Pancakes, newspapers and new television current affairs programs have one thing in common. The first one never comes out quite right. The pan isn’t quite hot enough, the cook is too nervous, the pace and the elan have not had time to develop.

So it has seemed fair to let a whole week go by before attempting to say anything about the relaunch, sans Kerry O’Brien, of the nation’s most important television current events program, The 7.30 Report, or as it is now known in this age of abbreviation, 7.30.

The conclusion — it is better than okay, but less than exciting. Let’s start with the substance, then move to the packaging.

Each night last week they broke a story. They varied from the highly significant to the minor outrage, but all deserved their place in the program. Gail Kelly of Westpac backing carbon trading, the news about Australia’s rusty and out of service heavy transport ships and questions over how a teenager came to die in a horse riding accident. All creditable work.

The set piece political interview still has its place, post Kezza, with Chris Uhlmann interviewing the Prime Minister and Defence Minister Stephen Smith, among others. Nevertheless, it seems to be less dominant and less gladiatorial than in the O’Brien version. Viewers will differ on whether this is a good thing or a bad.

There is no doubt that the set piece interview risked becoming a tired old cat and mouse game, with little revealed except the depths politicians will go to  avoid answering questions. O’Brien seemed increasingly to be trying to make up for the lack of answers by pitching his questions as mini works of analysis.

Uhlmann is a hard hitting straight shooter in his interviews, but so far no more successful in breaking through the spin and predictable. Perhaps it can’t be done. This may be one area in which we need to wait for the pan to heat, and the presenters to settle in.

Or, alternatively, an entirely new approach, such as the pursuit of a citizens’ agenda, with all the heft and mandate that public opinion could bring to the asking of questions. The concept is explained here.

Are there any brave new models, anything that would seem as fresh and extraordinary as the ABC’s This Day Tonight did back in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

It’s hard to imagine 7.30 using things like the empty chair tactic — naming politicians who had refused to appear, or using musical comedy to satirise politicians. These days, that kind of irreverence is more likely to show up on Q&A, which is breaking some new ground.

Being the flagship current affairs program, and the one to which many people turn for a quick round-up of the day, carries with it a heavy burden. Levity is limited. Any suggestion of bias or any controversial methods of presentation will, of course, fuel a dozen Senate Estimates Committee Hearings.

And in any case, perhaps there is only so much that can be done in a half hour round up kind of current affairs program. You present the issues of the day seriously, try to break a yarn, and leaven the mix with a magazine story that has nice pictures. It’s a formula as old as newspapers.

O’Brien said to me on his departure that there was only so much that you could do without beginning to undermine the substance. Perhaps he was right. Nevertheless, I wish there was some evidence of deeper thinking around new ways of doing journalism. Perhaps a flagship program is the wrong place to look. Innovation happens around the edges.

So the main differences come down to the presenters and the backdrops. Personally, I find the constantly shifting shadows and colour behind Leigh Sales and Uhlmann irritating and distracting, but perhaps I’m just an old fogey and I’ll get used to them.

I am mindful of one of my 18 year old journalism students who, urged last year to watch The 7.30 Report, complained that the backdrops to Kerry looked too blue and cheap and depressing, compared to the jazz-it-up commercial offerings. She was distracted by the glumness, whereas I am distracted by the movement. It is quite likely a generational thing.

Sales is, as we already knew her to be, one of the most intelligent, incisive and personable presences on television. Uhlmann-the-serious is learning how to smile, occasionally, and even how to Twitter, although it is notable that his output is both less frequent and less chatty than that of Sales.

So, no disasters or brickbats. And yet I must admit to a sense of disappointment. The recasting of 7.30 presented an opportunity to rethink ways of doing current affairs television in the new media age. Perhaps, as the pan heats up and the confidence grows, we will see some adventurous flipping of the pancakes. I hope so.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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