Everybody needs someone to talk to

Everybody needs someone to talk to, by Michael Idato - 3rd July 2003
(Credit: Fairfax)

By the end of 1999 the emerging star of the talk show genre, The Panel, had seen off its competition - the venerable Midday and the bloated but long-running Hey! Hey! It's Saturday. "We were the only live variety show of any description," recalls The Panel's producer and co-presenter Rob Sitch. "I don't think I liked that."

He should have been more careful about what he wished for. The failure of Seven's The Chat Room notwithstanding, this year has seen a talk show renaissance. Rove Live, launched in 2000, has been joined by Andrew Denton's Enough Rope, Shaun Micallef's Micallef Tonight and the Australian clone of The Kumars at No. 42, Greeks on the Roof, with Mary Coustas reprising her role as Effie.

With all these shows rating at around the million mark, none is a runaway hit (in terms of potential audience, Denton's performance on the ABC is the most impressive). However, the ratings are good enough for all three newcomers to claim success. And the reason for that, says Rove executive producer Craig Campbell, is that each has a main point of difference.

"Rove is ad-lib, Andrew is a researched long chat, Effie and Shaun are scripted; they are all different," he says. "And don't forget The Panel, which is five on one."

At the heart of the talk show lies the art of the interview, which has proved Denton's greatest strength and Micallef's greatest weakness. ("He's never been an interviewer prior to this show so his approach is going to be a bit different to the others," argues Micallef producer Todd Abbott.)

"I think Andrew is a wonderful listener," Enough Rope's Anita Jacoby says. "He listens to what people say during the interview and he does a hell of a lot of research beforehand. There are four or five drafts before he sits down and, remarkably, he memorises everything."

Kris Noble, executive producer of Greeks on the Roof, believes his show's format - Effie and family running a talk show from their rooftop - is the ace in his hand: "It allows us to have an interview but to do jokes in a legitimate, good-natured way."

Rove Live, which appeals to the youngest audience, is built around Gold Logie winner Rove McManus and guests promoting albums and movies. "What you see is what you get," Campbell explains. "There is nothing contrived or fake about him - on camera and off camera he is the same person. His rapport with the guests is genuine."

The show, however, is vulnerable to the kind of criticism that Enough Rope's Jacoby levels at some of her opposition - that their interviews are simply "six-minute plug-a-thons".

"I think Andrew can get away with asking harder or deeper questions because he has more time," Campbell says. "We are on a six-minute cycle and in that time we have to get a lot of ground covered. Sure, the film companies are there to get something, but we're there for a good interview."

In contrast, The Panel was intended as a reinvention of the tonight show format. "Our show is more about observations," says Sitch. "It's not as pumped-up as a traditional tonight show. Our guest line-up is more along the lines of people we are interested in speaking to, whereas a traditional tonight show is more showbiz-oriented."

All that chat, all those smiling faces, yet it should come as no surprise that the jolly genre of talk TV is anything but. There is enormous pressure on producers to wrestle decent talent into the guest seat.

"I think it's probably fairly well known that there is some aggressive lobbying for guests going on out there," Abbott admits. "There are obviously only a certain number of guests to go around . . . We all need to find creative solutions to making sure that the programs do not revolve around the guests."

Abbott argues that Micallef Tonight is not a guest-dependent format and, given his host's comedic mettle, he's probably right. "We feel like we're doing a show that is unique and entertaining and it does not live or die on the strength of our guests," he says. "It's a show about Shaun's view of the world; we're not trying to do a roll call of whoever is in town that week."

Most of the producers we spoke to deny that they have an exclusivity policy, although many confidently claim their rivals do. Sitch admits that these days, with so many similar shows around, he's conscious of where his guests are appearing, but says "It's more of an audience thing for us. If someone is going to be interviewed three nights running, for the audience's sake we'll go, 'Perhaps you can have the night off.'

"I understand why you hear stories of booking wars, and I am sure there is a bit of that going on at the moment, but I don't think we're raising too much dust on that front."

So who is? The answer, claim several sources, is none other than that cheeky talk-show-next-door Rove Live.

"I'm flattered to think we might have muscle," Campbell laughs, denying the claim. "We never demand exclusivity." And yet several film and music industry publicists who schedule interviews for their talent claim that Rove does.

Either way, there was much mirth among Rove's competitors following his exclusive interview with pop singer Avril Lavigne. It was at best uninteresting, at worst excruciating. "I'd be asking for a refund," laughs one producer.

Other sources suggest that Rove's manager and co-executive producer, Kevin Whyte, and his publicist, Maria Farmer, have brought their considerable might into the equation. Whyte, who owns Token Management, has a client list that includes Anthony Morgan, Judith Lucy, Wil Anderson and Merrick and Rosso; Farmer represents a range of A-list clients including Miranda Otto, Toni Collette, David Campbell and Rachel Griffiths.

"Imagine how difficult it is to book talent when two of the biggest agents in the city won't do business with you because you're competing with one of their other clients?" says one source.

It is an accusation both Whyte and Farmer deny. Whyte points out that Lucy appeared on Micallef Tonight last week and McManus himself was on Enough Rope. David Campbell has been on Micallef, adds Farmer, Peter O'Brien was on The Fat and Rachel Griffiths does The Panel whenever she is in town.

Over at Nine and Seven, meanwhile, ancient rivalries flared recently when Nine presenter Sam Newman appeared on Seven's Greeks on the Roof. According to sources, the deal was that Effie would do Micallef in return, but Seven reneged. Nine has closed ranks over the story, prompting Seven to do the same.

"I don't remember that part of the deal," says Greeks producer Kris Noble. "It was much more to do with the Logies than Micallef. If she did the Logies, Sam would come on the show; Micallef was a secondary issue. That is something that has been added to stir the pot."

But producers acknowledge that talent booking is a tough game. "Ten and Rove obviously feel at the moment that they have a Logie winner and think they can push the market," Noble says.

"It's flattering that they think they have to try and push their weight. If Avril Lavigne is in the country and Rove says 'You have to come on my show first', well, there will be a time in the near future when people will say 'I don't care.' "

More damaging is the shows' reliance on "cross-promotional" guests from within the network stable. There was Home & Away star Tammin Sursok on Greeks on the Roof, Stingers' Gary Sweet and McLeod's Daughters' Bridie Carter on Micallef Tonight, and various Big Brother cast-offs on Rove Live.

"The practical reality is that a lot of potential guests in Australia, where our highest-profile entertainment industry is television, will be television people," Abbott says. "The Australian networks are not keen to let their stars appear on shows on other networks . . . We have to be honest, that is going to be an occasional limitation."

Sitch is more candid. "We said from day one we'd have anyone on. We started off with that vibe. But if you go back the other way, we've almost forgotten some of the Channel Ten shows. If I was running a network I'd probably have a different attitude," he laughs.



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