Beginning on 11 February 1979, 60 Minutes marked a new era for current affairs on Australian commercial television. Before then, current affairs on commercial television was limited to early evening programs, such as Willesee At Seven and the original A Current Affair, or low-profile late night programs that attracted few viewers. And Sunday night at 7.30pm was most definitely a time for light entertainment as viewers prepared to enter a new working week, so for Nine to slot an expensive new current affairs program into one of the most important timeslots of the week was an extreme gamble.
Based on an American program of the same name and assembled by former Nine news reporter and producer Gerald Stone (pictured), Nine’s gamble almost didn’t pay off as viewers did not attach themselves to the new 60 Minutes which was up against the popular This Is Your Life and the far more camp Adventures Of Wonder Woman. But, unlike the current day trend of bumping programs after one outing to disappointing ratings, Nine persevered and, by 1980, 60 Minutes was becoming the flagship of Nine’s prime-time schedule.
So much has 60 Minutes gone on to be an unbreakable force in the ratings that it is estimated that over 150 programs have been thrown against it to try and dent its ratings armour. Some of the programs pitted against it have included Kingswood Country, MASH, This Fabulous Century, The Benny Hill Show, Cheers, ALF, The Comedy Company, Sons And Daughters, The Main Event, Australia’s Most Wanted, NSW Rugby League, Beverly Hills 90210, The Comedy Sale, Seachange, Good News Week, Big Brother, Australian Idol, Always Greener, Kath And Kim, All Aussie Adventures and Dancing With The Stars. Some programs have managed some short-term damage to its ratings, but 60 Minutes has always fought back with flying colours.
And for reporters on 60 Minutes, they become almost as much the story as the subjects they are covering. The show’s initial reporting lineup – Ray Martin, George Negus and Ian Leslie – while they had years of television journalism experience, were far from being household names until they joined 60 Minutes when suddenly they were prime-time celebrities.
Former ATV10 Melbourne newsreader Jana Wendt (pictured) became 60 Minutes‘ first female reporter in 1982 and set a new benchmark for female journalists who previously might have been tied to covering light news or human interest stories on commercial television. Wendt went on to become one of television’s most valued TV presenters with a career that has also included A Current Affair, Witness, Dateline, Sunday, a number of return visits to 60 Minutes and filing special reports for the American 60 Minutes.
The 60 Minutes lineup has also included many others along the way: Jeff McMullen, Charles Woolley, Jennifer Byrne, Elizabeth Hayes, Tracey Curro, Paul Barry, Ellen Fanning, Peter Overton, Tara Brown, Mike Munro, Liam Bartlett, Peter Harvey. ABC political reporter Richard Carleton made headlines when he joined 60 Minutes, after many years with the national broadcaster, and himself became a story subject when he allowed 60 Minutes to cover his own heart bypass surgery in 1988. Tragically, while covering the Beaconsfield mine disaster in 2006, Carleton died from a heart attack.
Of course, the program has had many significant moments: former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher giving George Negus an ear-bashing over claims that Britons said she was pig-headed; Ray Martin’s award-winning report on Sydney’s Chelmsford Hospital; former One Nation leader Pauline Hanson (pictured), when asked was she xenophobic, famously responds “please explain”; former cult spokeswoman Ma Sheela‘s calm response – “tough titties!” – when accused of stealing $40 million from the cult; actor Tom Cruise telling Peter Overton to “stick his manners back in!” after questions about former wife Nicole Kidman; and former Nine Network CEO Eddie McGuire presenting a special report on colleague Sam Newman‘s prostate cancer surgery.
This Sunday night 60 Minutes returns to air for 2009 with a tribute to its first 30 years. It will be interesting to see what, of the estimated 3500 stories filed for the program in that time, will be featured.
60 Minutes Celebrates 30 Years. Sunday 22 February, 7.30pm. Nine/WIN/NBN/Imparja