infiltrator.
And because Sunday is still on Sunday morning, no amount of Jana’s squinty smouldering is going to get people tuning in.
The new-look ACA ratings have not exactly broken records either. A few more people tuned in during the first week to check out Ray’s hairdo, and then switched back to Home and Away.
Nine’s grand plan of hiring the big guns might have been a very expensive mistake. They have counted on the public being riveted to the spot at Ray explaining the intricacies of fridge magnets and exploding toilet seats in Iraq, but they have seriously misjudged the Australian public.
People are tuning in for the news to get an update on world events, getting depressed and then switching to Home and Away or Frasier, depending on their mental age.
So, in a desperate move to boost its ratings, ACA has resorted to stories about the low-carb diet, changing-room cameras and dole bludgers.
Just like Ray’s hairdo, nothing has really changed.
The thing is that, like Christmas dinner and losing gracefully at cricket, current affairs is not typically something we’ve done well. Current affairs programs have exposed Australia’s perennial dilemma: whether to be British or American. It seems Australian current affairs programs never know whether to be a kind of colonial offshoot of the BBC or a paler version of Oprah. And to avoid making a decision, we’ve attempted to combine both.
The trouble is that our alleged national characteristics of being idiosyncratic and celebrating disasters don’t translate well to current affairs. Whereas they do work well in soaps, our top export.
So maybe we should just ditch current affairs altogether. The news tells us what we really need to know, and if we’re really keen on reading the State of the Union address, there’s always the web.
Most of us just want to be kept informed and then have something to watch that takes our mind off current world events.
That’s not to say we want our head in the sand. If we really want to make a stand there’s bound to be a nude protest nearby for us to make our point.
So, let’s ditch current affairs shows. All of them: ACA, Today Tonight, Sunday, 7.30 Report and Dateline. Then channel the money into something more uplifting. And I am not talking about some sort of new millennium sticking plaster here, but maybe an Australian sitcom that contains actual humour. Or maybe a skit show that raises more than a chuckle.
Jana, Ray, Kerry and Naomi could perhaps make a few career realignments and start a skit show. Maybe something along the lines of sending up current affairs shows and their hosts.
Or perhaps replace current affairs programs with a show about low-carb diets and violent celebrity weddings.
The possibilities are endless.
It just takes one programming executive to be brave and admit that we don’t do current affairs, and replace it with something we would watch, and all the others would follow.
Until then, we are stuck with great moments in fridge magnets and behind-the-scenes in the war zone and al-Qaeda tell-alls, clothes-line diets, Jana squinting and Kerry being Kerry.
No wonder we’re so good at soaps.