Outlaw bikie gangs, reality show starlets and "you be the judge" exhortations: the new-look Today Tonight is as tabloid as ever.
This is not necessarily a criticism. When done well, tabloid current affairs shows are populist but not trashy. They entertain and inform but resist cheap titillation. They go beyond the incessant story carousel of washing powder tests, celebrity gossip and network cross-promotions.
Fresh yet familiar face for Today Tonight
Former Channel Ten presenter Helen Kapalos makes her debut as the new host of Seven's current affairs program.
Having survived a plan to roll it into a one-hour new bulletin, the overhauled program debuted on Channel Seven tonight with new host Helen Kapalos and commentator Derryn Hinch.
This version, airing in Sydney and Melbourne, lost to A Current Affair in both cities. Nationally, ACA drew 1.1 million viewers in the five mainland capitals to Today Tonight's 1 million.
It was straight down to business as Kapalos, looking relaxed and assured, introduced the lead story about bikie gangs in Australia.
If this were the old Today Tonight, it would have been crammed with violent footage, bleeped-out swearing and alarmist pronouncements from law-and-order types. Instead, the segment was balanced, thorough and decidedly non-sensationalist. It was solid reporting; a strong story told well.
More of this, please Channel Seven.
Things took a worrying turn with the next segment: a brief interview with Mike Willesee about his interview with Jamie Packer last night on – where else? – Channel Seven.
It was exactly the kind of cheap cross-promotion Today Tonight must avoid if it wants to differentiate itself from Nine's A Current Affair. And it's a shame, because Willesee had some interesting and insightful things to say about modern ideals of masculinity. Had the story explored this further – and eschewed the blatant plugs – it would arguably have been of more interest to the audience.
There was little to redeem what followed: an unashamed advertorial for My Kitchen Rules. It was so light, it physically floated out of my TV screen and into the air. The less said about this alleged "report", the better.
Derryn Hinch's You Be The Judge segment was a welcome relief. Corny dramatisations aside, it was a succinct and interesting re-cap of a recent court case.
A woman, injured while having sex in a motel room on a work trip, successfully sued her employer. Viewers were invited to "pass judgment" by registering their agreement or disagreement via Seven's smartphone app. Perhaps not surprisingly, nine in ten opposed the fact she collected a pot of money.
Cynics and snobs will dismiss this as bogan-bait but if Hinch continues to present each "case" fairly and accurately, it's an effective and legitimate means of engaging viewers.
All up, the new-look Today Tonight got off to a strong start. It does not pretend to be Four Corners or 7.30 – and nor should it. Kapalos and Hinch are good at what they do and are assets to the program. The bikie report proved it is capable of producing strong stories with a wide appeal. If it could just ditch the unedifying cross-promotions, it may even find some new viewers.