The 35-year history of Australia’s longest running and most successful current affairs program means it ranks as one of global broadcasting’s most enduring television shows.
The Australian version of 60 Minutes was modelled on the American CBS network program of the same name. It first aired on the Nine Network on 11 February 1979, and was broadcast nationally every Sunday night. 60 Minutes soon established a distinctive identity—thanks in large part to the personalities involved.
The program was the brainchild of the Nine Network’s larger-than-life owner, Kerry Packer, who chose veteran television journalist Gerald Stone to bring his vision to the airwaves. Even for Packer, this was a risky decision, as Sunday-night television had traditionally been reserved for family entertainment. Stone knew his new program would be a career-maker or breaker for everyone involved.
The program’s first on-camera reporters were disparate but complementary personalities. George Negus was a quintessentially macho Aussie. Ray Martin—who joined 60 Minutes from the ABC—was an urbane inquisitor known for his love of words who would later become one of Australian television’s most popular figures. Ian Leslie, gregarious and infectiously likeable, rounded out the team. Behind the scenes were producers considered the best and brightest in Australian television, lured to 60 Minutes partly by Kerry Packer’s open chequebook but more by the promise of an unprecedented journalistic adventure. Their brief was immense but simple: bring the world home to Australia.
Within weeks of its first broadcast, 60 Minutes swiftly became a ratings behemoth, attracting millions of viewers and tens of millions of advertising dollars. Packer’s gamble had succeeded beyond his and Gerald Stone’s wildest imaginations.
The key to 60 Minutes’ long-term success was its concentration on ‘people stories’—examining events, places and issues through the eyes of those who experienced them. Stone’s oft-repeated mantra was ‘Don’t give me a story on flood control—give me a profile of Noah!’
60 Minutes has never been afraid to spend big, either to secure exclusive interviews or to pursue expensive international stories and investigations—witness its 1987 report on art treasures looted by Ferdinand Marcos, which reputedly cost the program a quarter of a million dollars.
Very quickly, 60 Minutes became—and remains—a professional Everest for Australian television journalists. Its distinguished reporting alumni include Jana Wendt, Richard Carleton, Jennifer Byrne, Tracey Curro, Mike Munro, Ellen Fanning, Peter Overton, Jeff McMullen, Liam Bartlett and Peter Harvey, as well as its current on-camera team of Liz Hayes, Charles Wooley, Tara Brown, Michael Usher and Allison Langdon. The program’s past and present production team includes legends of Australian television.
Over the decades—with its weekly mix of stories ranging from major investigations and front line war reporting to celebrity profiles and human interest stories—60 Minutes has won every Australian television, journalism and technical award, as well as a host of international broadcast honours. It has withstood intense counter-programming from other networks, and has seen off direct competitors for its brand of storytelling. Midway through its fourth decade, 60 Minutes still rates amongst the country’s top programs—and remains the benchmark for commercial television current affairs.
REF: J. Little, Inside 60 Minutes (1994).