Where once viewers tuned in fondly to breakfast television, personality-driven dross and offensive opinions now make some wish the format – and its Cash Cow – would be put out to pasture. By Helen Razer.

Breakfast television's no-news news

Steve Liebmann and Tracy Grimshaw on the ‘Today’ set.
Steve Liebmann and Tracy Grimshaw on the ‘Today’ set.

Never take on a whole serve of Australian breakfast TV. Or even a half. Instead, ingest the thing as nature intended: in five- or six-minute bits. To watch an entire episode of Sunrise is to suffer like the usher at an old variety show. Just a few sparkly acts rotate, over and over, before an audience distracted and impatient for the day.

On the first occasion you see Cash Cow vomit money from her snout, it’s quite funny. On the second, you only hope the worker inside that Friesian is paid a living wage. By the third, you begin to write one of those “Whither journalism? Whither integrity?” opinion pieces Guardian Australia likes to run. And so you turn to the ABC, whose News Breakfast, it pains you to concede, would not be worsened much by a heifer suit.

Hosts Michael Rowland and Virginia Trioli give us the prettiest network morning. What they do not truly offer is the tedious comfort once associated with the national broadcaster. I miss it. I want the ABC to appear to me enmeshed in a net of news beyond my easy understanding. We can see, of course, that the general approach to current events is informed by a TED talk. These days, it’s all smiles and personal stories.

By the evening, I am prepared for the engineered humanity currently demanded of Leigh Sales. In the morning, I could do without Trioli’s performance of being just one of the ordinary girls. Trioli is clearly much better than I am. At this vulnerable hour, us ordinary girls might prefer that she relate the news rather than tell the sort of tale management has classified “relatable”.

Still, while Trioli retains her headmistress sass and Rowland his civil servant lure, there’s a reason to watch. But not listen. The talk between those revolving news bulletins is not far from Seven. The accents are nicer, and neither host would ever settle a social question with, “It’s political correctness. Gone mad.” But that they try to settle social questions at all – cyberbullying, teen safety, the differences between men and women – annoys me. Whither journalism? Whither integrity? Whither the network breakfast that offers an ordinary girl a little more than farmyard animals and two hot people banging on like an inspirational Facebook meme when all I want to see them do is kiss?

Look. Do you really expect things to be better on Nine? That network peaked in 1983 when Bob Hawke appeared to claim the America’s Cup as his own. Oh, it was something.

This boat race was then unknown to any in our nation, probably to all US citizens who could not claim a third address in the Hamptons. Didn’t matter. When Hawke told Steve Liebmann that any boss who sacked an absent worker was “a bum” we had entered a new age as a nation. It did turn out to be the neoliberal age. But, at the time, threatening a boss with an insult instead of a hard return to the Labor program of full employment just seemed fun.

Bob’s bouffant was buoyed and the Americans were sunk. That morning I saw my mother give way to a new sense of national identity. We always had Today on in the kitchen after that. Like many families, we only really watched when Dad shushed us for a politician – these interviews were serious, long and usually conducted by a political journalist – or when Mum briefly preferred the lively sound of a Harvard Business School author to that of hungry pre-teens.

The memory of Today is partial, but it is fond. A 20th-century kid can only feel warmth for the thing that flickered every morning in her family’s kitchen. Or she can until she visits with the descendants of Sue Kellaway and Liebmann. It is difficult to imagine Karl and Georgie remembered kindly in the future for their work as the electronic hearth.

My duty as a critic compels me to mention that this review coincides with a widely reported Today stoush. This appeared as a real one, not made at all for the PR machine.

It is reported that Karl Stefanovic had said some unfavourable things about his co-presenter, Georgie Gardner. Peter Stefanovic – yes, a sibling, and, yes, employed on the telly – had been enjoying a speakerphone chat with his brother while taking an Uber. One reads that the very attentive Uber driver sold what was said during the Georgie jeremiad, and other inflammatory comments about Channel Nine colleagues, to some dazzling outlet. Whither journalism?

This outrage follows the more serious outrage of an all-white panel of morning incompetents chuckling over Indigenous child removal on Sunrise, and is itself followed by a smaller, less important outrage involving Richard Wilkins misreporting the actions of a British pop singer. This final outrage was a step up for Wilkins, whose usual misreporting of celebrity information involves their deaths.

Look. If breakfast television is any guide to our shared communication future, journalism is withering in the bin. It’s in the bin with the corpse of a worker who died in the Cash Cow suit, Virginia Trioli’s commitment to news over personality and the ability of any person who has ever worked for Sunrise to sleep without the aid of a Hunter S. Thompson-strength pharmaceutical cocktail.

A person who hopes to consider the art, or artlessness, of television at all has, I believe, a responsibility to also consider the conditions in which that work was produced. So, of course, we acknowledge that profits are down and the audiences are now even more distracted. Yes, it is true that the dream of a journalism that contributes, even slightly, to the dream of democracy has been brutally interrupted by quick turnover and tight budgets and the need to make some sort of statement that will be replayed for days on social media.

Even considering an age that diminishes personnel, disdains professionalism and seeks new revenue streams with a mania fuelled by human anxiety and the inhuman panic of the market, this form of television can have no real excuse.

I do enjoy the Rock and Doris act on the ABC, but only as a fantasy and vision. I have no opinion of Georgie and Karl, a man elevated to fame for occasionally mouthing the most rudimentary and scripted liberal compassion and for once being drunk on television and another time being sober while interviewing a famously unhappy cat. I have no tenderness but only stiff anger for the persons on Sunrise whose recent disgrace has no upside. Their comments made about the “welfare” of Aboriginal children do not merit repetition.

Let’s just say that Sunrise could eclipse the worst work of a racist and drunk white uncle and that, apparently, it is the view of a person hardly qualified to tip the Cash Cow into an air roaster, or whatever rot it is they sell amid that morning waste-heap of human productivity, that the Stolen Generations weren’t an altogether terrible idea.

How does this happen? I am of the view that there is generally an answer to that question. It may be long, it may be tedious, and it could be just as serious as those interviews with politicians I recall from the old Today of Steve Liebmann, a man whose calm and colour spoke of a schedule familiar with a lunchtime hit of tennis. I do understand that persons with an urge to be known step into these studios at no charge and then attempt to adjust their social media presence by making outrageous claims. Even so, the means by which such dirty words emerge from human mouths is a mystery that cannot be explained by workplace conditions.

It is possible, even likely, that the persons who so recently made public claims in support of a racist proposal did not believe them at all. Perhaps they were just finding a way to the recommended punchline, which is, of course, “Political correctness. Gone mad.” If this is the case, then our anger should only harden. Surely it is better to be a sincere bigot than a strategic racist.

On the upside, however, public reaction to the moment of ugliness – one played for days on social media – has shown a widespread capacity for reason. Many people came to the studio to protest and air roast the stars and in following days Kochie was forced to confront the public plea, which was this: Why don’t you do proper news?

Kochie doesn’t do proper news well. When talking about Indigenous affairs, at least, he develops a tic that sees him yelling “Warren Mundine” at regular intervals. The failure of this kind of journalism was very clear.

And so, perhaps we can think of Sunrise warmly in a better future. It has served, one hopes, to hasten the death of this type of no-news news television, made for late capitalism and set on endless replay.


Arts Diary

CULTURE Patricia Piccinini: Curious Affection

QAGOMA, Brisbane, until August 5

VISUAL ART Eurovisions: Contemporary Art from the Goldberg Collection

Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until August 19

COMEDY Melbourne International Comedy Festival

Venues throughout Melbourne, March 28 – April 22

VISUAL ART Superposition: Equilibrium and Engagement

Carriageworks, Sydney, until June 11

VISUAL ART Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, March 29 – July 29

JEWELLRY Cartier: The Exhibition

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, March 30 – July 22

VISUAL ART Scarlet by James Reka

Backwoods Gallery, Melbourne, until April 8

VISUAL ART Jack Raffin: Please Enjoy

Artists Studio 106, Melbourne, March 29-31

Last chance

VISUAL ART Unfinished Business: Perspectives on art and feminism

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, until March 25

MULTIMEDIA Limitless Horizon: Vertical Perspective

QAGOMA, Brisbane, until March 25

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 24, 2018 as "Breakfast of champignons".

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