From the minute Nine pitched their new pet panel project for Karl Stefanovic as having "Australia's most informed minds" my hackles were raised. With the premiere episode guests including Mark Latham, Senator Jacqui Lambie and former AFL footballer Campbell Brown it certainly seemed like that claim would be a stretch.
Then Latham open with this predictable bile spill: "Look, I'm sorry, but in Western Sydney there is a Muslim problem".
The tone was set for THE VERDICT, and it didn't improve.
Stefanovic struggled to keep the peace as all seven(!) guests spoke over each other during the first 20 minute segment. He offered little authority and seemed to be hog-tied to an Executive Producer in his ear wanting him to let the cacophony continue. A blokey "woo, settle down" was the best he could muster.
Tony Jones has little to worry about in the way of a potential usurper.
It's a poor debut for Nine's leading man. He's clearly bigger than his role on The Today Show, proving to be more than a dab hand with his infrequent reports on 60 Minutes, however he's tied to that breakfast chair and vehicles like this won't cut the umbilical any time soon. Karl Stefanovic is a better presenter and performer than this.
Given what was broadcast was considered the best content available from the afternoon's pre-record - that's right, it wasn't live - I can only wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. It must have been horrendous.
Mark Latham and Senator Jacqui Lambie were clearly targeted guests with the discussion questions skewed to their pet feelpinions.
"What do we think about mental health?" Mark thinks it's a joke; Jacqui thinks Mark should pull his head in.
"What do we think of Donald Trump?" Mark loves the Donald; everyone else thinks Mark should pull his head in.
Latham was the go-to guy to start most topics, knowing he'd open up with some controversial non-sequitur. He was even (quite irresponsibly) given 3 minutes to let fly an uninterrupted editorial on the treatment and over-prescription of drugs for the treatment of mental health. It'd be hilarious if it wasn't so dangerous.
This kind of controversy for controversy's sake isn't entertaining television. It's simple, hackneyed and shallow, and a very clear attempt at a ratings grab.
The entire program missed the urgency of going live - which Stefanovic would have probably handled better instead of leaning on the edit, allowing conversations to go too long and get out of control, rather than sharp, direct discourse.
The inclusion of a one-on-one interview with Lambie at the 30 minute mark could have been a revelation were all the sensational details of the discussion not delivered in Karl's autocue intro. At least the moment was a breather from the bickering of the panel.
The promised first interview with banned anti-abortion campaigner Troy Newman was also pre-recorded and appeared to have Karl's side re-recorded after the actual interview to spice it up. No seasoned journalist used to performing an interview via satellite would talk over their guest as Karl did - especially in a pre-record.
The Newman interview also lasted a heavily-edited 122 seconds to function as another laboured conversation starter.
Australian audiences are smarter than this. Being the first episode there will have been a lot of rubber-neckers that won't return, and the minute-by-minute ratings will surely show a sharp decline in viewers post 8:50pm that will have never recovered.
The audience Q&A consisted of two pre-written questions from audience members that seemed randomly selected, essentially, fell flat after Karl directed Latham as first responder to both.
Packing the ads into the final 15 minutes (three breaks compared to 1 in the first 20 minutes) also presented a significantly disjointed discussion. Couple this with constant encouragement to "join the conversation" for a show that aired in an AEDT timeslot meant there was little social media draw for viewers outside of NSW, ACT, Victoria and Tasmania.
The final segment allowing the panelists to cast their vote as a definitive outcome on the nights discussion topics also delivered nothing new to conversations that felt tired & uninteresting having happened, in one case, only 5 minutes prior.
All in all it was pretty shambolic. The Verdict was Q&A for a Footy Show audience and Nine are poorer for it.
There is, however, lots Nine could do to re-tool/improve The Verdict:
- Stream the show live on 9jumpin.com.au and allowing those interested to actually "join the conversation". With 5 different timezones nationally there will have been little interest outside the AEDT states and given the topical nature of the discussion alienating interested viewers is counter productive.
- Reduce the number of panelists and don't lean on controversy and shock as conversation starters. Include subject matter experts (on both sides of the debate) and challenge them to bring their A-game. Shouting at Mark Latham is as pointless as giving Mark Latham a nationally syndicated newspaper column - nobody cares.
- Record the show as-live and let Karl be Karl. Keep the edits minimal and allow Karl to guide and direct the conversation like he would be able to normally. Also, get rid of the bloody autocue he seemed so dependent on.
- Work on the pace of the show and spread the breaks a little more evenly. It's a commercial reality to have them there, but don't wedge in 4 ad breaks in the final 25 minutes because you wanted to let people argue more in the first 35.
- If you want to have it make the interview count for something and not be some token bridge in the middle of the program. Sure, it's a strange inclusion in a panel show to have a one-on-one interview however it has the potential to open up the next topic of conversation in a deep, vibrant manner.
There are four episodes remaining in this first run of The Verdict. Many viewers have already passed their final judgement.
Co-Creator of DeciderTV, Steve Molk is sharply focused on the business of TV in Australia across all its formats - FTA broadcast, commercial, subscription, catch up & SVOD.
Based in Brisbane he's a passionate advocate for Australian-made programming, particularly drama and comedy. He loves podcasting, gaming & watching too much TV.
Twitter - @SteveMolk
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