What's That Terrible Smell?


Despite being off our screens for 10 years, Aussie variety institution Hey Hey It’s Saturday is making a comeback, with Channel Nine announcing a pair of live reunion specials to go to air later this year, presumably followed by a brand new series of the show next year if things go well. But why now?

A Saturday night ritual for families, children and the terminally dateless throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Hey Hey ranks up there with Countdown and It’s A Knockout as retro television that we all hold fluffy nostalgic memories of, but upon rewatching we realise that it was actually pretty bad.

Actually, that’s not quite correct: Hey Hey was horribly out of date even at its peak. It was a lazy, live throwback to the variety shows of yesteryear, but with the addition of some slightly naughty puppets, plus a reliance on sound effects and game segments.

Yet despite the fart noises and guys running around in duck costumes, it really managed to hang around. Running in one form or another for 27 years (having started out as a kids’ show on Saturday mornings), it gained a kind of immortality as everyman Darryl Kerrigan’s favourite TV show in the film The Castle. Daryl Somers filled the role of Australia’s Ed Sullivan: seemingly untalented yet somehow integral to this anarchic live weekly circus, and it is Somers who’s been lobbying hardest for its return ever since he tearfully said goodbye in 1999. (Check out his appeal to the audience at the 2008 Logies if you want proof.)

So given how much audiences’ tastes and viewing habits have changed in the last 10 years, isn’t it surprising to see this 1980s relic returning to our screens right now?

Well in view of the current state of the media, no, not really. Currently in its death throes, broadcast television has given up even trying to stay relevant and is just trying to stay financially viable. Advertisers spent $300 million less on free-to-air television advertising in Australia over the last year, yet the number of hours of Australian programming required under local content rules remained the same. This is where a return of Plucka Duck and Ossie Ostrich makes perfect sense.

Nine said it axed Hey Hey over "cost" issues in 1999, but actually the network was in the process of going through a demographic rebirth and was trying to find a younger, more lucrative audience for advertisers. Goodbye Midday Show, hello Mick Molloy Show. The rest of the decade has not been kind to Nine, having been bumped from the top spot by Seven (and now seems surprisingly unwilling to change its slogan to "Still The One … Well, Almost"). The other issue is the increasingly stale reality genre becoming more unreliable ratings-wise, so networks are now looking to other forms of reliable, low-cost television to fill the gaps.

This isn’t just an Australian phenomenon. In the US, NBC has announced it’s putting a new nightly variety chat show with Jay Leno (creatively titled The Jay Leno Show), in the prime time 10pm slot — a space previously reserved for expensive fare like Heroes and ER. Industry town newspaper the Los Angeles Times reckons the move sends a clear message to Hollywood that high-priced, scripted shows are fast on their way to extinction, regardless of ratings or audience demands. No one, NBC included, expects Leno to beat rivals like CSI: Miami in the ratings, but as it costs a fraction of the money to produce, it will undoubtedly be vastly more profitable for the General Electric-owned network.

It’s not just the lack of scripts or actors that makes variety and reality shows financially attractive to networks. Variety shows, and Hey Hey in particular, have some distinct economic advantages that make them more appealing than the cheap reality fare that has characterised our viewing habits and schedules for most of this last decade.

Firstly, unlike reality TV, variety television requires no pools of editors, camera operators or directors working around the clock to shape hours of meandering fly-on-the-wall footage into a backstabbing, Darwin-esque narrative. With Hey Hey they don’t actually need to edit anything — the whole show goes out live.

Secondly, unlike reality, which usually involves weeks of contestant searches and auditions, variety content basically provides itself. Not only are there endless overseas guests willing to appear on the show to promote their latest movie/concert/album, but there’s also viewer-provided content. In the case of Hey Hey, viewers sent in funny photos and press clippings, or turned up to perform embarrassingly on the mock talent show segment "Red Faces".

Thirdly, in its latter years Hey Hey didn’t even bother having a rehearsal. Two hours of live television literally took two hours in the studio to produce — something entirely unheard of these days. And anyone who saw Somers host Dancing With The Stars on Seven would have noticed that he’s still just as relaxed and Dad-joke corny in the live medium today as he was in the late 1980s.

But why Hey Hey? Why not a new variety show hosted by some hot young talent like the guys from The Chaser? Well, as has been the trend in Hollywood recently, there seems to be more interest in reviving long-dead franchises which hold strong nostalgia ties for Generation X than in investing money in developing new ideas. Despite getting some of the worst reviews of the year, the movie sequel based on the 1980s toys, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen opened at number one in the US and had the second-biggest opening day of all time, behind another rebooted nostalgia franchise, the Batman sequel The Dark Knight. That’s the sheer economic power of Generation X nostalgia value. I expect retooled ALF, Care Bears and MacGyver movies any day now.

Whether Gen X nostalgia is enough to sustain more than a passing glance at Hey Hey Rebooted in this age of media fragmentation, pay TV and the internet remains to be seen. But you get the feeling it doesn’t even matter if it rates well. The Hey Hey variety resurrection will provide cheap, locally made content for Nine to balance out the insane amounts of money it’s currently pumping into the extravagance known as Underbelly.

Personally, I just hope they bring back Chook Lotto.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.