"In the volatile world of current affairs television," Peter Wilmoth reported in 1993, "'60 Minutes', commercial television's great current affairs survivor, transformed reporters into jet-setting stars." Former producer John Little recalled, "In the early days it was enough just to stick a pin in the map and go to some exotic locale, and just because George Negus was there, that was good enough. The stories now (in 1993) are twice as good as they were then."
In 1993, the American '60 Minutes', a cultural icon, celebrated its silver jubilee (1968-1993). At the same time, the Australian '60 Minutes' celebrated its 15th year on the air (1979-1993). Jana Wendt remarked, "After 25 years of being a top program they (the American '60 Minutes') haven't devolved to tabloid which is against the trend in a sense." George Negus added, "It (the Australian '60 Minutes') was unapologetically television journalism in its initial years and I don't think it can be described as that now (in 1993). It used to be driven by journalism. Although you can hardly be too negative about '60 Minutes' because it rates."
At the time, the 'On Assignment' pilot did not get pick up as a series (4 to 6 one-hour specials a year). Speaking to 'Fairfax Media', Jana Wendt theorized, "It wasn't going to be as expensive as some of the numbers that were floated at the time. There are many theories about it. I'm puzzled by it. The only answer is that TV is trending a certain way and it's not trending that way (interviews series).
"It's never too nice when a network doesn't want what you think is a quality program. It didn't give me a warm glow. But it's a business thing and if the sums don't work out it's their prerogative to axe it. Obviously the sums didn't work out. It was an interview program with people who were not necessarily superstar people. It was an idea that was not appropriate for them."
However the Ray Martin's specials of star interviews proved popular. Jana continued, "It's a great victory for him that he's having such success with his program. I reckon anyone who gets his show up is very lucky. His shows have an extra large, massive audience." One former '60 Minutes' producer observed, "I think they're awful, but they work. It's mindless recycled crap, but the public loves it. Ray's running amok, wanting to do everything."
The Ray Martin factor played a part in Ray hosting 'A Current Affair' in 1994. Lee Burton did a survey told 'Fairfax Media' in 1995, "Whereas '7.30 Report' viewers talked about content, in every single case the 'A Current Affair' viewers said Ray Martin was their main reason for viewing. They were not able to remember actual items; they were all focusing on Ray. Several people referred to him as 'Uncle Ray.'"
Founding '60 Minutes' executive producer Gerald Stone believed, "Ray's greatest gift is making people feel comfortable. Ray makes everybody feel good about having him inside their lounge room. What he was doing on 'Midday' (1985-1993) was playing to the feelings of the average person and that's what is so great about him." George Negus expressed, "He's good at explaining complicated issues to the commercial end of the market, which is a tricky act to perform. If I have one vaguely critical thing to say, it is that Ray can be too even-handed and fair, but that is more a matter of personal choice. I like provoking people."
In 1981, George Negus visited El Salvador - the land of terror. Also known as "phantom town", death squads at that time had murdered 15,000 people in just 18 months. Speaking to 'Fairfax Media' in 1984, George Negus pointed out, "I've invariably been described as an aggressive, abrasive interviewer. That's nonsense. All that means is that the people remember the interviews that fall into that category more easily. My interviewing style is a reflection of me as a human being.
"And in life, I guess half the people that know me like me and half the people don't like me. In these days, when so many people have been schooled in the art of being interviewed, which in most cases turns into the art of evasion, there are very few people who are not evasive any longer." Of the pace of the interview, "Much has to do with the difference between studio and non-studio interviews. The atmosphere is entirely different. And usually the time available is less, so the need is to make the interview pacier."
In 1994, Jana Wendt had a chilling encounter with the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, in Tripoli. Of the first 'On Assignment' special, Jana Wendt stated, "I really am keen that the people we talk to are interesting in their own right, so I’m prepared to sit and wait for those: if it takes a long time, so be it. She's (Meryl Streep) just an altogether interesting human being. You could talk to her for 24 hours and never be bored, never hear her repeat a story. She is able to think quite deeply about lots of things and talk quite seriously about it, and very well, and then suddenly just burst into a cackle of laughter – she just makes herself laugh.
"I was very surprised that he (Rupert Murdoch) jumped into this with such alacrity. I mean, once having agreed, he leapt into the task with some gusto. We were very keen to see him in operation in Hollywood. It was very interesting to see him in the editing suites. What makes Rupert run? Quite frankly it (Hollywood and movies) is not his natural environment and he quite readily admits that he is only just beginning to learn about the movies; but a lot of people who work with him, that we talked to, said that what he does have is the art of being a great editor – not surprising in the light of his other pursuits.
"At the core is a person who must be an editor, who can say 'yes' to this, 'no' to that for the following reasons … His contribution is actually, as far as I could see, not so much in the creative process, but when projects are being weighed up – the risks, the positives, that he apparently has a very clear eye for and makes fast decisions. We're talking, in one case, of a $50 million decision.
"When he gets to the point of relaxing, he starts to talk really quite frankly about more personal things because he's been so demonised that in some people's minds he is barely human ... And I think he tries, when he's relaxed enough to do it, to convince you of his humanity. I found that pretty interesting; pretty interesting that he even finds the need to do it. But he does."
On reflection, George Negus told 'Fairfax Media' in 1992, "I can offer a combination of profile, credibility and experience – and I don't have to apologise for the fact that I've been unashamedly populist in my journalistic approach. The marvellous challenge of television for me has always been to popularise without vulgarising. There was a wrench for me in deciding to go back (to the government-funded network). As a puffed up, rubber inflatable egalitarian, I was leaving behind the 85% of the audience I've been aiming my work at, the bottom 85% … Getting viewers from the commercials to the ABC will be as good a challenge as getting the commercials to do something serious."
Of the '60 Minutes' budget, Gerald Stone made the comment in 1984, "George went to Moscow recently. I would have loved to go to Moscow. But against that I get the vicarious pleasure of working four reporters and so on and it's a great buzz to sit here – I'm very proud of '60 Minutes' – because I don't think there's a journalistic outfit anywhere in the world that has the freedom to cover as much as we do, I don't ask upstairs if I want to send George to Moscow or Ray to Beirut.
"As long as I stick within my budget there's no possible interference. Our concept was very clear and very tough and very disciplined. We were putting on a public affairs show at 7.30 Sunday night which is normally the time when people want to relax or escape. So we said, 'How can we be true to the aims of serious television journalism and yet attract a lot of people who have never watched public affairs or a documentary before?'
"Don Hewitt of CBS '60 Minutes' gave us our favorite phrase. He said, 'A lot of people have difficulty understanding flood control but everybody can understand Noah.' We look for that Noah in our work, the one issue, the one person who can seem to focus attention on it. I think '60 Minutes' speaks for itself. Basically one in three Australians watch '60 Minutes' (in those days). To me it's got all the excitement, all the ingredients of everything we saw on Sunday nights – it's got a 'Starsky & Hutch' adventure quality, it's a kind of travel program, it's got every element, it's got pathos. The only problem is making sure that you use the format well. I still think it will last till the end of this decade (and more)."