Richard Carleton’s death highlights how
much television current affairs has declined – both in terms of quality and
viewer numbers – since the height of his career. Can anyone imagine a television
current events program today including Carleton’s famous “blood on your hands”
question to Bob Hawke?

These days even extended interviews are
tired cat and mouse games, all polish and world-weary evasion. Carleton had an
ego, but he wasn’t preoccupied with being nice. Nor did he have to field constant accusations
of bias, nor minute by minute analysis of ratings figures.

These days politics is hardly ever covered
on commercial current events programs. Ratings figures are collected
minute by
minute. Executives know who turns off, who turns on, and who switches
channels. Politics is a reliable channel switcher,
and so current affairs explores the trivial – diet stories, health
scares and chequebook journalism. But what isn’t often said is that
going down market hasn’t
worked. Viewer numbers for commercial current affairs are in long term
decline.

We are surely overdue for a reinvention of
the format, a complete refresh of the paradigm. Carleton as a young man was one
of those who showed how it could be done.

He came to prominence in the 1960s and 70s on
the ABC program This Day Tonight
part of a team that re-made the format and,
(unbelievable as it may seem today), actually popularised politics. TDT was a breath of fresh air – raw,
irreverent and often funny.

It maintained high audience ratings for more
than 12 years. At its peak it rated at 25% in Sydney and Melbourne and
even at the end of its run was watched by 1.8 million Australians a night.

To put this in perspective, the population has grown by more than six
million since then, but A Current Affair
and Today Tonight struggle to
attract viewer numbers of around 1.2-1.5 million.

The program on which Carleton ended his
career, 60 Minutes, began in 1979
with pathetic ratings, but was allowed to hang in, bloom and grow. With its big
budget, tried and tested American format and star reporters it soon dominated
and led a revival through the early 1980s to the point where news and current
affairs were reliable ratings winners. Would such a slow start, particularly
for news and current affairs, be tolerated today? I doubt it.

Now 60
Minutes
still tackles serious topics in an accessible way, as well as a lot
of trivia, and gets around 1.6 million viewers on a Sunday night – beating Big
Brother
eviction programs by only a whisker.

Carleton was one of the most talented
television current affairs reporters of his time, always – right up until the
moment of his death – asking the questions that encapsulated what everyone was
thinking and nobody would say. In the wave of grief and obituaries, nobody is
mentioning his much criticised trip to East
Timor
or his petulant writ
against Media Watch. His last years were not his best.

If Carleton was born again today with the
creativity he had as a young man, he would surely not enter the tired and stale
world of television current affairs. Or not without wanting to shake it up, in
any case.