THE LES­SON FOR TO­DAY

Thirty years on, this chatty for­mat is still a re­minder that the box is al­ways talk­ing first watch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

‘ 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-

To­day

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

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