|Rick Burnett, first host of Brisbane Extra.|
"Hello, and welcome to Brisbane Extra. Each weekday at this time, we will be giving you a closer look at life in Brisbane, the things that annoy us, or make us smile."
Rick Burnett intro, on the very first edition of Brisbane Extra in February 1992.
From this small beginning in 1992, this is a tale of Seven's...I wonder, how people will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Extra premiere this year. I'm choosing to mark it, with a post, looking at it from a angle one never thought of. The angle, I'm talking about, is from the problems rival channels have had in that slot since 1992: those people who sat stunned, as Extra outrated their news lead-ins (or in the case of one, their news, that had only just moved to 5pm), to the chagrin of interstate news bosses and programmers alike. It's also, a story of how Extra's success, led to the introduction of Gold Coast local news at 5:30 on Nine, and how it survived. It's a flashback, Seven won't bother running on a Sunday night, as it's full of too many bad memories... for this is a tale, of twenty years of Extra, from the other side of Mt Coot-tha, through the eyes of the network, who suffered the most.
Our story begins not in 1992: but six years earlier. Back in 1986, Seven Brisbane was on a roll, in the midst of the second golden era for the station, where everything they touched turned to gold. While Nine had only made the change, to a new newsreader a year earlier: Bruce Paige (who would lead Nine back to the top of the news ratings within twelve months), Seven had made great strides after Nine axed the original incarnation of Today Tonight. So, it was a bold move by 7 to launch PM Magazine: to utilize their vast resources, to try and make a statement, and take on Perfect Match on TV0. One retooling later: (as "Seven PM", straight after State Affair, and up against Neighbours/Sale of The Century/ABC News) it was gone, and Seven Brisbane went through a with a raft of changes in the ensuing years.
1992-1995 Seven's Extra problems arise.
In early 1992, Nine launched Extra, in the five capital cities: as 5 different programs, but 3 of those programs struck trouble early on. Sydney Extra, Melbourne Extra and Adelaide Extra didn't survive 1992. Only, Perth Extra (which only lasted another year or two) and Brisbane Extra remained. Seven didn't see the Extra problem coming, and started investing in trying to make their news look competitive: including updating their dated news graphics, in a effort to fight back. However, it didn't quite work: as Wheel of Fortune was struggling against Brisbane Extra, and did so for the best part of that decade. Eventually, Extra was becoming so successful, for Nine, that 9 concentrated on improving the news side, with a idea so revolutionary, that it outlasted Extra...
1996-2000 The Gold Coast news war.
The beginning of 1996, saw the launch of a second QTQ produced news bulletin (at the request of Kerry Packer), this time at 5:30, and replaced Extra on the Gold Coast. Nine's Gold Coast News, only strengthened the iron grip that Nine had in SEQ, and suddenly, saw Seven playing catch-up. It took 7 two years, and in 1998, a news war began, when Seven launched their own Gold Coast news service (co-produced with regional station Prime (now Prime7) out of a studio at Ashmore), with a freshfaced Melissa Downes anchoring. Over the next two years, this "war" went through many phases, but, it never made any gains: Prime wasn't counted as part of the Brisbane ratings, and the incumbent GC news on Nine still rated well, so eventually, 7 pulled support for the bulletin in May 2000, taking Melissa Downes back to Brisbane, while Prime plugged away for five more months, with breakfast radio host, Richard Fowler anchoring, until it was eventually axed, with the closure of the entire Prime Gold Coast news operation, after the Sydney Olympics. But what was happening in Brisbane, would eventually overshadow the Prime axing, by a longshot. But another change happened in 1996, which almost saw Seven's lead-in die. Mid-way through '96, Seven retooled Wheel, and made a bold national attempt, to topple the high rating locally produced 5pm news on Ten, with "Seven's News at 5" (anchored by Peter Ford, who would later on do Local Edition in Brisbane) after giving Brisbane-based game show Family Feud (which had occupied 5pm since 1990) the axe. The national 5pm news failed, with Seven churning out gameshows for 5pm yearly (such as a Concentration revival in 1997, followed by a fresher format from overseas, called Hot Streak in 1998 and finally a Celebrity Squares revival, entitled "All Star Squares" in 1999.) However, Wheel's rapid changes (including the axing of long term host John Burgess) were too much for the staunchly loyal audience, and the network restored the old format of the program (with an new host) for the beginning of 1997.
1999-2000 Brisbane changes, lead to pain.
In late 1999, Seven experimented with stripped out episodes, of their highly successful Great South East weekend program, Mon-Fri, to try and solve the dilemma, the network had with sagging 5:30 ratings in SEQ, with Wheel Of Fortune: (a very similar pattern to today, as 7 Brisbane tried in vain, in the middle of 2011 to resurrect Deal or No Deal, with a shift away from offering a 4:30 national news hour, to a split between news, and various national lifestyle programs that usually aired on Sunday afternoons, to gain more viewers)
However, Wheel was back at 5:30, at the beginning of 2000: albiet, with a break, for a couple of weeks, while 7 offered a locally produced Olympic Torch relay daily wrap, during the torch's journey through Queensland, and then Wheel was on at 5:30 again, until the 2000 Olympics. However, this time, Wheel would not be at 5:30 in Brisbane, after the Sydney Olympics ended. 7 promoted throughout the Olympics, that a brand new afternoon program, would launch, alongside a major update for the BTQ news service, and even, new promos, with a return of the "Great South East" promo campaign, which was phased out when Seven launched their new logo back on January 1 2000, all leading to October 2: the day after the closing ceremony of the Olympics, what people at 7 hoped, would be the beginning of a third golden era, for the Brisbane station. In reality, it turned out not to be a beginning, but became the seed for a whole row of events unfolding in 2001. That afternoon program, was Local Edition. Hosted by Melissa Downes (brought in from the newsroom, which she only just returned to in May 2000) and Peter Ford (brought in from Sydney, and also anchored what I previously mentioned: 7's first attempt at national news prior to 6pm, Seven News at 5, along with the original incarnation of Sunrise), Local Edition tried to make a hour of local content work. It didn't, so in late 2000, the program was axed, and was replaced by Wheel of Fortune again. The management at 7 Brisbane, had high hopes, of a retooled Local Edition in 2001, to go head-to-head with Extra. The network never saw the half-hour pilot, and terminated the project, at the beginning of a year which would rock 7 Brisbane, to the core.
2001: Seven Brisbane's annus horribilis.
The start of 2001, was like pressing the reset button on a computer. Seven wiped the memories of Local Edition, and went back to airing Wheel at 5:30. However, some of the innovations that LE pioneered, like a website (which is now archived) were adopted by Extra (also now archived) along with Extra expanding to Saturdays, however, Seven were now making hardly any gains, even with reassurance in mid 2001, that another attempt at overtaking Extra with local content would happen "when the right formula was found". But time was slowly running out for the newsroom, and and it was coming from the bosses in Sydney. December 2001, was one to remember: a fairly major flushing of the newsroom occured, including the replacement of BTQ news director Larry Somerton (who had been there since 1977, overseeing the early eighties revival of BTQ's news), with Rob Raschke, a news producer from Sydney being brought in as a replacement, along with the axing of long time anchor Frank Warrick, as well as the slashing of the local and national content slate out of Brisbane: at the beginning of 2001, there was a national children's gameshow produced in Brisbane, along with local movie review program Popcorn, as well as successful weekend 5:30 programs the Great South East and Creek to Coast. By the end of 2001, only GSE and Creek to Coast remained.
2002-03: Raschke changes at BTQ.
For all the success Rob Raschke has had as 7 Brisbane's news director, one could overlook the fact that the first eighteen months in the job for Raschke, were 7 Brisbane's most daunting. The first thing tried by 7 in 2002, was importing a concept, from Sydney (Raschke's home town) of having the 6pm bulletin with Kay McGrath presented solo (not realizing that Brisbane was traditionally a market for newsreading duos, as was learned by Ten in 1990, after poaching Bruce Paige, to host a solo 6pm news). It wasn't a ratings winner, then 7 reintroduced a Brisbane weather presenter, for the first time since the 1980's, and finally, Seven hired Rod Young, from the ABC, in October 2002, to finally try and get BTQ's 6pm news from what was it's lowest ebb post-Local Edition. However, two months later, Michelle Reiken, who hosted a local version of Today Tonight went onto maternity leave, resulting in the Sydney/Melbourne edition of TT airing in Brisbane, originally until the start of ratings in 2003, then suddenly: some tectonic shifts in news management at 7 occured, with the arrival of Peter Meakin, formerly the head of news at Nine, and by May 2003, Seven made the shock announcement (that people had expected, due to Sydney/Melb edition being on well into ratings in 2003) that Brisbane's Today Tonight had been axed. I always have believed, that had Reiken returned with a local TT again later in 2003, Seven's rise at 6pm in SEQ would have happened in 2004, not 2007, while Extra wouldn't have even survived the onslaught of 2004-5.
2004-05: Beginning of a big "Deal".
2004, began for 7, a bold experiment: Wheel was moved to 5pm, and Seven replaced it with a half-hour version, of failed primetime gameshow Deal or No Deal. It gained traction rapidly interstate, while Brisbane was a little slower to get traction, it was a credible threat to Nine's Extra/GC News. Not just any threat, it actually got some victories, over Extra during that period, but couldn't give Seven the boost needed to overtake Nine at 6pm, as viewers still were seething over the local TT axe, even though the east coast version of TT was rating well, along with the memories of the bungled changes at 6pm (with the late 2003 exit of the weatherman, and then another re-introduction, this time a weathergirl in 2005) were slowly being erased. However, Seven's biggest missed opportunity (even if they didn't even know how much of a missed opportunity it was, at the time) of the entire twenty year period of struggle was upcoming.
2006: Rick, Rob and John: Nine's shock loss...
2006 turned out like 2005, but with even more drastic consequences. Seven were beginning to nip at Nine in Brisbane, but however the 5:30 slot was about to change for Nine, causing problems. Nine tried to rein in costs for the Brisbane station, by first, moving GC News production to Brisbane, and dumping long time newsreader Rob Readings (only for 7 to hire him for a week in 2007, with Nine rehiring him in 2009, in a part-time role, while the news bulletin production itself relocated back to the GC in 2008.) while replacing him, with Jillian Whiting, who was previously used for weekend news, (replaced by Melissa Downes earlier that year) in early July, then on August 29, Rick Burnett was dropped from Extra and replaced by... Jillian Whiting, who was now juggling two jobs. As if not to write finis, to this, on September 18, John Schluter, the station's long time weatherman, quit, but unlike Readings, John went to 7 by the end of 2006, to take over a segment that had become a hit, the Sunday night Flashback. However, 7's biggest missed opportunity out of this, was not just keeping Readings past that week in 2007, but not hiring Rick Burnett. Had 7 hired Rick, the entire 5:30 landscape in SEQ could have changed overnight: especially, as people thought Rick Burnett was "deeply" connected to Extra. Instead, Rick retired, first to his pet project offscreen, the Calypso Bar on Caxton St (near Suncorp Stadium), and then bought himself a houseboat and then finally returning to the public eye, nine months after the Extra axing, as the CEO of Keep Australia Beautiful's Queensland branch, while not regretting leaving TV behind.
2007: Finally a breakthrough, but with no "Extra" help.
Seven Brisbane, was destined to win 2007, once they got Schluter on board. Brisbane finally caught up with southern states, and started switching to Seven en-masse, but still with a dominant 5:30 thorn, Extra/Gold Coast News. The other factor was the arrival back home to Brisbane, of Sharyn Ghidella, to read weekend news, which could have been considered the "Ian Ross" moment of the twenty years of struggle, but was part of a solid foundation, for reviving Seven's news fortunes... while forgetting about their 5:30 problems, something that would come back to bite, two years later. Also, at this stage, Extra went through a whole series of "guest hosts" while Jillian was on maternity leave, including a couple of standouts, one of them, being the former host of 7's Great South East, Rupert McCall, which led to McCall being hired to host a revived "Weekend Extra" (the third incarnation, of "Saturday Extra" which started in 2001, which evolved into "Saturday Afternoon" in the mid '00's) in 2008, which gave McCall the honour, of being one of the few presenters to have actually, hosted both GSE (from the program's inception in 1997, to mid-2002) and Extra (1 week of the main program in 2007, Weekend Extra 2008-early 2009) . However, as Seven finally got the monkey off it's back, Nine was ready to pounce, but stumbled.
2008: Weathering the changes.
Nine initally thought, the problems with the news that arose in 2007, were connected to the weather, so Nine hired Frank Warrick, who had been on a adventure for five years, and then after ratings didn't turn out as hoped, they tried to raise them by having Sami Lukis, from Triple M fill in for Frank... on a extended basis, until she was offered a job in Sydney. Then it was back to Joseph May, who had done weekdays, throughout 2007, until finally, Nine brought in someone from Newcastle, to try and reshape the weather in 2009 and beyond: Garry Youngberry, along with Nine making more changes, Heather Foord was retiring, Jillian Whiting left, Bruce Paige's contract was expiring, and Andrew Lofthouse was being groomed as Paige's replacement. Seven just looked at these events at Nine aside, much like they did with the lead-in in 2007. But 2009 started with a missed opportunity for 7, and it ended with 7 scratching their heads, on the problem that arose in June...
2009: So Extra's over? What do we do...
2009, started out as a rebuilding phase for Nine, with Jillian Whiting jumping ship, resulting in Heather Foord hosting Extra, and Melissa Downes joining Bruce Paige on the weekday desk, a rehired Rob Readings doing the GC News and the first use of Eva Milic, as a main player in Brisbane, coanchoring weekends with the new recruit: Andrew Lofthouse. Seven however, missed out on a critical opportunity, when it hired Jillian Whiting, by not placing her in the 5:30 slot, instead using Jillian as a fill-in newsreader. Nine made a decision in April, to launch a new game show, Millionaire Hot Seat, and it was widely assumed to be locked in to the 5pm slot, much like what Nine had done the past with other 5:30 national gameshows, such as Family Feud/Wheel of Fortune, to fit in Extra... until June 16: when the announcement (and it was very unexpected, as insiders knew that Nine were happy with Extra's performance, after Heather stepped into the chair) that the network in Sydney would take the axe to Extra, overruling local management (along with Andrew Lofthouse replacing Bruce Paige on weekdays). What many people expected out of Seven, after the Extra axe was a response, that they (i.e. Seven) were responsible for the axing, when in reality, Seven stayed tightlipped. After the Extra finale, Seven took out the first six ratings weeks head-to-head at 5:30pm: until the ratings collapsed in mid-August 2009, and then spiralled into a pattern, more and more resembling a ratings derailment at 5:30 in SEQ on weekdays, for the rest of 2009, costing Seven a year they could have owned, if only they took stock, and changed plans at the start of the year. Another major event for 7 was the opening of new Gold Coast facilities in late October 2009 (in the middle of Deal's dive), and a feeling, that Seven could possibly relaunch Gold Coast news, "in the future".
2010-11: A microcosm of the last 20 years?
Seven went into 2010, with a plan, to resucitate the slide of 2009. It all started, with of all things: turning the entire month of March 2010, into one big viewer giveaway, Million Dollar March: which only resulted in more days that month, under 100,000 viewers than over that mark, followed by a advertising campaign to get the QLD Hot Seat audience back, which led to a glimmer of hope of revival in June, only to see the ad campaign dropped, and followed up by a shortlived bus stop campaign, which saw Deal drop to new lows. 2010 ended with a change to the lead-in to Deal itself, this time being the extension of Seven's 4:30 news. 2011, should have been a year of hope for 7, with the new lead-in to Deal, with the highlight, being Seven winning the 5:30 slot, on the night of Cyclone Yasi's landfall... without Deal: (instead airing extended Brisbane 6pm news) while splitting a much hyped promotion, with prizes of a trip to Las Vegas. Nine's news was finally making inroads, but, Deal stagnated with a hour news lead-in, with viewers flicking to Nine, and finally, after Seven lost 21 consecutive weeks (effectively losing 2011) at 5:30, in mid-July, the decision was made, to investigate the problems at 5:30, starting with the cutback of the hour news at 4:30. Seven introduced, a new strategy, testing until years end, various lifestyle programs that had previously aired in Brisbane, at 5pm Sundays, while seeing Nine's news sink after the "Choppergate" incident. As it stands, Seven is going into 2012 with a big question on it's hands, as the 5:30 ratings derailment of 2009-11, could fast become the ratings disaster of 2012 and beyond.
2012: 20 Years of Hell.
Nine made a key announcement, before the end of ratings last year: that Bruce Paige, would be anchoring the Gold Coast news service, from the start of 2012. Seven has made no response, much like it has been making, for the last five years. Meanwhile, Deal has fallen on hard times nationwide, following Brisbane's lead. If Deal is replaced, Seven should commit to rebirthing their offering in SEQ, in much the same fashion Nine did with Extra in 1992: after all, Nine were strong in Brisbane in the late 1980's/early 1990's, and while 5:30 did struggle to gain a audience (as people still remember the attempts Nine made such as Live at 5, Eye on Australia, and finally the Extra experiment, which only achieved longevity in Brisbane) they dominated 6pm. Seven has on the flipside, been trying the same one-trick pony, give or take a few breaks, since 1992: the national gameshow. Seven's issue, is that they need to take a leaf out of the Nine playbook, and try and get a local program up at 5:30 on weekdays, leading into the 6pm news (considering the success they have had on weekends), which will not serve to weaken the news, but to only strengthen it: much like Nine did with the introduction of Extra, and later on Gold Coast news, which gave viewers confidence. It's not a case, of whose camera is watching whose helipad, or who's going where. Brisbane's own stories helped shape the 20 years of 5:30 hell for Seven. It's those same stories, that will shape the solution (if the chance to make these major changes is given by network bosses, not to mention the network accepting that there are problems with the slot in SEQ, while Nine still has the GC news) for the problems Seven have faced down this arduous 20 year journey. After all, when people asked in 1992, how long Extra would last in Brisbane: many were pessimistic, yet it lasted eighteen years. But one must remember: Brisbane viewers mourned the passing of Extra, I'd say they'd cheer, when or if, Seven makes that vital announcement: that they are serious about turning 20 years of 5:30 hell, into a major attack on the competition, and giving Nine a taste of what Seven in Brisbane has put up for the last 7,305 days.
20 Years of Hell, by the numbers:
approx. 5000: The number of episodes aired of Brisbane Extra from Feburary 1992, to June 29 2009.
241,000: The number of viewers that tuned in, for the Brisbane Extra finale on June 29 2009.
55,000: The number of viewers that were watching Local Edition prior to the program's "rest" (which eventually led to the programs axe) in 2000.
40,000: The number of stories produced for Brisbane Extra during it's entire 18 year run, which is equivalent to eight stories for every episode ever produced.
294: The number of days, it took for Seven to replace Frank Warrick, after dumping him in 2001: the replacement, being Rod Young.