THE LESSON FOR TODAY
Thirty years on, this chatty format is still a reminder that the box is always talking first watch
‘ INVITING nothing but superlatives (‘dullest’, ‘ greatest opportunity’, ‘ most asinine’, ‘ quickest’), it has generated more cash and less prestige than any other activity that could be even loosely described as having a collateral relationship with art,’’ critic David Marc wrote of TV in his pioneering study of the box, Demographic Vistas. And it’s time to drag those superlatives out again, as Nine’s Today celebrates its 30th year.
You may recall — with the aid of deep sleep therapy — that it was originally hosted by the lean and imperturbable Steve Liebmann, for whom it was a cardinal sin to fluff a line or make an off-the-cuff joke, and the warm and poised Sue Kellaway, whom the press liked to call ‘‘ Mrs Joe Cool’’. These days the longrunning show is a cacophony of voices, chatting, interrupting and giggling, the faces of their pretty owners framed by a pastel aesthetic, the whole thing a splendid example of the way TV was invented to sell products.
The birthday is a few months late — the show started in June 1982 — but Nine’s had a big year after a disastrous start, and it was decided to hold the drinks and sparklers until after the Olympics.
‘‘ The Cornflakes Show’’, as Today was known when it first went to air, has been with us in many incarnations over 7500 shows, all of them live, sometimes risky, often genially banal and just as frequently in the zeitgeist moment. And, always, full of chat.
Today has been a great reminder to any who may have forgotten, or just didn’t care, that TV is always talking and that the need for good, informative and entertaining words is as important as images.
It’s been our ‘‘ newspaper of the air’’ and has included, in different formats, everything that we might find in a morning rag. There’s news, weather reports, sports updates, entertainment reviews, profiles, a bit of cooking advice, the latest on diets and food fads, interviews and even humour. (Or, these days, often awkward attempts at it by anyone who can be squeezed on to the couch.) And it’s likely to be still appearing long after the daily paper has disappeared from the local newsagent, which will also slowly evanesce.
Today wasn’t a new idea but, as formats always do, it developed a local style and irreverence, a bit of a blokey larrikin streak that took the piss, something a bit knockabout and full of laughter, and these days it preserves links with the early makeshift, impromptu days of the first TV shows. It was the show, reviewers said when it started, ‘‘ that knows how to keep a viewer from the shower’’.
It promised, and delivered, instant interruption when newsworthy events occurred with the ‘‘ news flash’’ cut to a reporter somewhere at the scene of a tragedy or the arrival of a celebrity at a national airport. It reassured us, too, that we were all part of the same community, a national audience, because we knew that when something happened, others were watching at the same time.
There have been other breakfast shows on rival channels since, of course. Some failed and others, like Sunrise, locked Today in bitter ratings battles for the same market of teeth brushers, sandwich makers, toast munchers, hangover sufferers hitting the vitamins, the ill and frail, homecoming shift workers, and those waking up in other people’s beds in the wrong houses. It supremely illustrates one of Marc’s assertions that the salient impact of TV comes not from ‘‘ special events’’ such as the coverage of an election, a political assassination or a terrible mass shooting in yet another American supermarket, but from day-to-day exposure. ‘‘ The power of television resides in its normalcy; it is always there at the push of a button,’’ he wrote.
It wasn’t an easy beginning for the longrunning Today and it was journalist Mike Gibson who famously said: ‘‘ Today had more pilots than Qantas.’’
The program was delayed and assessed and reassessed by network boss Kerry Packer and his courtiers for almost two years after being commissioned. Before it got to air, Ten got wind of Nine’s plans and pinched the concept and the title Good Morning Australia.
Packer’s original idea, according to Liebmann, was a mixture of broadcast and tabloid newspapers with The Australian Women’s Weekly. The show would also use Nine’s expanding international media facilities to use the technology as it was originally intended: as a medium for instant coverage, bringing pictures from one place to another. When we woke, after sleeping through the making and packaging of news across the world, we could stare at the black box in the corner of our rooms and, rheumy-eyed, plug ourselves into military analysts, singing dogs, brazen celebrities and political talking heads masochistically up well before us.
The concept came from the US where breakfast TV, catering to its huge restless populace in homes, hospitals and hotels, had paid big advertising dividends for decades. The first Today show went to air on January 14, 1952, only 14 years after NBC’s inaugural broadcast from the 1939 New York World’s Fair when network TV flickered into life.
It was created by advertising executive Sylvester ‘‘ Pat’’ Weaver, who took over the struggling NBC TV programming department in 1959 with a visionary’s faith in the future. ‘‘ I was hired to guide television into what it had a chance of becoming,’’ he said at 90. To help it along, he created two shows that after five decades still bracket the viewing day: Today, TV’s first morning news program, and two years later, The Tonight Show (then starring Steve Allen), which ushered in the age of latenight talk.
Weaver was determined, with the morning show, to siphon off some of the large audiences that listened to radio from 7am to 10am. ‘‘ I thought we could build a television show that they could watch while having breakfast and getting ready for work or school. We designed it so that when they stepped away, they wouldn’t miss too much — they’d know they could come back and catch the news and weather,’’ he said.
He documented his ideas in his speeches and policy memorandums, which NBC donated to the Library of Congress in 1992, collected in a series of neat grey spiral-bound notebooks. They begin with Weaver’s descrip-
The team, from left, Steven Jacobs, Georgie Gardner, Lisa Wilkinson, Karl Stefanovic, Richard Wilkins and Ben Fordham. Inset left, Steve Liebmann and Tracy Grimshaw, 1996; and, right, Jessica Rowe and Stefanovic, 2006