The current stoush between the tabloid television current affairs shows is certainly beyond parody and almost beyond comment.

But it’s worth pointing out that the stars of schlock current affairs television are playing a losers’ game. Tabloid television exists because of ratings – but on its own criterion it is a failure. The emperor has no clothes. Or as author Graeme Turner has put it in his book Ending the Affair:

The commercial justification for the downmarket trend in current affairs is bankrupted by the simple fact that while it has been in play the numbers watching the programs have plummeted.

In the 1980s and early 1990s current affairs was a ratings leader, but as the format has raced down market, the audience has shrunk. A Current Affair and Today Tonight struggle to attract viewer numbers of around 1.2-1.5 million. Compare this to the later days of the ABC’s This Day Tonight in the 1970s, which attracted 1.8 million Australians a night – although the population was six million fewer.

ACA lost more than a quarter of its national audience between 1999 and 2002, and the figures for its rival are similar. What is more, the audience is ageing.

Turner points out that the only times news and current affairs viewing figures have tended upwards in the last few decades have been during brief experiments with new formats. Clive Robertson’s idiosyncratic late night news on Channel Seven then Channel Nine was so successful that it soon spawned imitators – Steve Vizard’s show among them.

Meanwhile the figures show that young people prefer to watch Andrew Denton or The Panel rather than tabloid current affairs.

Turner comments:

In my view this happens because news matters, not because it doesn’t. These new formats are largely entertainment formats, it is true, but they are also marked by a highly sceptical, alienated attitude to established politics and its representation that is actually the reverse of disinterest…perhaps we have moved on to a world where news and current affairs can still pull big audiences, but they can’t do it any longer in the name of journalism.

Those behind the success of real (as opposed to contrived) reality television shows such as Border Security would probably agree.

The tabloid current affairs shows are fighting over the remains of a diminishing audience. They are on the way out. Perhaps it’s not surprising they are resorting to cannibalism.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW