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#TVT10: Bong-smoking dogs, bans and screaming down the phone line

It’s honestly such a blur trying to pinpoint key moments across a decade.

TV Tonight began as a blog on January 5th 2007.

Back then there were just 5 channels and Foxtel.

Every TV journo or critic was aligned with News Ltd, Fairfax or TV Week. Eddie was the CEO at Nine, Daryl was hosting Dancing with the Stars, while The Rich List, 1 vs 100, The Catch Up, National Bingo Night and Celebrity Dog School all debuted that year.

Boy, how things have changed….

After 400,000+ comments and nearly 50,000 posts I could never have foreseen the changes that would come to the media landscape. Multichannels moved in, many TV journos moved out, Streaming arrived, TV fragmented.

TV Tonight actually began several years earlier, both as a segment on JOY94.9 and as a column in the gay press, MCV. I was writing for Screen Hub, filing for and CitySearch, running live script readings at ACMI. Prior to this I had a background in theatre performing, writing, WA Academy, TV subjects at RMIT Screenwriting. I used to listen to Age critic Ross Warneke on 3AW doing a daily morning segment discussing ratings, reviews, news & talkback calls, drawn in by all the machinations. So I volunteered to do a Drive segment on JOY, telling listeners what to watch “on TV Tonight.” After 3 years someone said they had missed the spot, could they read my notes online? I thought “What’s a blog, how do I do that?”

In Australia we only had TV fan blogs or a messageboard such as the excellent Media Spy. I saw room for something more industry-oriented. I had built up local publicity contacts, but there was no path to follow on how to get traffic, how to get noticed, how to break a story, how to get the bloody recognition for breaking the story. In the early days a lot of journos used to lift my stuff without attribution (occasionally some still do, tut tut). I was once told by a publicist “some networks thought you would be doing this for 5 minutes.” I guess they hadn’t factored that I’d already had a lifetime in the arts -blogging was just another form of storytelling.

So I just kept sharing my passion for all things telly, talking to actors, writers and producers in the independent sector, discovering shows, acknowledging shifts in TV history, avoiding “gossip” and throwing in a bit of humour.

I once recall defending a show that was getting slammed in the mainstream media because public monies were going towards “an SBS comedy about a bong-smoking dog.” I wrote that it was a Tropfest winner and we should encourage our emerging artists. The team behind it were very grateful for another side to the conversation. Wilfred would later go on to have its own US series. You can see one of its creators in the birthday gallery this week….

But timing is everything. Not too long after I launched the site networks became trigger-happy removing shows from schedules ad nauseum. Viewers would open up their print guides (remember those?) and wonder why their show wasn’t on, turn to the internet and end up at my site. Usually I could answer their question or act as a middleman between audience & network to get answers. Sometimes I joke I have built up a blog on the back of bad programming….

Over time the site has found an audience with both industry & public alike. I never overlook this rarity, because it’s usually one or the other. Journos and radio often get in touch for quotes or to mine the vast archive. As many print journos began to leave the building, the independence became an asset. I’ve been accused of bias against every network at one stage or another, been asked to keep personal opinions out (umm it’s a blog?), or to put more in. You can never win on moderating comments, but I think we can agree the site is not a forum for reader brawls that can be vitriolic elsewhere. Whilst viewer criticism can be robust, I’m reminded of Charlotte Dawson when working out what to approve. Always try to play the ball, not the man.

Of course, there have been disagreements with publicists, temporary “bans” from Programming depts upset that I keep filing their various changes (don’t shoot the messenger), accusations about balance, ongoing reader debates about what is and isn’t a Spoiler, the odd DDoS attack (ouch!), or the time one programmer -possibly under the weather- rang me up to have a go. Years later they sent a bottle of champers for a job well done. Another was so upset with one post, they wrote they would “eat my hat” before taking programming advice from me. The rest of it was such a bullying email I asked if it was on the record and for publication? Execs have a remarkable tendency to reach out to tell you off, but rarely to say thanks.

There was the time I got a programming amendment that a failed cooking show was being replaced by YouTube cats. I thought primetime had hit rock bottom, and let fly in a colourful post. Several other journos then re-reported the calamitous move, the show scored big ratings and a certain programmer sent me a thank-you note that I had saved their arse. We laugh about it still.

One hairy moment that sticks out was in 2008. I was coming through Melbourne airport on a day when the media scrum were trying to get pictures of Tony Mokbel’s girlfriend, slipping in from Singapore. But in Qantas domestic I saw Nick Etchells from A Current Affair pursuing a blonde in sunglasses who was ignoring his questions about “reputation” and “shame.” I snapped a quick photo on my phone and posted a yarn that ACA had the scoop. Several media, including TEN News, republished them while Nine sat back and blissfully refused to comment. It turned out to be an escort who had been involved with Wayne Carey. At the time Eddie McGuire was hosting ACA(go figure) and brashly remarked, “Fellas, you got it wrong.” I conceded I had, and it taught me to run as a rumour when you’re not solid enough on your info. It also taught me networks will let anything run awry and incorrect for the sake of ratings.

…which reminds me of the time an upcoming show was attracting plenty of bad headlines.  I advised someone in publicity about a possible injunction that threatened to derail the launch. They did a little happy jig declaring “Controversy! Controversy!” They got their ratings.

Once I copped a phone call from TEN screaming down the phone at me because I had broken news Rob Mills would host a Young Talent Time revival, just an hour before then-CEO Lachlan Murdoch was set to announce it at Upfronts. They thought thought another journo had leaked it to me and I had broken an embargo. But I wasn’t at their Upfronts or under any embargo, and for the record it wasn’t another journo. You do have to pick your battles, but that was an old-fashioned scoop plain and simple.

And there was the time OzTAM got very shirty about all the ratings info being distributed which was costing them clients, but we’ve found a happy balance, I think. Even the folk at ACMA are avid readers, not bad, given robust posts.

Seeing Noni Hazlehurst inducted into the Hall of Fame was a lovely nod to the site’s campaign for more women to be recognised by the Logies. Caroline Jones & Denise Drysdale next please! Winning the People’s Choice Award in the Best Blogs 2012 was also very fab.

But how can I possibly recall all the interviews, set visits, radio chats, conferences, Upfronts, awards (hey, I’ve still never been invited into the Logies nor asked to judge), the scoops broken, the scoops lost because a network asked me to please hold a story? Programmer’s Wraps are now an industry staple, TVT Awards, Audience Inventories, Multichannel Surveys, Random Acts of Carpetness, Vales, morning ratings wraps -these are all regular features of the site. I’ve endeavoured to put info at your fingertips, all linked with tags to be as self-service as practical.

I’m relieved the couriers no longer arrive with DVD previews (or even VHS tapes!), I once had a bedroom full of disks I didn’t know what to do with. God bless links. But there are so many platforms bringing us TV it is dizzying just trying to keep up. I’ve had to focus reviews on first-run seasons as a result. Just not enough days in the week to review House Husbands Season 5 nor My Kitchen Rules Season 7, at least not formally.

Over a decade of vast media change, I see several unequivocal truths:

– Free to Air has obviously lost ground
– but Free to Air is still far and away the dominant platform
– the audience now has a lot more power
– no matter your age, device, or genre preference -we remain connected to storytelling

Special thanks go to David McDonald, Roberto Parlavecchio, James Spinks, Ben Murray, colleagues such as James Manning, Peter Ford, Andrew Mercado who have been great supporters. And there are just too many publicists to name, some of whom I consider friends, plus fervent producers who fight to get me on set and stars who have championed my independence. Thanks to radio folk, especially Fran Kelly, all those with news tips, everyone who comments and the thousands more who don’t but read quietly with interest.

Couldn’t have done it without you.


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