The Australian’s Diary column had this to say the other day:
Over at Aunty, it looks like a case of goodbye The Checkout, hello Charlie Pickering’s Hypotheticals. Diary hears the ABC is keen to revive the 1980s panel program fronted by Geoffrey Robertson QC to such fascinating effect. But in the hot seat for the project is comedian Charlie Pickering, host of The Weekly. Pickering is himself a former lawyer but several silk robes short of a Queen’s Counsel.
Last week the ABC axed The Checkout on the eve of a new series going into production. About 25 people who were expecting to have half a year’s work are now on the job scrapheap. How rude! But hold on. Diary interrupts to bring you a mid-item correction. The ABC didn’t actually axe The Checkout, the national broadcaster said in a release, it merely placed the program “on hiatus”. How’s this for a quote? “The ABC has decided not to commission a seventh series of The Checkout for 2018-19 at this time,” an ABC spokesman said in doublespeak that would do George Orwell proud. “The programming slate regularly changes for any number of reasons, including the need to strike a balance between new and returning programs for audiences. Putting The Checkout on hiatus does not preclude the program from returning in the future. The ABC is proud of its long association with The Checkout and production company Giant Dwarf, with which it has worked on other programs, such as The Letdown and Growing Up Gracefully.”
So, at the exact moment these black letters hit your retina and zap down the optic nerve into your brain’s comprehension lobes, The Checkout is not coming back. But it may.
The decision caught everyone by surprise. Ratings had been falling but the Checkout presenters, including Craig Reucassel, were all flown up last Sunday for the Logies at the Gold Coast, staying in the QT hotel. So the change of heart seems pretty sudden. Julian Morrow, executive producer and head of Giant Dwarf, was all smiles on the red carpet but blunter after production went down the tubes. “We have tried to be a show that does the core business of the public broadcaster. It’s true The Checkout’s combination of thorough research and creative ways to present consumer information means it is not as low-cost as some ABC programs.” The ABC says it is “definitely not correct” to say Hypotheticals will directly replace The Checkout. “The ABC will announce its upcoming slate of new and returning series in due course,” a spokesman said.
It must be difficult being what is essentially the gossip columnist at The Australian. You’re writing for a Murdoch-owned, right-wing paper – which means Rupe wants you to bash the ABC at every opportunity – but your readers are heavy ABC viewers and listeners, who probably both like The Checkout and remember Geoffrey Robertson’s Hypotheticals with great fondness – what to do? Invent some non-controversy about how one was axed, sorry, put on hiatus, to make way for a revival of the other? Yeah, that’ll do.
Not that TV long-running TV shows haven’t been rested to allow funds to be diverted to other new projects; a famous comedy example from the early 1980’s is how the BBC rested long-running favourite The Goodies to enable The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy to be made. The result: Hitchhikers was huge and The Goodies defected to ITV. There’s an idea for The Checkout, up sticks to Channel 9!
Meanwhile, we can’t be the only ones curious about Charlie Pickering’s Hypotheticals. Will it match up to Geoffrey Robertson’s classic televised conundrums? Which famously forced politicians and activists with well-defined positions to abandon all their principles in the name of some fictional but always realistic scenario? Or will today’s political types be so principle-free they’ll have no principles to abandon?
It’s hard not want Hypotheticals to return with Robertson as the chair rather than Pickering. Robertson has a finer and funnier brain that Pickering, and with his international perspective and many more years of experience would probably make better programs. And it’s not like The Weekly has delivered a punch ever, so what makes anyone think the makers of The Weekly (and we’re assuming it’ll be made by that team) could do that with Hypotheticals?
Maybe it’s because Hypotheticals is the kind of solid format that only someone who really doesn’t know what they’re doing could mess up. It’s easy to stuff up topical satire – it’s a hard genre to get right, what with the having to write and deliver funny material thing – but TV debate? Relatively easy. Just put some nutbags with opposing views into a room and…FIGHT!
What will be key is getting the right nutbags in the room, and crafting a good scenario full of interesting twists and turns for them to debate – something Robertson and his team usually nailed. But can the team from The Weekly? There’s a bit of a difference between, say, setting up a debate about Manus Island and slagging-off Launceston.