If you suspect Q&A has taken a slight shift away from politics – and politicians – you’re right.
‘‘When we first started out [in 2008], we saw the program as being almost exclusively about politics,’’ says Peter McEvoy, executive producer of the popular Monday night panel show, broadcast live on ABC. ‘‘As we’ve become more confident, we’ve seen that there are other opportunities. People want to discuss moral and religious issues, science ... you can address these on Q&A just as well as politics, but politics is still our bread and butter.’’
The unwritten rule requiring a Coalition and Labor politician every week appears to have been dropped (although such pairings are still frequent). But it is not uncommon for an episode to be politician-free, or perhaps feature only a retired pollie.
Finding the right mix of panellists is crucial to the show's success. Just as reality producers ‘‘cast’’ their programs with an eye towards, say, drama or potential romance, panel shows have specific goals, too.
In Q&A's case, ‘‘casting’’ is too cynical a term.
‘‘It’s an art more than a science,’’ McEvoy says. ‘‘We don’t say, ‘We need a square peg, a round peg and a star-shaped peg’. We want interesting interactions; people who are going to spark off each other.
‘‘You don’t want a panel that just divides into two teams. What I like is when two people on one side of [host Tony Jones] disagree on one topic, then unite on something else, and you get this constant criss-crossing. There are a lot of parallels between a good dinner party and a good Q&A.’’
It is a freezing night in Melbourne as the studio audience lines up outside the stately Town Hall building on Swanston Street, many arriving more than two hours early to get a front-row seat. Normally, the program is filmed in Sydney, but it has travelled south for the 20th International AIDS Conference.
Given the special topic, ‘‘Living with HIV’’, tonight’s panel features mostly experts. There are no serving politicians, only former Liberal senator Amanda Vanstone.
What do viewers consider the ideal blend? Every audience member Green Guide interviews gives a similar answer. There should be a politician or two – holding elected officials to account is seen as a vital function of the program – but the occasional sans-politician episode is a ‘‘blessed relief’’, says one. There must be a diversity of views and, while shouting matches are to be avoided, disagreements are desirable.
‘‘This inane assumption that bipartisanship is automatically a good thing infuriates me,’’ says one woman, a public servant who asks not to be named. ‘‘Politics, by definition, involves competing viewpoints.’’
There is also an almost unanimous vote for guests who are not the usual talking heads; people with interesting backgrounds and viewpoints who have not already been wheeled on to every other talk radio and TV panel show.
‘‘I’ve stopped watching because I feel every episode has the same make-up of panellists,’’ says viewer Kris Shrimpton. ‘‘I want more guests who genuinely challenge the status quo.’’
For everyone else, however, Q&A is a Monday-night must. Most praise Jones as a fair host and moderator, seeing his primary role as ensuring guests ‘‘just answer the damn question’’, as one puts it.
‘‘It’s satisfying when Tony calls them out for weaseling around a question,’’ says Hannah Brown, a 20-year-old law student.
When viewers apply to be part of the studio audience through the Q&A website, they must specify who they would vote for if an election were held today and whether they belong to a political party. Producers then weight each audience roughly in accordance with recent opinion polls – a policy that draws strong support among tonight’s viewers.
‘‘The applause and the silences would get very marked otherwise,’’ says Les, a middle-aged viewer.
‘‘It facilitates better discussion,’’ Brown adds, ‘‘otherwise you just get a majority shouting down a minority.’’
For many viewers, watching Q&A is a participatory experience. They tweet using the #qanda hash tag (generating roughly 20,000 tweets an episode), comment on Facebook, submit written or video questions, vote for questions via social media or attend a live broadcast.
‘‘I don’t do any of the technological stuff,’’ says Sandra, a middle-aged Q&A devotee. ‘‘I just shout at my TV every Monday night.’’
‘‘It’s essential that we go live,’’ McEvoy says. ‘‘Otherwise, you can’t have genuine interactions with viewers. Some [pre-recorded] programs have Twitter comments on the bottom of the screen, but they don’t feel like real interactions.’’
Of course, this barrage of live tweets – up to 10 a second – can be tricky to manage. Indeed, Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey broke Q&A’s Twitter system when he appeared in May to discuss his unpopular budget.
Hockey generated a record 79,000 tweets, causing its software to crash.
‘‘We had to build in extra capacity after that,’’ McEvoy says. ‘‘There’ll be another program down the track – next time Tony Abbott comes on or whatever – and we’ll have even more tweets, so we have to be ready.’’
Q&A airs Mondays at 9.35pm on ABC.