My friends often ask me if I watch ‘Q&A’ and are surprised to find that I don’t like the show. When I say I like ‘Australian Story’, they express little interest. Yet both programs are around contemporary Australian issues, both are on ABC and both are on Mondays. Separated by perennial ‘Four Corners’, another current affairs program about very significant issues, you’d imagine the viewing audiences might be very similar. But there are fundamental differences between these two programs that emphasise the difference between ‘entertainment’ and challenging, engaging human interest current affairs.
‘Australian Story’ focusses on a person or a family who have done something remarkable, or had something remarkable happen to them. The story might be about a person overcoming an unusual disease, overcoming a major setback or achieving great success against the odds.
Mostly they focus on ‘ordinary’ people in Australia with extraordinary stories, not well-known identities. Politicians are rarely featured, but high-achieving Australians in all walks of life might be. The people are generally quite humble, just going about their daily life, but overcoming or achieving in some remarkable way.
I’m often moved to tears by the obstacles that these people overcome or what they do to succeed. I’m made aware of remarkable people I’ve never heard of – true heroes who ought to be recognised by our society. I’m informed about particular issues and learn their back stories.
The story is told with minimal commentary from or view of the interviewer (the featured person seems to be talking to you directly through the camera), there’s no playing to the cameras (though much of the program is retrospective or reconstruction), there’s no sloganeering and criticism of authorities is expressed in a reasonable or understated manner.
‘Q&A’ is none of these! It tackles a broad contemporary theme (religion, asylum seekers, gender equity, tax policy) using a panel of several ‘experts’, key politicians, celebrities, most of whom have particular, but differing, points of view. The audience and viewers contribute too, with questions to the panel.
While it seems like ‘democracy in action’, the chair has a great deal of power to control the questions, cut off answers, interject or change to a new topic. No thread of the overall topic ever seems to be explored in any depth before we move on to ‘the next question’.
The panellists want to ‘shine’, so they exaggerate to get attention and rarely defer to other experts, choosing instead to argue. There is point and counter point, so new knowledge or views may emerge, but the panellist’s views are often well publicised elsewhere. No expert consensus emerges. No best solution is sought for the issue or for how the society might progress. In this regard, Four Corners is much better at addressing such mega-issues by using expert opinion to inform and advance an issue, rather than just debate opposing sides.
When the program ends
When ‘Q&A’ ends, you are often left smiling at the repartee, a quick witty comment, a takedown, a gaffe, discovering perhaps a different side of a politician or a celebrity. You have ‘enjoyed’ yourself, but you haven’t really ‘learned’ anything or been informed of better solutions. It’s been a fun, entertaining night. And that is what most people want – entertainment. Just ask Rupert Murdoch.
When ‘Australian Story’ is over, I’ve been emotionally engaged, seen good, creative solutions to difficult issues and admired a person or family coping with, or having succeeded, in some remarkable endeavour. I feel humbled, more empathetic, more knowledgeable and motivated to try harder in my own life.
The rankings’ verdict surprise!
I assumed I must be odd, given our friends’ love of Q&A. Then I looked up the TV rankings. ‘Australian Story’ ranked in the top 10 (along with Four Corners) while ‘Q&A’ was only in the top 20. I’m shocked. And pleased. ‘Australian Story’ is a wonderful program of real life good news, heartening, motivating, about real heroes, not the type of performing seals we see on ‘Q&A’.
We need more ‘Australian Stories’ and less ‘Q&As’.