Terry Television has some pertinent questions for our holidaying news and current affairs TV stars and their bosses.

Where are they, our news and current affairs stars? Those news mavens and heavy hitters we admit into our living rooms, offices and elsewhere, in normal official ratings? And the vehicles, those flagships of our commercial and public TV networks, Sunday, 60 Minutes, Four Corners and Insiders?

And the presenters, Jim Waley, Ray Martin, Jana Wendt, Barry Cassidy, Naomi Robson, Ian Ross, Juanita Phillips and Kerry O’Brien. Not to mention Lateline and its host, Tony Jones.

A Who’s Who of news and current affairs. The cream, all absent from our screens during the biggest story in their working lives and mine. And who noticed?

In radio its been the ABC hands down while in TV the news broadcasts have done well, particularly Nine and the ABC. The 6.30 current affairs twins, Today Tonight on Seven and A Current Affair on Nine have also done well with their coverage (but not in ratings it would seem, Nine rebounding). So too the ABC’s 7.30 Report. Today on Nine and Sunrise on Seven have also performed well, although David Koch’s usual persona is sometimes hard to take seriously in the face of some harrowing pictures and stories. Likewise Dickie Wilkins on the Today Show.

Overall the coverage has been good. The summer B teams have shone in some cases, making you wonder about the A graders off on their non-ratings period leave.

Nine has perhaps done the best in ratings terms, although compared to the ABC theirs was a coverage that was too heavily based on Thailand to start with. The ABC at least sensed the regional nature of the tragedy.

Seven has been ‘Beslaned”.

SBS has used its more limited resources well, especially on the first night when it shone and the others went missing in a Boxing Day stupor.

But so far, there’s been no sign of the Networks or the ABC really showing how seriously they take this crisis by bringing back their flagship programs.

Or rather no sign of Nine or the ABC. Seven and Ten have no flagships in the current affairs area. Ten’s news have been adequate, but have resembled rip and read operations on some nights.

The benefits of the ABC and Nine’s expensive investment in news and current affairs has once again been shown and of the two, it is the ABC that has shone.

Seven and Nine both retreated from Asia over the past three or four years, closing down bureaus and cutting back elsewhere. The stupidity and short sightedness of these cost cutting measures have now been exposed, especially at Seven.

Taking BBC or CNN or Reuters or APTN feeds is coverage, but is it relevant to Australia?

But putting that to one side, the absence from our screens of Nine’s flagships, Sunday and 60 minutes and the ABC’s Four Corners, Lateline nightly and Insiders on Sunday morning shows the paucity of thinking at Ultimo (ABC) and Willoughby (Nine).

The missive from Nine’s Sydney news boss Max Uechtritz in the last Crikey sealed section of 2004 gave an impressive rundown of what Nine News and ACA and Today was doing, but made no mention of whether 60 Minutes or Sunday would be brought back early in January for coverage.

(That Max sent something to Crikey is interesting, given that it was his boss, David Gyngell, who ordered Crikey to be banned at Nine, part of the Packer Empire’s infamous and ongoing ban on Crikey which started in November of last year.)

David Gyngell is overseeing Nine’s coverage of the disaster, so it’s his call about bringing back Sunday and 60 Minutes to give the disaster and Australia’s role in it some wider context.

I know that both programs are on summer break, but surely it would be fairly easy for Gyngell, John Westacott (60 Minutes and ACA boss) and John Lyons, boss of Sunday (and Business Sunday) to organise an early return to cover what is easily the biggest story they will have seen in their long careers in TV or their own lives.

It is a bigger story than 9/11 but a much harder story to cover as it would require some knowledge and understanding of the region.

Logistically it has been much harder with deaths and injuries in up to a dozen countries instead of New York and Washington on 9/11. The longer term implications of 9/11 were certainly harder to grasp and are continuing, while in the case of the quake and tsunami they are clearer and revolve around redevelopment, rebuilding, international relationships and, perhaps still to come, refugees.

Nine’s special edition of the Today Show on Sunday January 2 (and a special Saturday and Sunday night editions of Nightline) was clever programming but begs the question. Why isn’t there late night news on Nine (not news breaks of a minute or less) normally on weekends?

Even if the Today Show on Sunday is a one-off, what about bringing back the Saturday morning edition canned three years ago? It can be done and surely a Sunday morning Today Show doesn’t mean the death knell of Sunday, does it?

But it’s clever programming and has left Seven slow looking and somewhat stranded.

At the ABC, where’s Four Corners, Lateline and Insiders? I know about the budgetary constraints but they are more reasons for not doing something rather than obstacles.

The importance of the story and the way ABC News and Current Affairs has performed should be a lesson to the head of ABC TV, Sandra Levy, her faceless boss, Russell Balding, the ABC managing director, and his board, of just what the strength of the ABC is to many Australians.

It is not to be found in the fine, good or hopeless local or international buy-ins in drama, factual or other programming types. It is in the news and current affairs programs on TV. The same lesson should be taken by Sue Howard, the head of ABC Radio. She, like Sandra Levy, doesn’t like the way news and current affairs dominate her network.

The Sumatra earthquake and subsequent Indian Ocean-wide tsunami should provide enough evidence to both senior executives that like it or not, the news and current affairs operations of the ABC are ‘gems’, important to a large number of Australians, even if on other issues its work can be criticised.

Remember Levy was the ABC TV boss who would not sanction a live cross of the announcement of the October 9 election back in late August.

One can also ask why the ABC (and Nine, Seven or Ten) haven’t had more live coverage of these terrible tragedies.

Is it a case that the capricious events of mother nature are not as gripping to the Network bosses as plane flying terrorists destroying two landmarks in New York, a city which no doubt every newsroom and network manager has visited and enjoyed? Or not as ‘sexy’ as the bangs and battles of the Iraq adventure?

The Nine Network is running the ‘best’ of Sunday for four Sundays later this month to ‘warm’ up viewers ahead of the program’s return in early February.

Those ‘best of’ programs now look a little secondary beside the biggest physical disaster and human tragedy we have seen in modern times (outside the First and Second World Wars and the Vietnam conflicts).

The relevance of these best of programs would be lifted if Sunday was to first go live with coverage of what has gone on, why the future holds and where Australia can play a role.

Or is it such a big story that this sort of coverage can wait until official ratings start in early February when they will suddenly be exclusive and relevant.

A final point. The performance of the summer B teamers on various networks, the news persons and presenters of the various programs, as well as many of the reporters has been such that you’d have to question whether Jim Waley and Ray Martin on Nine, or Ian Ross and Naomi Robson on Seven, or Juanita Phillips and Kerry O’Brien on the ABC could have done any better or been any more credible.

Mark Ferguson in particular and Helen Dalley (and Helen Kapalos late nights) have done very well for Nine. Likewise Sam Armytage and Anna Coren on Seven and the various readers on the ABC 7 pm news and Emma Alberici, third string on The 7.30 Report.

If that is the case, then why do the networks employ these heavy hitters at such huge costs if they have not been brought back to cover this huge tragedy? That’s a good question for David Gyngell, David Leckie and Russell Balding, isn’t it?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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