It’s been four months since Today Tonight, the sometimes wretched Channel Seven current affairs show, was cancelled with bland corporate diligence along the east coast. Host Helen Kapalos was freed from making those excruciating behind-the-scenes online video posts, and Media Watch favourite, David “Sluggo” Richardson was presumably cryogenically frozen, awaiting a time when doctors could finally cure his issues with Spanish geography.
But what of A Current Affair? Channel Nine’s matching tabloid television offering had long been defined by its bitter rivalry with Today Tonight, an endless cycle of competing promos, spoiler stories, and gotcha accusations that appeared to be fueling a race to the bottom of the barrel at 6.30pm on weeknights. The two shows were siblings, speaking a shared language of car park confrontations and miracle diets.
The move to hour-long new bulletins at 6pm, the change that ended the era of dueling beat-ups, has pushed A Current Affair to 7pm, where it’s up against Seven’s Home & Away, as well as the ABC news bulletin. The viewing figures haven’t changed greatly: between approximately 900,000 and 1.15 million viewers watched last week, equal to or slightly down on this time two years ago, when A Current Affair could sometimes top 1.2 million watchers in its trench warfare with Today Tonight.
The rationale for the duo’s content was that they were giving people what they wanted – if each was drawing around one million viewers at the same time the argument went, then they were satisfying genuine public demand. But since Today Tonight was shuttered, A Current Affair hasn’t gained disappointed viewers desperate for a fix of dole bludgers or warnings about the imminent application of Muslim Sharia law at your local bowls club.
Hosted by an underused Tracy Grimshaw, A Current Affair has begun to tentatively explore the next stage of its life. Like a widower venturing out alone, there are signs of change.
Certainly the ferociousness, that literal blood frenzy, which television’s toxic twins could inspire in each other, has in large part dissipated.
A report on an episode last week about a resident of a Queensland housing commission apartment block accused of verbally and physically abusing his neighbours revolved around a shouting match in the car park. But while reporter Tim Arvier had described the subject as “a violent drug abuser”, he was little more than a bystander during the face-off, lobbing in the odd question but hardly needling his bearded quarry.
It was an almost gentle confrontation – it was the tears of the neighbours that did the talking, and tears are definitely the currency this latest edition of A Current Affair trades in. Sometimes the need to create a sympathetic audience appears to be more important than establishing the facts, as variations of loss and tragedy are offered up before the actual cause is even established.
It was interesting to watch a report on the Child Support system, because the segment refused to find a convenient scapegoat to focus the sins of many on. A father avoiding his payments was fronted (yes, in a car park) but Lisa Goddard’s report acknowledged both mothers owed money by former partners and fathers felt the bureaucracy was letting them down.
Systemic issues rather than despicable straw figures were acknowledged, even if there were no real suggestions for reforming a structure that has allowed child support in arrears to top $1 billion.
Unfortunately the piece was let down by some heavy-handed editing, which cut in images of children drawing happy homes and families, or just a big dollar sign, to make the point clear.
Many of the old aesthetic favourites endure: such as dodgy recreations of violent incidents, shown even as the victim talks about the trauma the actual event caused.
A Current Affair has begun to tentatively explore the next stage of its life. Like a widower venturing out alone, there are signs of change.
The strangest problem was one of timing. Several items, including a report on a stalled housing development on Sydney’s edge that had trapped consumers, were awkwardly tagged at the end with news of their resolution. It was if A Current Affair needed the strife to justify itself, even though their presence had probably ended the impasse. That’s the kind of uneasy place A Current Affair is in, as the first television show trying to recover from post-traumatic stress disorder.