Across Australia or, at least, in four states and two territories, dodgy builders and suspect motor mechanics are breathing easier, knowing Today Tonight will no longer be pursuing them after the Seven Network decided to axe the show in all but Adelaide and Perth.
I’m relieved too, because the decision to shut down the show vindicates a career decision I made 20 years ago not to host it. To be honest, as a journalist I’ve never really doubted that particular judgement call, but as sliding doors moments go, it’s often intrigued me.
Think of all the cellulite cures I could have unearthed. Not to mention hidden camera perverts. And, the burning question, would I have surrendered all dignity and judgement to put a live lizard on my shoulder when Steve Irwin passed away? We’ll never know. Instead, that dubious honour – and a permanent place in the TT Hall of Shame – went to Naomi Robson.
Damnit – it could have been me!
I was offered the TT hosting job in 1994 after Seven’s first experiment with a national current affairs program, Real Life, had crashed and burned. Seven had come after me for that job too, but when it got down to a short list of two I lost out to Stan Grant (I know, I know).
When Seven wined and dined me 20 years ago – in truth, they bought me one whisky and a bowl of peanuts – to sell me on the idea of fronting Today Tonight, it was on the basis of it being upmarket fare.
“This is going to be serious current affairs,” the Seven exec who offered me the job said at the time. “The bloke who’s going to produce it has won Walkley Awards and everything.”
Twenty years on, it’s fair to say that particular producer wouldn’t have won any more with the show. For, despite the assurances, the program quickly descended into the muck of beat-ups, foot-in-the-door ‘gotcha’ stories and chequebook journalism that was almost as dodgy as the villains they pursued so relentlessly.
I had completed a pilot for the show’s first incarnation at a secret Sydney location in the early nineties. I thought it was so-so but to my astonishment I was offered a contract to host, with one proviso: the executive producer, Gerald Stone, of 60 Minutes fame, would have final say.
We met over a particularly riotous dinner in Kings Cross attended by half-a-dozen or so TV types. Stone sat at the head of the table drinking mineral water; I slowly got sozzled. By night’s end we were pledging undying fealty to each other.
“Together we are going to change the current affairs landscape of this country,” Stone announced before taking his leave.
He must have mistaken me for Grant, because I never heard from him again and Stan got the Real Life job while I stayed in the newspaper business (It seemed a good call at the time. Now, from a financial standpoint, I feel a little like those knuckleheads who turned down the Google guys when they asked $1 million for their company a decade-and-a-half ago.).
Two years later, with Real Life dead and buried and Stan at CNN, Seven called me again for a meeting to discuss Project X. I recounted the episode in my book, Man Bites Murdoch.
I was invited to Melbourne’s Athenaeum Club where, over drinks in a wood-panelled room, I was offered the hosting job on Today Tonight.
“I know we had a go at you a couple of years ago,” said Seven’s then Melbourne boss. “But we stuffed it up.”
“It did end badly,” I said.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” the TV man said. “Anyway, I’ve had another look at your tape and I’ve got to say you really rattle my cage.”
Television executives, I decided, talked in soundbites. “Real Life ended up being pretty crappy,” I said. “Is this going to be any different?”
“Definitely,” said the station boss.
“Listen, I’ll give it some thought,” I said. “I’ll come back to you tomorrow, okay?” I was being polite.
With that, I rose from my leather-upholstered armchair, downed my tumbler of Scotch and headed for the door. As I made my way down the Athenaeum’s graceful staircase, the station boss came after me.
“Bruce, Bruce,” he whispered urgently. “There’s just one thing: you wouldn’t be wearing those glasses on camera, would you?”
Did someone say serious journalism? The next morning I politely declined the offer.
Twenty years on, I’m glad I did. I can’t help but dip my lid to those who kept Today Tonight on air for 20 years though.
Besides, without it we may have never had some truly great television – the ABC’s Frontline, which was surely inspired by Real Life, Today Tonight and every other tawdry current affairs program that increasingly look lost to TV. Unless you live in Adelaide and Perth. Which leads me to ask: What have they done to deserve it?