How many different ways are there to do nightly prime time quality television current affairs? An article in The Australian today discloses what might have been obvious: that with the departure of The 7.30 Report anchor Kerry O’Brien, the ABC will review whether and what changes should be made to the ABC1 flagship program.

I know for a fact there are those in the ABC who think the format has gone a bit stale. And there are plenty of others outside the national broadcaster who think political interviews have become tired cat-and-mouse games, all polish and world-weary evasion.

But what can you do about it? As O’Brien himself said in this interview with me last week, there is a limit to what you can do to the format without detracting from the importance of the content.

So what is Auntie considering? This morning, the acting-director of news, Alan Sunderland, did his best to avoid frightening the horses when I asked him what the review would entail, and what options were on the table.

The departure of O’Brien, who had put his own stamp so firmly on the show, would itself constitute a major change, he said. The ABC had decided that before they made any decisions on a new presenter they should look at whether to make other alterations.

Sunderland pointed out that Four Corners, which recently celebrated its 50th year, has had several fundamental changes in format over its stellar history.

Some have been saying that program, too, is tired. But I think last Monday’s extraordinary and historically significant fly-on-the-wall account of how the independents came to their decision to back Gillard should reassure us that there is kick in the old horse yet.

So what is and isn’t on the table in this review of The 7.30 Report? What should be on the table?

Sunderland says a return to state-based programs was “not particularly on the agenda”. In some ways I think that is a shame. It goes unnoticed in Sydney and Melbourne, but anyone who has participated in public life in other states knows the loss of nightly local ABC current affairs has had a devastating affect on the health of public life.

Imagine what the Queensland Fitzgerald inquiry in  Brisbane in the 1980s would have been without Quentin Dempster and producer Mark Hayes, who re-enacted the evidence using actors each night? I think the inquiry would have been closed down. Yet a national program could never have devoted that kind of  time and resources to a state-based story.

There are plenty of other examples from the country’s other one-newspaper towns. Nightly ABC television current affairs could make a real difference in those states. The weekly Stateline programs, of varying quality across the nation, don’t plug the gap.

Imagine, for example, what nightly current affairs in Tasmania would do to the logging debate, or in South Australia to the Rann government, or in Brisbane to the ongoing troubles of the Bligh government? I’d like to see the ABC address the near vacuum.

What else might be possible, given that few would disagree with Sunderand and O’Brien when they say that the fundamentals — good journalism to a national audience in prime time –must remain. Sunderland talks about more interactivity with audiences. But then again, The 7.30 Report should not be and could not be another Q&A. That spot is taken.

Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the ABC program This Day Tonight virtually invented popular daily “long-form” current affairs. It maintained high audience ratings for more than 12 years. Even at the end if its run was watched by 1.8 million Australians a night.

Today, a news and current events program in prime time — even tabloid popular fare — will attract average viewers of just 1.2 million. To put these figures in perspective, the population has grown by more than six million since TDT was at its height. In other words, nightly television current affairs plays a decreasing role in our consciousness.

Can some innovative thought around formats and interactivity reverse that? Given the strapped resources of ABC news and current affairs, one would have to doubt it. But it’s mainly encouraging that they’re doing the thinking.

Peter Fray

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