Speaking to 'Fairfax Media' in 1996, Don Burke recognized, "I have always seen myself as a B-grade player. Ray Martin, Jana Wendt and Daryl Somers are A-graders." It was reported, "Surprisingly, given that 'Burke's Backyard' is essentially light entertainment, he carries considerable weight with the country's power players and enjoys access to them. His tantrums are the stuff television legends are made of.
"In the years since 'Burke's Backyard' went to air, Don Burke has been through legions of staffers, has occasionally reduced publicists to tears and has become the subject of many an industry gossip session. But Burke rates. And he is a smooth operator. Insiders speak of his sharp intellect, professionalism in front of the camera and the way he pioneered and perfected the infotainment format. Burke is a hard taskmaster and doesn't suffer fools. He doesn't apologize for it because he doesn’t have to."
Between 1982 and 1992, Jana Wendt was at the forefront of Australian journalism. Pronounced Yana Vent, she was the highest-profile ethnic female media personality on Australia's most-watched channel. It was reported in 1991, "At (channel) Nine, the strength of the news and current affairs line-up has long been a key selling-point." On the non-commercial network, Terry Lane observed in 1998, "It is of the essence of ABC culture that the story is always more important than the storyteller. Channel Nine viewers know it is the news only because Brian tells them so, Channel Two viewers watch the news for its inherent interest and for enlightenment. At Aunty's place, the focus is on the interviewee, not on the interviewer."
Since 1958, the TV Week Logies (named after television pioneer John Logie Baird) had been Australian television's most celebrated award. Speaking to 'Fairfax Media' in 1991, Ray Martin made the comment, "I can't figure why Jana Wendt, who regularly gets 35 rating points for 'A Current Affair', cannot win a Gold Logie (until 1992). It also beats me why people whose star is on the way down wouldn't go and buy a heap of magazines (in those days) and fill the forms in. It would be a cheap investment.
"I have heard of rigging but I have never heard anyone say, 'I was there when it was rigged.' One problem is that nobody knows how many votes it takes to win. The Logies are the only game in town so it's good to win. But they don't reflect the best all the time and I don’t think they reflect the most popular. They reflect the preferences of an age group that can fill out forms."
It was understood "no other anchor comes near Ray Martin in terms of influence. When Martin speaks, middle Australia listens – and as a result politicians, power players and personalities obey the call to Martin's studio. But Martin is not just popular, he also radiates credibility, that rare quality which can't be bought but which advertisers love."
"Jana Wendt's impact on Australia's current affairs television has been profound," Corrie Perkin reported in 1994. "If she does leave for the United States, the question arises: just who is the next Jana Wendt? Is there a woman who could fill her shoes? The industry consensus: 'There will never be another Jana, at least not among the current crop. She is one out of the box.'"
News presenter Ian Henderson told 'Fairfax Media', "Television is increasingly a woman's game. The days when it was a men's bastion are long gone. The best and the brightest over the past 10 years have been women by and large. And with every cadet intake the ones winning the jobs are usually women." Journalist Kate Dunstan contributed, "You have to find the right person who people want in their living-rooms every night. Someone who can get the message across in an objective fashion, someone who is professional and credible, someone who people want to watch and listen to. It's a visual medium and so looks are always going to be a part of it but, as far as women are concerned, I think people are getting it into better perspective now."
"I am enjoying 'A Current Affair'," Jana Wendt made known in 1988, "but there certainly are some heart-stopping moments – when people suddenly don’t want to be interviewed or a story falls through. You do a minor internal panic, then realize that, at the end of the day, you have to produce a program. I'm enjoying it very much. I mean, it's a good show to work on and, you know, it's a challenging thing. It's a really immediate existence. It happens at 6.30, then it's over and you start again the next day. And it's challenging to deliver another good product the next day."
In Bangkok to interview Aung San Suu Kyi for the '60 Minutes' program in 1995, Jana Wendt told Margo Kingston, "There's been a shift in trends in public affairs television over the last few years … There's been a palpable shift in the way current affairs are covered everywhere and it goes against my grain … What's happening is that public affairs television is shifting to entertainment. It's consumerism at its most primitive level. Every story has to be coverted to consumer terms.
"I don't think it's a question of losing one's soul, but losing a sense of what used to form the core of our profession – reporting, and reporting facts. When entertainment values supplant news values, and that may be the most naïve statement ever made by someone in commercial television, when these commercial pressures get stronger and stronger, it makes the journalist's job harder and harder. It's probably a function of the fact that people in senior editorial positions these days (or at the time) in news and current affairs are required to be as much businessmen as editors. I think money-making is the ruin of it. People are very conscious of the bottom line, and that's the overriding principle that governs news media now."
Speaking to Alison McClymont in 1991, George Negus of 'Foreign Correspondent' stated, "I no longer know what Jana, 'Hinch' or '60 Minutes' are on about. A lot of these programs insult the intelligence, and the interest level, of the audience. I don't think they are pitching the programs at the right level. The sensationalism accusation – which is levelled at current affairs programs – is quite accurate.
"People use the term 'current affairs' as a strange catch-all for anything that’s not news and not documentaries – to the point where it’s become almost a meaningless term. Those sort of programs have all sorts of things in them. They can hardly be called current affairs. Because we use this all-encompassing umbrella term 'current affairs', we've almost got to the point where we've bowdlerized it out of existence.
"What I'm saying is not a comment on the people involved. They are all very experienced, professional people in most cases. It’s not Jana I’m talking about, or Derryn, or even the '60 Minutes' reporters. It's the attitude towards the product ... 'Foreign Correspondent' will be a combination of credibility and commercial profile … In strictly financial terms, this is probably not the smartest thing I've done in my life. But professionally this is a terrific opportunity. And it might sound funny coming from an old hand like me, but I’m quite excited about it."
Jana Wendt continued, "If you decide you're going to be a journalist, and I still have the old-fashioned view of a journalist in my mind, it means that you try awfully hard, where possible, to maintain some kind of impartiality. To me, it's the only respectable way to operate because, obviously, people very often ask me to lend my name to lots of things, but I just don't believe a journalist should neuter his or herself by clinging to a cause.
"Once you start doing that, you simply have to be honest with yourself and say, 'I'm giving journalism away and I'm going to be a publicist now.' In TV, the face is part of the package, which makes the liabilities of going public on your views even greater. If I got up and said I was anti-nuclear, anti-abortion, anti-republic, it would be grossly unhelpful to me as a journalist. What's the point of declaring my views on any number of social issues?"
By 1995, viewers watching current affairs programs started to fall. Peter Meakin informed Rachel Browne, "I don't think our thirst for news is becoming less. I think people are getting their information from more and more sources and that has divided audiences. There is a long-term trend towards more information programming, especially with pay TV coming in." Journalist Paul Murphy added, "News and current affairs are the bread and butter of television – not always exciting but a staple of the diet. The commercial networks and the ABC are going through a lean time at the moment but they'll bounce back. They always do."
Media analyst Peter Cox told Rachel Browne similar to the economy, television was governed by the law of supply and demand, "Television programming tends to go in cycles of genres. One year soaps might be big, the next year it's game shows and the year after that it might be current affairs shows. That tends to be the nature of TV. When someone comes across a winning format others replicate it and produce many versions of what is essentially the same program.
"This has always happened in television. It has happened to current affairs shows in the past and it's happening again. There is a proliferation of current affairs shows. Not only do you have two very similar shows on at 6.30pm on weeknights but you have the weekly shows, 'The Times' and '60 Minutes' as well as the ABC's 'The 7.30 Report' and 'Four Corners'.
"The market is saturated. There is only ever a limited sector of the market which wants to watch current affairs and that sector has been spread very thinly. The audience is being worn out; the audience is becoming exhausted. There is an over-supply of current affairs shows, left over from the period when demand was strong. They have been devalued by the audience simply because there are so many of them and not enough people who are interested in watching them.
"Unlike a soap, where writers can create points of interest like a wedding or a romance, current affairs programs depend on news actually being there to report. And when it's not there some resort to gimmicks, thus undermining their credibility. Television is a cyclical thing and it boils down to survival of the fittest. The programs which don't find an audience don't survive. Only a core group of well-established programs will survive. The rest will disappear. And we're seeing that happen now ('Street Stories', 'Hard Copy', 'Real Life'). In the future, maybe 5, 10 years down the track (say 2005), there will be another burst of current affairs shows and the same thing will happen."
News producer Jim Rudder offered, "The introduction of news services on pay TV will fragment the audience because it will deconstruct the tradition of watching news and current affairs at a certain time in the evening. What pay TV offers is choice. If you would rather get your infornation after you have put the kids to bed, you can do that. There is a growing trend towards shift work and job sharing. Not everybody is home at 6.30pm to watch current affairs and those who do work full-time are working longer hours. People's lives are not locked into rigid schedules as much as they were 10 years ago (around 1985)."
Speaking to Matt Condon in 1996, Ray Martin remarked, "You tend to regroup at 50 (years of age) but the job is terrific. It's ('A Current Affair') the top of the tree. The cream of the crop. All those cliches. But it's also frustrating in that you don't get to smell the roses. The critics say current affairs is cheap and nasty, that it's not like it used to be.
"But life isn't like it used to be. Viewer ratings can be tracked precisely now. When we did an interview with (former foreign minister) Gareth Evans during the French nuclear testing we lost 120,000 viewers. We would not advertise an interview like that and maybe put it in the middle of the show, but it was an important story. We give the public a bit of what they want and slip in serious stories. I reckon we do one story a month that I think, Jesus, that’s good. The rest are good to very good.”