'Network' written by Paddy Chayefsky about the future of television "was a movie that was far ahead of its time (when it was first shown in 1976)." Tim Goodman of 'Knight-Ridder Newspapers' observed, "Two decades removed (in 1996), 'Network' couldn’t be any more relevant." The dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley, Orville Schell, also declared, "'Network' is what's happening now. I thought I was seeing something extraordinarily fresh (20 years later). And I thought what I was seeing was true. I was just mesmerized by it. In a funny way, you’d have a hard time doing 'Network' now (in 1997)." 

Paddy Chayefsky found success in television during its golden age in the 1950s. Paddy was 53 in 1976. He took 1½ years to write the screenplay for the movie. Paddy told Associated Press in 1976, "When I was in television, they had terrific ideas and people and inventive programing. Everything in 'Network' is absolutely true. Some people in television took the movie personally. They thought it was an unfair assessment. I thought it treated news people very favorably. Oh, the network people will get over it – the ones who are upset. But most of the people I talked to love it. The characters all said what I think."

As explained, "'Network' imagined just what could happen if national networks were owned by large corporations and the lines between entertainment and journalism were blurred." Two years after its release, Van Gordon Sauter proclaimed, "In terms of realism, the film is ludicrous. But the issues it raises are important for television viewers."

At the time of its release, drama critic George Anderson of 'Post-Gazette' conceded, "Let's not quibble about this one: 'Network' is the best American movie of the year. It may shock, disturb or dumbfound, but it won’t be ignored. The film is a Swiftian satire of our exisiting institutions and systems, carrying out their flaws to the ultimate absurdity."

'Network' was rated R in 1976, because of the 4-letter words that, for once, were said to be properly used. When 'Network' was shown on television in 1978, Don O’Brien of CBS program standards admitted, "I have to tell you, it was a tough edit, but it edited well and the movie is a good movie, a strong satire about this industry." The industry was a communications medium.

William Beamon acknowledged, "CBS is being quite brave about the whole thing, planning to air the film without any 'parental discretion' advisories that traditionally accompany controversial material. Another bit of bravery is evident in the sponsorship of the film: Chrysler Corp. is picking up the tab for the entire 2-hour-plus of airtime. 'Network' is decidedly a work of fiction, but the concepts explored in it are true for the industry. People such as those played by Robert Duvall, William Holden and Faye Dunaway in the film do exist in the upper echelons of network television."

In 1996, Australian television's most famous face, Jana Wendt, was signed to host channel Seven's most talked-about $8 million gamble, 'Witness', the late-night public affairs flagship program. Speaking to Peter Wilmoth, Jana made known, "I think it is my duty in my position to try to deliver something that is honest, that is as untainted by gimmick as possible and that tells the truth. I am quite happy to fight for it. If we don't make ('Witness') work, the victory flag will go up on the wrong side of the current affairs line. It will say that current affairs is really better off being relegated to entertainment."

It was noted 'Witness' did not take after Jehovah. Jana Wendt was said to be the interviewers of choice for such guests as then Prime Minister, John Howard. One viewer told the newspapers editor, "Jana Wendt has a rare quality. She listens to people, draws them out and gives viewers a chance to make their own evaluations of what the interviewee says."

The widely-publicized journalist was reportedly famous enough to be known by her first name, Jana. "How do you pronounce that name again? Yana Vent?" Jana was reportedly told. "That's unusual, but it will never get you anywhere in this business, love. You need something Anglo, something with a bit more credibility." It was mentioned Jana could speak some 14 languages and held doctorates in international diplomacy.

When Jana Wendt stood in for Mike Willesee in 1987, the program consistently rated 25 points in the ratings. Hence Jana was chosen to present the 5-night-a-week current affairs program, 'A Current Affair' in 1988, in the year of the Australian Bicentennial. 'A Current Affair' often scored 35 ratings points. It was the highest rated show of 1991 and in 1988, twice won the national weekly ratings surveys.

So popular was the program, Jane Cadzow disclosed, "When Jana Wendt makes even the slightest change to her hairstyle, the phones at the Nine network run hot. Letters arrive by the sack load." Jana added, "There are shockwaves, shockwaves throughout Australia." In 1992, Gerald Stone of '60 Minutes' came up with a master plan to corner the women's market in current affairs, 'Real Life'.

Gerald Stone reasoned, "I feel that, if you can get women to watch, then you get men to watch as well. Our younger 18 to 24-year-old group is one that doesn’t usually watch current affairs. So we’ve started tapping into a gold mine. An audience that starts to grow with you is better than an old audience that fades away." Stan Grant, then 29 years old, was chosen as host.

Stan spoke to Rochelle Tubb, "I hope people see 'Real Life' as the show of the '90s and as a result of that I become the news face of the '90s. My parents generation fought very hard to give people like me and others a chance and a lot of Aborigines of my generation are taking the ball and running with it. You are going to see a heck of a lot of young Aborigines in the future who are very proud to be Aboriginal but who are also very committed and successful professionals. First and foremost I am a presenter and a journalist, not an Aboriginal journalist."

In October 1992, it was announced Jana Wendt would abdicate her throne as the most watched woman on Australian television. Stan stated, "Whether it's her, or whoever takes over, I still just have to do my job. It would be nice to beat her at least once before she goes." And 'Real Life' did - but only as a result of the Barcelona's Summer Olympics.

David Hurley of 'A Current Affair' pointed out at the time, "They only won on 2 nights out of 10 during the Olympics. You could hardly call that a triumph!" Stan maintained, "We beat them during the Olympics, and people said it wasn't a real victory but, I mean, a win is a win is a win." Gerald Stone made the comment, "Those ratings where we won were super-heated. No one can take any credit for that. Before the Games we were doing 17s and 18s in Melbourne and Sydney. We've done up to 23 since then. We now have an average national network rating of 20."

David begged to differ, "'Real Life' is only touching on the 20s. But that's not a pass mark in prime-time TV." Stan made the observation, "At the start of the year Jana was pretty much invincible, but we’ve proved she's not. We're stalking 'aCA' by a few points, and we always beat them in Perth. To be eating into the most successful current affairs show this country has ever seen is enough for me. We have become real competition – and that’s very pleasing to me personally."

Gerald Stone stressed the ratings should be read in context as an evolving, long-term process, "'aCA' last year (in 1991) regularly got 33s and 36s. That's when Jana had a complete monopoly at 6.30pm. Now she rarely gets 30s." When Jana left channel Nine to work at channel Seven in 1996, she reportedly "sent shockwaves through an industry not known for its shockability."

Gary Rice who took over as chief executive officer of channel Seven in 1995 signed Jana to host 'Witness' was philosophical, "We don't expect 30s from the outset – though if we got good ratings from the start, we would be delighted. Jana Wendt is a wonderful woman, but she is not the Messiah. Nor is 'Witness' the Second Coming. Jana is an extremely talented anchor and reporter, and the program is designed to be quality public affairs television … a program that is not only informative, but is also entertaining."

'Witness' went on air following Australia's most watched TV drama, 'Blue Heelers'. 'Witness' won its time slot at 9.30pm Tuesday nights 21 times out of the 31 weeks 'Witness' was on the air, regularly attracting close to half a million viewers during the first 45 minutes of the show. On reflection, one commentator remarked, "I'd put Jana on in an earlier time slot and make it a blend of hard hitting news stories and interesting magazine-style pieces because that's what Jana is best suited to. There'd be none of that foot-in-the-door, camera-in-the-face stuff you see at 6.30pm."

Andrea Jones of 'Fairfax Media' reported, "The alarm bells first sounded when 'Witness' plunged to perilously low ratings in the weeks before the (1996 Atlanta's Summer) Olympics. For several weeks Jana's show even ran a poor second to her old colleague George Negus' low-budget 'Foreign Correspondent' on the ABC. One alarming conclusion isn't that viewers are not tuning in, but that they don't like what they see. The 9.30-10.30 time slot is when many of the viewers are switching off their TV sets and heading to bed. Even Seven's arch rivals at channel Nine admit it is too late for a current affairs show."

The executive producer at the time, Peter Manning noted, "On average we lose a third and that reflects the fact that a third of Sydney people turn off their sets between 9.30 and 10.30 at night." Jana insisted, "Look, I'm not alone in this. I know that people who watch television recognize something has happened to current affairs television.

"Some so-called current affairs programs offer entertainment value and that's fine if they want a good of belly laugh or a 'Oh, gee whiz, aren't those people fat!'. People then go to other current affairs programs for what I call the 'Gee, I really learnt grammar and thank God for it.' It's hard to know whether 9.30 Tuesday night is a good night for current affairs watchers. There's another current affairs program on the ABC at the same time which has a niche and we have a steady hard core audience. The question is, are there more viewers lurking out there needing to be persuaded to come across?"

In 1997 without Jana Wendt, 'Witness' won 14 times out of the 24 weeks 'Witness' was on the air and reportedly increased its national weekly audiences, attracting an average of about 1.2 million viewers. Jana’s 'Witness' successor, Paul Barry, in a conversation with Doug Aiton, theorized, "Commercial television is tougher. You can't bore them (the audiences) rigid.

"It does matter that they watch. I did 24 stories last year (in 1997) on 'Witness'. On 'Four Corners' it would have been 4 or 5. There are times when you'd want to be at 'Four Corners', for some stories. But most we can cover on 'Witness', and of course we have the budget. Jana's style is much more formal. Actually, I'd find Jennifer Byrne a hard act to follow. Or Maxine McKew. They’re more my mode, more my style. They are discursive."

Paul Barry continued, "When we were taken off air on August 14 (1998), having been shunted from 9.30pm on Tuesday to 7.30pm on Wednesday to 9.30pm on Thursday, 'Witness's' national audience was down to 700,000 and was showing no signs of improvement. I don’t believe we should have been moved at the end of 1997, after such a traumatic year. And I also don't believe that even '60 Minutes' would have worked in the slot we moved to – 7.30pm on a Wednesday, starting just half an hour after 'A Current Affair' has finished.

"Yet, despite misgivings about the way 'Witness' was marketed, I personally have no complaints. In the long term, you rate or you die. It’s commercial TV. Channel Seven is a commercial TV station rather than a charitable institution. For the amount of money it was costing, it wasn’t getting a big enough audience. And to judge by the weekly fare of the two most commercially successful current affairs programs, '60 Minutes' and 'A Current Affair', the mass audience is interested in emotion and triumph, envy and courage, stars and starlets.

"At the moment (in 1998), even the most successful current affairs programs are suffering. '60 Minutes', which used to rate regularly in the high 20s or low 30s, has recently been getting high teens. So has 'A Current Affair', which in its heyday rated in the mid-30s." Pilita Clark reported, "A.C. Nielsen poll figures show that the percentage of potential Sydney audience members watching television in the peak current affairs slot of 6.30pm to 7:00pm has slipped from 39.9% in mid-1994 to 36.7% in mid-1998.

"In the traditional news slot of 6:00pm to 6.30pm, the numbers have gone from 38.3% in mid-1994 to 32.8% in mid-1998. Then there are newspapers: 20 years ago (in 1978), Sydney had 4 daily local newspapers selling about 1.5 million copies. Now (in 1998) it has 2 which struggle to sell half that amount. Again, changing patterns of work and leisure have seen the weekend newspaper market grow, while weekly sales shrink."

Blog Archive