Breakfast television is my guilty secret. From the moment I get up, the TV comes on. I shower, get dressed and eat breakfast in between half-hourly news bulletins. If I hear Hollywood gossip at 7:45am, I know I’m running late. I am like thousands of Australians who live on the suburban fringe of a capital city and must travel 45 minutes to work everyday, leaving little time to read a newspaper cover to cover.
It’s with some authority then, that I declare Federal Election 2007 as the battle of the breakfast shows. While there has been much analysis of Kevin Rudd’s recent scholarly articles in The Monthly and his speech to the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), the fact is, his rise to the Labor leadership would have been unthinkable without the public profile he has developed as a regular commentator on Sunrise. His weekly stoush with Liberal counterpart, Joe Hockey, brought him into Australian loungerooms long before the leadership ballot.
Channel 7’s breakfast show is number one in Australia. It consistently outpolls Channel 9’s Today, reportedly pulling 175,000 viewers more than its rival. But Sunrise‘s success was not always so. How it won the hearts of middle Australia provides a clue for Rudd on what might sweep him into victory next year.
To understand Sunrise‘s success you have to look at Today‘s demise. And how synonymous that slip in ratings is with the Howard Government’s ‘War on Terror.’
No one symbolised the fridge-magnet fear cultivated by John Howard better than Today‘s former host, Steve Liebmann. Before Eddie McGuire’s ‘boning’ scandal and the saga of the injunction-causing affidavits, Today was the king of breakfast TV. Liebmann was its dry and humourless host. His voice, peppered by the occasional shrill bleat from Tracey Grimshaw, saw Australia through global triumph and disaster. During 2001’s post-Tampa and post-9/11 election, Today reveled in the daily news items about ‘security’ and ‘terror.’
The fridge magnet was the zenith of Howard’s genius. A cheap, daily reminder of our proximity to the frontline of war, to be kept near the breakfast essentials. Liebmann was the perfect choice for the TV ads that promoted the magnets. While the PM may have preferred that other Today stalwart, Alan Jones, the cash-for-comment scandal was still too raw at the time.
And so for six months, we were feted to images of Liebmann, as he strolled under a canopy of Spring-green trees, encouraging us to dob in our neighbours.
It was around this time that I swapped channels along with the rest of the nation. Not long after, Liebmann got the sack. The Sunrise swing was on.
At first, it was the happy orange glow. The Kochie-Mel banter. But I was really won over by the ‘Where is the Love?’ campaign. Sampling the hit song by the Black Eyed Peas, Sunrise made an appeal to hope, differentiating itself from the general War on Terror gloom around it. It sponsored competitions for people who performed charitable acts in the community, promoted volunteering in non-profit organisations and encouraged people to feel positive about making changes in their lives. It deftly framed the sorry state of the world with stories of humour and happiness. Today became the bad news show.
Two innovative moves by Gen-X Executive Producer Adam Boland cemented Sunrise‘s widespread appeal “ ‘people responsive programming’ and ‘values-marketing.’
‘People responsive programming’ Is described on the Sunrise website, as ‘talkback TV’ where ‘ viewers set the news agenda of the day by getting their point straight to air by email, SMS or mail.’ By encouraging direct interaction between the show and real-life Australians, middle Australia was no longer reduced to an AC Nielsen percentage point. They had names and email addresses.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
The interaction with viewers began with the ROS wall. ROS meaning ‘Responses of Sunrisers.’ Whenever viewers had a query on issues ranging from nuclear energy to the best homeopathic acne treatment presenters David Koch and Melissa Doyle placed the topic on a whiteboard. It would not be crossed off until an expert could provide an explanation or solution.
People responsive programming creates a relationship of trust between Sunrise‘s audience, hosts and producers. The strategy is best described by Koch, who told Fairfax newspapers in 2004 that, ‘Any time a politician talks about his or her agenda [on air], about 30,000 people in Sydney switch off. But if we get a politician on to talk about our agenda or a viewer’s agenda, they’ll stay watching.’
After Ros Kelly’s disastrous experience in the ‘sports rorts’ affair of 1994, the Federal ALP might be justifiably skeptical about whiteboards. But in a world where everyone wants to be the next Australian Idol, Rudd would do well to recognise that tapping into the public’s desire for quasi-direct democracy is a winning strategy. In his first interview on Sunrise after the leadership ballot, Rudd appeared to be aware of the Sunrise effect, telling viewers he had ‘learned a lot from the show, particularly that politicians don’t have all the answers and that some of the best ideas come from the community.’
The ALP could also learn something from Sunrise‘s values-marketing. In the middle of the terrorism hysteria, it was clever indeed to be the channel of love, not war, and their success continues with the climate change campaign, ‘Cool the Globe.’
The campaign started two months ago after Joe Hockey, Rudd’s Liberal counterpart on the show, revealed the Government’s intention to scrap solar energy rebates. Sunrise commenced a petition, garnering support from thousands of viewers to ensure the rebate stayed. A few weeks later, a shamed Treasurer Costello was forced to appear on Sunrise, denying any change to the policy. If you think breaky journalists are lightweights, Doyle’s skillful coercion of Costello’s backdown suggests otherwise. She was better than Kerry O’Brien, and did it all with a thoroughly pleasant, Meadow Lea smile.
Cool the Globe is the sort of campaign a clever Opposition must run. The campaign appealed to the public because it immediately responded to the drought-ravaged, water-restricted, Gore-influenced mood of the nation. It found a fragment of bad government policy, clearly revealed its flaw and presented a simple plan for alternative action. And then, importantly, Sunrise congratulated the general public, not itself, for securing the Government’s backflip.
Beazley could never frame the debate like that. Latham had some success when he vowed to reduce MPs’ superannuation, but he couldn’t sustain it. Now, Rudd must become the values-marketing master. ‘Fork in the road’ is a good start. Common sense policies offering a fair go is another.
In recent weeks, Gerard Henderson and others have focused on the Christian values implicit in Rudd’s recent writings for The Monthly and his speech to the CIS. Speaking to Maxine McKew on ABC TV’s Lateline, Henderson dismissed the a
ppeal of Rudd’s message to pro-life voters in the outer suburbs, attacking him as yet another member of the elite and a chardonnay socialist, albeit a Christian one: ‘I don’t really think Kevin Rudd’s contribution is going to effect much [in the outer suburbs]while the economy is going strong.’
But the popularity of Sunrise reveals that ordinary Australians are motivated by more than just the hip pocket nerve and self-interest they believe, for example, in sponsoring children in Africa, they worry about climate change, and they genuinely fear the impact on work-life balance that WorkChoices signifies.
Will these people be receptive to a message about the ‘common good’ delivered by Rudd? Time will tell.
In any event, Henderson and his ilk would do well to remember that there are more tsunami-donating, outer-suburban Christians watching the new Opposition leader once a week on Sunrise, than tune into Lateline or Radio National Breakfast. Or Today for that matter.
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