Both radio and television have carried forms of current affairs programming. However, today the term is primarily used in relation to television programming, because there is now little current affairs on commercial radio and the high profile of the leading television current affairs programs has resulted in their effectively claiming ownership of the term.
Unlike the ABC, which began its premium current affairs franchises AM and PM in 1967 and 1969 respectively, Australian commercial radio—even its leading news provider, the Macquarie Network—has been more inclined to program news and current affairs as a mix of news and comment rather than supporting its news with background stories and independent investigations. The primary focus of commercial radio has always been on the provision of up-to-the-minute news: stations began employing their own journalists from the late 1930s. Radio commentary on news and politics had been around from the 1920s. It was placed under security restrictions during World War II, but became more widespread after the war. From the 1950s into the 1960s, high-profile and opinionated radio news commentators such as Eric Baume (2GB), Buzz Kennedy (2UW) and Ormsby Wilkins (2UE) in Sydney attracted significant audience numbers; in retrospect, it seems as if their success effectively laid the groundwork for the installation of the talkback host from 1967 as the primary facilitator of on-air discussion of current issues. (Most of these star commentators failed to make a successful transition from commentary to talkback.) In the long run, the development of talkback radio would prove to be the beginning of the end for current affairs programming on commercial radio, but not before almost a decade of award-winning current affairs reporting and documentaries, with eight of the nine Walkley Awards for Best Radio Current Affairs Reports between 1979 and 1987 going to commercial stations.
That commitment to high-quality current affairs journalism eventually gave way to market pressures, and talkback radio has maintained a dominant position in the public discussion of current affairs on radio since that time. It is notable that very few commercial radio talkback hosts have backgrounds as journalists. For every Neil Mitchell (former newspaper journalist and talkback host on 3AW Melbourne), there are many versions of Alan Jones (former school teacher, Australian Rugby Union coach, and talkback host on 2UE), whose programs depend on opinion rather than research, and the fanning of controversy rather than the application of expertise or the provision of reliable information.
On the ABC, local and talk radio formats have tended to make use of the ABC’s journalists as often as specialty presenters. In addition to ABC Local Radio’s journalistic coverage of current affairs issues, AM and PM have been joined by more specialist current affairs programming on Radio National (such as Asia Pacific), as well as by reporters’ commentaries on headline issues on ABC NewsRadio. The Wire is broadcast daily on community radio and Indigenous radio (through the Central Indigenous Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) around Australia.
Television has become the primary location for current affairs in Australia. It has adopted three main formats: the half-hour daily program comprising investigative journalism reports and interviews, and screened just after the network news; the one-hour high-profile program with celebrity reporters, longer stories, celebrity interviews and a prime-time slot (mostly but not always on Sundays); and the long-form single-topic documentary format employed by the longest running (since 1961) current affairs program in the country, the ABC’s Four Corners. The first of these formats has been a staple component of three of the four commercial television networks’ lead-ins to prime-time evening programming since the 1970s. There have been (and continue to be) many variations on these models—for instance, a mix of comedy, personalities, interviews and current affairs discussion informed the late-night talk show The Panel (1998–2004), and a similar mix has been responsible for the gradual ratings success of the expanded one-hour format for Network Ten’s The Project since 2012.
Although television current affairs programming in Australia actually began with the ABC’s Telescope (1965–66), it is conventionally regarded as starting with the ABC’s This Day Tonight (TDT) in 1967. TDT was mostly a ratings leader until 1978, when it was closed while still attracting an average audience of 1.8 million. The next generation of current affairs journalists and presenters was drawn largely from TDT alumni. Among them was Mike Willesee, who launched a competing program for the Nine Network, A Current Affair (ACA), in 1971; it is the long-term survivor. Various versions of the program have screened on each of the three commercial networks, with numerous changes of host and format, and with the occasional period of interruption, until the present. The success of and competition between ACA and TDT saw current affairs establish itself as a major programming genre on the commercial networks and the ABC in the 1970s. Since the ABC ceased production of TDT in 1978, it has maintained an early evening or prime-time daily current affairs presence virtually constantly— currently7.30.
Television current affairs enjoyed something of a boom from the late 1980s through to the mid-1990s, when it became a particularly high-rating and high-profile television genre. It is likely that one of the reasons was the enormous success of 60 Minutes, which began in 1979. The genre moved into prime time—mostly in one-hour formats featuring high-profile reporters. Television current affairs personalities like Mike Willesee, Ray Martin, George Negus and Jana Wendt became household names. Even ABC reporters such as Kerry O’Brien and Chris Masters entered the limelight when moved to the commercial sector to work for Network Ten on Page One (1988) and The Public Eye (1989) respectively.
The boom also encouraged some more down-market initiatives. There were attempts to translate the tabloid radio shock-jock style to television, with Derryn Hinch’s Hinch (Seven, 1988–93) and, less successfully, Alan Jones Live (Ten, 1994). Inside Story (1992) and Hard Copy (1991–94),both on Network Ten, were populist, muck-raking programs in true tabloid style. There were also innovative attempts at making current affairs programs attractive to the youth audience, such as the ABC’s Attitude (1993–94) and the Seven Network’s The Times (1994). The range of current affairs programming available over the mid-1990s represented a peak in our television history; there has been a decline in offerings ever since.
The ABC continues to produce a range of current affairs programs—including 7.30, Australian Story, Q&A, Lateline, Foreign Correspondent and Four Corners; SBS continues to present Dateline and Insight, as well as one-off long-form documentaries on particular topics; and the pay television channel Sky News Australia presents political interviews and comment on Agenda. The commercial free-to-air networks have contracted their offerings, and now concentrate on the early evening timeslot (although the Nine and Seven Networks both have offerings in prime time on Sundays—60 Minutes and Sunday Night). The weekday market leaders, ACA and Today Tonight, now trade unapologetically in tabloid-style news entertainment; their stories cycle through a continuous parade of bad neighbours, botched cosmetic surgery and diet fads, with only an occasional venture into politics—and then usually with a populist spin. Apparently deemed too boring for commercial television’s primary demographics, the serious analysis of politics or social issues has been left to the ABC’s News and Current Affairs division to consider.
REFs: M. Bromley (ed.), No News is Bad News (2001); R. Tiffen, ‘Political Economy and News’ in S. Cunningham and G. Turner (eds), The Media and Communications in Australia (2nd ed., 2006); G. Turner, Ending the Affair (2005).