20170327

JANA WENDT

It was reported in 1990 one in 4 Australians watched Jana Wendt on 'A Current Affair' making her the most famous and most watched woman in Australia. "It's not a personal power that I have; it's a power to do with the program and its viewing audience. So it's not me. Really, if tomorrow I walk away from the program, my power is pretty close to zero," Jana insisted. 

The 5 years between 1988 and 1992 was described as "phenomenally successful" for 'A Current Affair'. When the Prime Minister of Australia or Rupert Murdoch or Kerry Packer would like to address the biggest mass audience they could reach directly, they went on 'A Current Affair' to talk to Jana Wendt. At the time Jana Wendt was one of the "most highly trusted" TV interviewers on Australian television.

Hence she would "avoid taking a personal stand, especially of the political kind." Jana stated, "Obviously, I have to interview people who have different opinions from mine, even people I might dislike, but it is my job to try and be as balanced as possible and to show as much information as I can so that the viewers can make up their own minds."

"'aCA' tabloid? If you were saying that it is tabloid in the sense that 'Hard Copy' is tabloid, if that were your benchmark for tabloid, I would most certainly object. But if tabloid means addressing the widest possible audience, which means it’s capable of covering a wide range of stories and making them palatable to a wide audience, then yes, we are tabloid – unashamedly," Jana told Mark Lawrence of 'Fairfax Media'. John Westacott explained, "Jana is measured every 15 minutes of her professional life. It is not easy. People comment on what she is wearing every night. It's about her hair or clothes. She is not bossy boots, but demands excellence. There is enormous pressure on her." 

Peter Meakin recounted, "When the show began 20 years ago (in 1971), it was much more local in content but over the years it has become much more international in scope, with more overseas stories and issues." By 1992, "the market for current affairs shows is saturated at the moment, with 4 networks showing at least one current affairs show a night, and maybe there's only room for two. But we will be one of them and the only way to do that is through the program content and the appeal of the presenter."

Gerald Stone observed, "I also think that (Mike) Willesee in his early days, and I'm sure he would be the first to agree, went for a format where 'A Current Affair' turned into a bit of a freak show, with stories on  UFOs and women in trailer parks – it was not a high class program. Whereas, I think, under Jana, her natural interest was to do the more serious stuff." 

During a debate on his bid to buy Fairfax newspapers in 1991, 'A Current Affair' ran 3 minutes over time which led Kerry Packer to comment, "Make sure they run all the ads." The debate was important according to Max Walsh because "I forecast that if Tourang did win Fairfax then one of the two would gain complete control of the media empire by moving to a majority equity position (through a lobbied change in government policy) or it would be broken up and shared between them." 

In August 1990, Kerry Packer reclaimed channel Nine back from Alan Bond and immediately ordered budget cuts - 'A Current Affair' by 7.5%. Jana Wendt, who was on vacation in Noosa (Steve Leibmann stood in for Jana) when Kerry Packer cut her budget reportedly told colleagues she would leave if the new regime was to attempt to direct editorial policy on 'A Current Affair'. Kerry Packer's return marked Sam Chisholm departure to the UK to join Rupert Murdoch's Sky Television and Jana Wendt was the first to make the announcement on 'A Current Affair'. In his 25 years at channel Nine, the network commanded a third of Australia total viewing audience and nearly 40% of total advertising revenues.

"It's been sad seeing so many good people retrenched. I think everybody knows someone who has lost their job, but so far the word from 'up there' is that 'A Current Affair' is doing well. You need a lot of money to run a program like this properly," Jana told 'Fairfax Media' back in March 1991. John Westacott informed followers, "There had been a 7.5% budget cut and we have retrenched one producer, a reporter and a casual switchgirl in Melbourne. However, I have not had one (editorial) instruction, phone call or direction. I haven't heard from Mr Packer. We are actively planning next year (1991)."

In January 1992, after Paul Keating had become Prime Minister, he went on 'A Current Affair' to talk to Jana Wendt. Paul Keating's appearance attracted a 30 rating in Sydney and a 33 rating in Melbourne. AGB Australia called 1,062 Australians before and after the Paul Keating interview with Jana Wendt. It was reported, "Of the 400 who responded to the second survey, those found him arrogant dropped from 70% to 33%, those who thought him sincere rose from 38% to 53%, evasive dropped 64% to 55%, aggressive from 56% to 13%, and credible up from 38% to 48%."

Working on 'A Current Affair', Jana described "the sheer excitement of a daily program where you know in the morning if there is any sort of hot issue, political or otherwise, you are more than likely to have the privilege of being able to interview someone, from the PM down. (It is) that access to the epicentre of what goes in that very few people in Australia have."

In 1992, 'A Current Affair' "was almost unstoppable, with an average 40.8% share of Sydney homes in the 6.30-7:00pm time slot. The performance of 'aCA' is all the more important because Nine's strength has traditionally been the 6:00-7:00pm line-up in east coast cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane) which has provided the foundation for its evening ratings."

1991 marked a "historic year for the TV industry" because for the first time the A.C. Nielsen electronic people-meters began measuring the audience instead of the AGB-McNair hand-written diaries. 'A Current Affair' was the most watched regular program on television that year, attracting over 2 million viewers each night, with one week in June "Jana Wendt soared to a Monday night peak of 38 points and did not fall below 30 all that week."

The week before 'A Current Affair' attracted 38 points, in May 1991, Jana Wendt walked out on the program for 2 days reportedly offended by a story showing topless women sales assistants working in a Geelong hardware store in Melbourne. Ray Martin stood in for Jana did not know why he was called in until the second night and gave no reason on air for Jana's absence.

The staff member at channel Nine Sydney studio made known, "She was pissed off but she doesn't want any publicity about it. She wants it to remain a private matter between her and channel Nine. The buzz was she was really offended. After that night's show she got up, walked out without saying a word and didn't turn up for 2 days."

Of the ratings, Peter Luck made the comment, "Even the people at channel Nine are mystified by the incredible figures in the half-hour news/half-hour current affairs combo. In fact, if television people spoke, as they do in radio, about 'shares' rather than ratings, Jana Wendt and Brian "Hendo" Henderson would look even more amazing.

"Their shows, for example, have been rating as high as 36-37. That is 36% of 100% of existing TV sets. But if you look at it in terms of 'shares' that would be 36 in relation to the 70% of sets being used – in other words, more than 50% of the audience." The news and Jana Wendt were "absolutely dominating between 6 o'clock and 7:00pm each weekday in Sydney." In 1991, 'A Current Affair' attracted a season average of 657,500 viewers from 1,219,000 television households.

The rise of Jana Wendt was one of the success stories of 1982 when she became the first female reporter on '60 Minutes'. As noted in 1990, "When her contract with 'A Current Affair' expires at the end of 1992, Jana will be staring at 15 years in TV journalism, most of it as a 'celebrity.'" Jill Singer maintained, "I can't see that sort of Jana Wendt phenomenon happening again. She was marketed very well and she came along at a time when few women were doing what she was doing. There are women now who are just as good, but Jana's success was probably as much a factor of the times."

"I got into TV by accident and when I did, I wondered if I'd chosen the right profession," Jana Wendt born in May 1956 told Christopher Day back in 1990. "To be in journalism a natural curiosity has to drive you. I have developed a lot more since the early days. I was pretty lazy then. The effort you thought you had to put in to get a decent story was far short of the mark."

"When Jana Wendt entered the arena in the late 1970s (in 1978 Jana showed up at channel Ten's Nunawading studios applying for a job), women were largely restricted to 'good news' stories, the magistrate's courts and reading the weather. It was an industry dominated by men. Jana Wendt changed that. When she moved from co-hosting the news to become the fourth reporter on '60 Minutes', she was a sensation.

"Her move to host 'A Current Affair' in 1988 was similarly successful and each new ratings survey helped to cement her position as number one. Viewers liked the idea of having their information delivered to them by a female – an unlikely scenario 15 years earlier (back in 1979). Jana Wendt had a big following and the program rated its head off," it was reported.

Fluent in 4 languages (Czech, English, French and Italian), Jana was said could not speak English until she was 6. Her parents Karel and Bohumila Wendt fled (the then) Czecholoslavia in 1948 and settled in Melbourne in 1951. The first English expression Jana learned at the Catholic primary school in East St Kilda was "Oh, my goodness!"

Jana's friend Julie Kantor who father Milan was married to Rupert Murdoch's sister Anne, and had worked with Jana's father Karel in the early 1950s when they edited the Czech dissident newspaper published in Melbourne, 'Hlas Domova' told 'Fairfax Media', "He is a man who was an exile from Czecholovakia in every sense of the word. When he escaped from his home he knew he would never see his parents again.

"He worked as a storeman here although, intellectually, he could have been anything. They didn’t have a color television until recently and they still don't own a car. It was many years before they bought their townhouse in Kew. We all watched Jana become dangerously beautiful." Jana's mother stayed at home to look after her child before finding work at Myer.

"I have really dreadful features," Jana complained. "I have a tremendous Slavic jaw, slit eyes, a square face. My face is the shape of a TV set, and that's not good I can tell you. Yuk!" On reflection, Jana told 'Fairfax Media', "Look, let's not be coy: if you sit in front of a TV camera with any regularity you want to make yourself look presentable, so that when people see you they aren't sickened by the vision. So there is that element – for men and women – where you have to smarten yourself up … But, to go back to your original question – will there ever be a time when people who are really plain looking can make it? – I have to tell you that I don't think TV is ever going to be terribly tolerant of people who are really, really plain. That's disastrous, of course, because the vast majority of humanity is reasonably plainish."

It was reported George Negus initially objected to Jana Wendt joining '60 Minutes' because of her age.

Jana: It was an all-in brawl. We had a disagreement. It was lunch with some people who got together to learn to like each other. The numbers dwindled and just George and I remained. In the wee small hours, the voice rather quiter gets louder. By 3:00am you really don't like each other.

George: It was an argument about how people think about their jobs, how they should do the job and how they shouldn't.

Jana: It was about journalism. I was very lucky. And it was tough at the same time. It makes rigorous demands on you. If you don't measure up you are quickly at the bottom again.

George: She's the fastest learner in journalism, certainly our sort of journalism.

In 1993 after the proposed Barbara Walters-style special, 'On Assignment', was dropped because of costs, Jana took a year off to do a degree in linguistics. "But the word is that the one special which did make it to air cost a lot less than $600,000 to make, because most of the expense was in start-up costs that were to be spread over the planned 2-year life of the show. No other reason apart from money has been given for the axing of the show," it was reported.

Ray Martin recalled, "I did a contra-deal with Continental Airlines and the Beverly Willshire Hotel and my special on Paul Hogan cost $9000 to make." Jana remembered, "It was an interview program with people who were not necessarily superstar people. It was an idea that was not appropriate for them. His (Ray's) shows have a … massive audience."

Peter Meakin made the observation, "Her inclinations are less tabloid, or less mass appeal." Derryn Hinch remarked, "She wants to be Australia's Barbara Walters – you know, travel the world and interview famous people for her own weekly television show. And you know what? I'd much rather watch Jana Wendt interview Boris Yeltstin than Bob Hawke interview Boris Yeltstin."

In 1994 Don Hewitt of the American '60 Minutes' was considering asking Jana to join the team. When Jana renewed her contract with channel Nine for 2 years and returned to '60 Minutes', one report would to be aired on the CBS edition. Don Hewitt told 'USA Today', "She's dynamic looking. She commands the screen. She leaps into your living room. She's just nifty." Bruce Gyngell had voiced, "I think Jana Wendt is a genuine star, she has great charisma and talent … Jana Wendt would be successful anywhere in the world. She is without doubt the strongest person in Australian television."

In 1996, channel Seven signed Jana Wendt on a 3-year contract to host the 'Witness' program. 'Fairfax Media' reported, "The cost of Jana Wendt's contract with Seven is understood to have been around $1.6 million in the first year, $1.85 million in the 2nd year, rising to $2.1 million in the 3rd and final year. The commercial value of a personality such as Jana Wendt is immense. She delivers advertisers keen to be connected with such a high-profile journalist."

In return, Jana secured for 'Witness' interviews with Rupert Murdoch, Binyamin Netanyahu, Benazir Bhutto, John Howard and Greg Norman all went on air between April and August 1996. 'NBC Dateline' requested Jana's story on Benazir Bhutto so the program could show it in the U.S. in the 1996-97 season. Of its ratings, Peter Meakin told 'Fairfax Media', "Jana is not driven by commercial considerations in terms of story judgment.

"Jana gave us all a stiff lecture about how we'd all dropped the ball and she was going to show us the way to the promised land. The thing it needs to do is more stories with mass appeal and to be a little less self-indulgent. It's not really a commercial program yet. I wouldn't have launched that sort of show anyway. But Seven would have to leave the show where it is for at least the rest of this year (1996) and probably next year (1997) as well. You don't hire a talent like Jana Wendt then pull the show after a couple of months."

"Not too many people turn down the opportunity to be paid money like that. Money is not so much of an issue," Jana said of her association with the 'Witness' program. "The program bore my name. I don't take that lightly. I went out on a limb publicly all around the country saying this is what this program is going to be … I knew when I went into this I was risking a lot. Potentially I was risking 2 years' salary and future employment but I did it.

"Had I wanted to sit on a pile of money as some people would have you believe, I'd still be sitting in the studio at channel Seven. That was the easiest way of earning lots and lots of money. I think frequently people who make television programs treat their audience as though they were fools. What I was really seeking was reassurance from them (channel Seven) that we had the courage to go on with the program we all agreed we were going to do.

"And the fact channel Seven stood me down simply because I was exercising that right is a cause of great disappointment to me. My employment options are extremely restricted. The television market is very small. I recognize how brilliantly well I have been paid for many years. I'm very lucky." In 1998, ABC signed a contract of less than $1 million with Beyond International to produce 10 half-hour episodes of Jana Wendt interviewing world figures.

Peter Abbott made the point, "People (such as Bill Clinton) of that stature expect to be interviewed by someone of stature, and I think Jana is one of the best interviewers in the country. No doubt her name is attractive to ABC." Jana said of 'Uncensored', "The list (of guests) we ended up with was the list I wanted. I'm passionate about ideas.

"The idea of doing the simplest thing on television, sitting down with someone and exploring their life and ideas, was very appealing, especially to someone who has spent years cutting interesting bits out of people's conversations. Often, people with accumulated wisdom don't have the chance, in this world of quick grabs, to express it. If you can provide thought-provoking interviews filled with ideas that will make at least some people stop and think, then it's a half-hour reasonably spent."

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