A lot of people in commercial television should be eating their hats
and swallowing their words. Andrew Denton has made liars of all who
said a late night chat program wouldn’t work. And work it has, getting
numbers at 9.30pm that see it regularly dusting the opposition on Nine
and Seven, while Ten’s Law and Order series provides stiffer competition as did the last hour of the second episode of Jessica on Ten which won on Monday night.

In short, talk or chat in the right hands (or out of the right head)
works and nothing has been more successful than last Monday night’s
long interview with Bill Clinton. What made that interesting is that
there were plenty of people in commercial TV who thought Clinton would
not win for Denton. Afterall, the ABC’s 4 Corners had run a long British interview and 60 Minutes had run a segment.

Denton was third off the rank and a distant one at that, and would not
pull viewers, according to the all-knowing ones. So what happened?
Well, the overall average number of viewers for the program was 1.05
million, which made it the 19th most watched program on the night. So
what?

However, in the timeslot 9.35pm to 10.10pm when the Clinton interview
went to air, the audience averaged 1.323 million people, its biggest
audience just pipping the first interview of the year back in March
with Michael Parkinson (1.320 million). That interview was replayed two
Saturday nights ago, and the ABC has decided to replay the Clinton
interview tonight at 10.20pm.

Enough Rope’s average audience is around a million viewers
so far this year, compared to just over 771,000 last year. Its five
city share of households has jumped 50% from 20.1% average in 2003 to
30.1%, which again are numbers at that time of night the commercials
would gladly have. And the audience is up in the major metro markets
this year on last.

And this week it beat 4 Corners, which averaged 853,000 people and Media Watch,
798,000. Based on the average there was a very solid turn-on, which is
always a welcome sign for the program and the people behind it. All
very impressive and no doubt why Seven is looking at a 10.30pm comedy Coast to Coast chatty news show with Andrew O’Keefe as the Graham Kennedy figure, with the John Mangos type side kick yet to be determined.

Ten says its happy with The Panel, now back on
Wednesday’s and doing well, but Denton is now the King of talking head
TV, which is an achievement. Ray Martin tried and failed despite the glitz of Nine’s
production values. That was a loss taken hard by Martin. How long before
Nine tries again?

But sometime you have wonder about our ABC. There it is eschewing any
notion that it ‘chases’ ratings, and yet there are ratings successes
each evening that it just doesn’t highlight.
Strange indeed. It’s as though management is scared of revealing these
successes for fear of upsetting someone. The “Friends of the ABC’, who
can now meet in a telephone box in some states, politicians, other
commercial channels or the chattering classes of the left and right in
the other media or in the TV industry.

This is not to say that the ABC is in some
sort of golden phase. The tacky history of the way History Detectives was rewound into Rewind and the tales of the scatty approach and changes made to the Saturday evening program, The Way We Were (9.30pm), are evidence enough of strange and odd managerial behaviour.

But the ABC’s ratings have bumped up sharply this year to the point
where on one night last week it beat the Seven Network into fourth
place in Melbourne, and came close to doing the same thing nationally
as well.

And there are other success stories that the shy management types
could be boasting about. Like the gradual build-up in viewer numbers
for the George Negus Tonight program (Monday to Thursdays at
6.30pm) which is now regularly pulling half a million viewers a night
and providing a good lead in to the ABC 7pm News.

And it is also a bit of welcome relief to the Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumber approach on A Current Affair and Today Tonight.

Then you The 7.30 Report with Kerry O’Brien, regularly
attracting over 900,000 viewers on some nights which is not to be
ignored. And don’t forget the regular top 10 performer Australian Story on Monday evenings at 8pm, which this week pulled in around 1.3 million people.

All in all more than enough rope.

Peter Fray

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