Chanel No. 9
sniffs the air and finds out there’s a new eau de television wafting from the
Nine Network bunker at Willoughby.

No it’s not the stink of unwashed bodies as the ‘made guys and gals’ hug their
mattresses and peer over the battlements to see where the next assault is
coming from. In fact it’s more of a counter-attack from the besieged. It’s sometimes we used
to call ‘spinning’, the black art of the PRs and ‘spokesmen’ to put the most
favourable complexion on a difficult situation.

And for years the Nine Network were past masters at it. In fact they virtually
invented the TV spin as a genre, although the ABC, Seven and to a lesser
extent, Ten, have helped maintain and develop the artform.

But now from Nine a new sort of ‘spinning’ – call it ‘scenting’ call it
‘perfumery’ – it’s more about shaking something sweet smelling on the problems
within Nine’s important news and current affairs operations in Sydney, the most
important market.

And where’s all this ‘pixie perfume’ landed? Why this morning’s Media Section
in The Australian where writer Amanda Meade was
allowed by Nine’s David Hurley and John Westacott to snuggle up close and all
personal to Ray Martin, a TV talent not known for his love of fellow
journalists, especially TV writers.

Things must be really tough at A Current Affair bunker’s at Willoughby, just
across Scott Street from the Fort Nine on the hill and of course they are
lately.

And why has Amanda been allowed inside the walls? Because of the drubbing Ray
Martin and ACA has been taking from Seven’s Today Tonight over the past month. Nine has obviously decided that there’s to be no more hiding. Its cheque books
out, flacks to the fore and onto the front foot. Buying the right to speak to
Frank Cole and Lindy Chamberlain over the Azaria Dingo story was an old and
tried way of ruling a line in the sand (and laying off the cost on ACP through
Women’s Day and The Bulletin stories with Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton).

Although the counter assault by ACA faltered Tuesday night in Sydney and
across Australia when it was comprehensively beaten by Seven’s Today Tonight.
That’s after several nights of winning or getting close to TT.

And now it’s the ‘exclusive’ with the major weekly Media section
in the country: the one that has the space to allow a long and sympathetic
interview with Ray. Check it out here: Ray’s not afraid of an old-fashioned street fight.

So what did we learn from Ray and Amanda’s chat?

The prize quotes have to be “the moment you take yourself too seriously,
the moment you start to get too worthy, you lose ratings”. “We can’t
possibly go downmarket” in commenting on whether ACA would follow TT down
the ‘tawdry” path (Amanda’s word) of tabloidism.
Ray also pointed out that the problem was mostly limited to Sydney, but that’s
a bit of lily-gilding because more and more, ACA has been beaten nationally
over the past few weeks by TT. Ray even points out that the “East
Coast (Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne) where Ray and TT go head to head is where
ACA wins more often than not.

But lately it’s been losing as well.


ACA
has been losing viewers this year, around 200-to 300,000 on this time a
year ago ( with the crunch coming in the past three weeks, especially in
Sydney). TT hasn’t added viewers, and some weeks its shed a few.

Amanda also reported that “Ray’s not afraid of an old-fashioned street
fight”. All good aggressive front-foot stuff. (Great, the host is ‘up!’)
So what’s this about not going down Amanda’s tawdry path to tabloidism? (its a
bit rich for a News Ltd journalism to describe tabloidism as ‘tawdry’. Isn’t
News Ltd the home of the tabloid in Australia, the Tele in Sydney, the Hun in
Melbourne, The Advertiser in Adelaide, and the tabloid Sundays?)

Well, many viewers cringe at ACA and its relentless ‘tabloidism’. Lindy
Chamberlain-Creighton’s paid interview for just one instance. This week’s
report on baby foods (which on Tuesday night saw Nine News and ACA do
virtually the same report with similar talent. News’ story had the virtue of
being shorter.)

There’s been a steady diet of diet stories, star interviews, cosmetic surgery
stories, the stories on the young woman and young man auctioning their
respective virginities, stories on fads, stories on weight loss and fat people,
many of them tricked up to be deep and meaningful (“in the battle against
childhood obesity etc etc”).

Ray, ACA IS tabloid already! TT is tabloid, but in its own particular
grubby way, it’s more tabloid than ACA, and that’s the only distinction.

For example, where was the interview and stories from Iraq when Jim Waley and
Bob Penfold where there for a week in late June and
early July.

Bob Penfold had that great vision and eyewitness account of the Australian
training group under fire in Mosul, why wasn’t that used extensively. It was
exclusive.

There were Australian troops on tape talking about it.

Ray was installed at ACA after Mike Munro was replaced (because of easing
ratings and the tabloidism of ACA under him and David Hurley and with Peter
Meakin over both of them). The hiring was conducted by John Alexander, Sam
Chisholm and David Gyngell and the whole idea was to push ACA back upmarket to
a more ‘responsible’ form of tabloid TV.

Paul Barry, who’s very serious, and on his day a good reporter, was hired (he
appears to be no longer around) and did some nice serious reports.

But
they are isolated outbreaks of ‘serious’ journalism And overall, not
much
has happened. Some nights Ray looks as though he’s rather be anywhere
else. The
smile is pasted on, forced and he looks grim. Other nights he’s the Ray
of old,
light, intelligent and charming. When he’s out of the studio doing
interviews (the Lindy chat and one with rugby great, Jonah Lomu spring
to mind), the old
Ray shines through. At his best he’s a great interviewer.

But then its back at the desk (as he was on Wesneday night, after standing all
the way through Tuesday evening’s show) and when he sits down, on comes the
‘grim switch’ and viewers recoil in terror.

And no amount of Pixie Dust or Eau Du Bull—- can alter that perception in the
wider audience.

Peter Fray

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