Television

A Guide to the Many Controversies Currently Engulfing Australian Breakfast TV

Both 'Today' and 'Sunrise' are on the verge of total collapse right now. What's going on?

by Katherine Gillespie
20 March 2018, 3:45am

Ben Thomson

If you’re under the age of 35, your interactions with Australian breakfast TV have likely been for the most part involuntary—at some point you’ve been sitting in a waiting room, or an airport departure lounge, with no phone battery left, forced to pass the time by reading a closed captioned infomercial about steam mops, or an in-depth journalistic feature about healthy school lunches, or cheerful early morning “banter” between two co-hosts who obviously harbour at least five years’ worth of mostly-unspoken resentment towards each other, perhaps relating to an incident that took place at a Logies after party.

This past week, though, encounters with breakfast television have been completely unavoidable. You’ll have had to form an opinion about one of the several on and off-screen controversies that have taken place; differentiate between the many, many perky blonde women who are under the employ of Sunrise and Today; gaze upon the overtly blokey visage of good-guy-feminist Karl Stefanovic, a man who once made headlines for protesting gender inequality by—let me just Google this to make sure I am right—ah yes, wearing the same suit for a few months, meanwhile receiving a salary hundreds of thousands dollars more than that of his female co-host.

It’s confusing! All of these people look and speak exactly the same, are by definition extremely replaceable and interchangeable and bland-seeming and “approachable,” and yet they earn millions for sitting on a couch each weekday for four hours and rhapsodising about whatever One Nation policy has been emailed directly to the producer that morning by Pauline Hanson herself. I simply cannot blame you for not understanding what is going on—and so below is a breakdown of both the shows that count, ratings-wise (sorry, ABC News Breakfast and Studio 10), their hosts, and their headline-grabbing gaffes.

SUNRISE

Which channel? Seven
Who hosts? Samantha Armytage and David Koch

Things begin, as they somehow always do, with The Courier Mail. In early March, the newspaper published an article that included comments supposedly made by federal Assistant Minister for Children and Families David Gillespie encouraging white, rather than Indigenous, families to adopt “abused” Indigenous children. That same day, on a segment called “Hot Topics”, Sunrise co-host Samantha Armytage was joined by two fellow white entertainment journalists—sports reporter Ben Davis and former TV Week editor Prue Macsween—to debate Gillespie’s comments.

As you might expect when three people with no real knowledge of child protection or Indigenous issues are placed together for a brief hot button segment on live breakfast television, the conversation quickly devolved to the most base and factually inaccurate level. At one point, Macsween seemed to actively advocate for a reboot of the Stolen Generation:

“Just like the first Stolen Generation where a lot of children were taken because it was for their well-being, we need to do it again,” she said, as Armytage completely failed to interject with relevant facts or figures pertaining to Australia’s long and widely-condemned history of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their homes in order to assimilate them into white society.

The Stolen Generation Hot Topic segment prompted more than 100 people to protest during the live taping of Sunrise at the show’s headquarters in Martin Place the next day. In the grand tradition of breakfast TV shows, Sunrise is filmed in front of a clear backdrop, through which viewers around the country can glimpse the sights and sounds of Sydney’s commuters.

Often when celebrity guests appear on the show, their fans will congregate in view of the cameras, exposing handmade signs and the like. The protesters clearly intended to appear on the show in the same way, except that producers changed the backdrop to show the aforementioned everyday commuters instead.

Despite the fact it embodies every principle of fake news that events of 2017 and 2018 have thrown into sharp and terrifying focus, this one has not prompted much in the way of apology or explanation. As per a Channel 7 statement given to the ABC:

"We respect the right to protest as much as we respect the right of free speech. Some of the group were holding offensive signage and some began banging on the window and mouthing obscenities. To ensure regulatory compliance, and bearing in mind the potential for young children to be watching, the decision was made to utilise a generic backdrop."

This morning, by way of vague and belated apology, Sunrise aired a “special edition” of Hot Topics in which they consulted three Indigenous panellists who are experts on child protection. Some people questioned whether journalistic balance should only occur on “special” occasions, but who is to say? Certainly not I.

Some additional context points to a wider problem at Sunrise. Samantha Armytage, after all, already had a section on her Wikipedia page dedicated to racial controversy.

Back in 2015, she and co-host David Koch (think of him as a balder and more stately-looking Karl Stefanovic) were interviewing a pair of twins not unlike those currently gracing the cover of National Geographic—women who share the same parents but have different skin tones. Visually compelling but also, when you really think about it, not something that should necessarily make headlines or form the basis of a television segment. Which became overwhelming apparent when Armytage appeared to congratulate the lighter-skinned twin, Lucy, for taking after her white father instead of her half-Jamaican mother.

“Lucy got her dad's fair skin,” Armytage told viewers. “Good on her!”

You could actually see Kochie processing the moment then choosing to avoid saying anything to rectify it in real time. Worth a watch.

In weeks following, Armytage apologised for causing offence and also explained how sad and upset the whole thing was making her, personally.

Channel 7 stood by the host in any event, giving the Sydney Morning Herald this extremely reasonable explanation for her comments:

"Regular members of the Sunrise audience or anyone who has seen the clip in full will know that Sam was taking a dig at herself… She frequently jokes about the fair skin that runs in her family and how difficult it can be to manage in extreme environments."

So that, I regret to inform you, is where Sunrise —a show watched by around 2.5 million people each week—is at. What's going on with its rival?

TODAY

Which channel? Nine
Who hosts? Karl Stefanovic and Georgie Gardner

While Sunrise has embroiled itself in issues-based controversies of late, its rival Today—a less politically-inclined but similarly white person-centric show—has been experiencing more traditional breakfast television problems: its presenters clearly hate each other, and are getting less good at hiding it by the day.

A quick run-through of the power players, beginning with the Stefanovic brothers, Karl and Peter. Karl is the popular male co-host of Today, and with his controversially-departed former couchmate Lisa Wilkinson is credited with making the show the ratings success it is currently. Before Lisa and Karl got on board, Sunrise was by far Australia’s favourite breakfast show. Nowadays, the playing field is much more even.

What to say about Karl? For years he got away with a squeaky clean dorky-Dad image—he even wrote a cookbook of barbecue recipes. One messy divorce and much-younger-new-girlfriend later, though, and we’re firmly in midlife crisis territory. Karl currently hosts Today with Georgie Gardner, and is close with his brother Peter, who hosts the weekend version of the breakfast show. Peter is in turn married to Sylvia Jeffreys, a blonde woman not to be confused with Georgie Gardner, who reads the news headlines on weekday Today.

Why is any of this relevant? So well-known are Peter and Karl in the Sydney media scene that they’re regularly papped together… and secretly monitored by their Uber drivers. Peter was in the company of one such Uber driver recently, while engaging in a confessional 45-minute chat with his brother on speakerphone for some reason during which both men reportedly complained about most of their Channel 9 colleagues, including but not limited to Georgie Gardner (who sits on the fence too much and doesn’t have enough opinions), Richard Wilkins (who is too protective of his entertainment industry contacts), 60 Minutes (which is becoming irrelevant) and the entire Channel 9 board of management (who are out of touch).

The Uber driver in question has been shopping the story all around town, although Australia’s strict privacy and defamation laws have made it difficult for them to profit from the illegally-recorded conversation. New Idea (which is owned by Channel Nine rival Seven West Media) managed to make it work, though, and the result has been both brothers issuing public apologies.

Needless to say, the atmosphere on the show is now incredibly and compellingly awkward. On Monday’s show, Georgie Gardner called Karl “pathetic” when he expressed a fear of dachshunds. This morning, the Today producers attempted to resolve tensions by keeping everyone except Karl off the set and cutting to Gardner and Jeffreys from two different interstate locations devastated by bushfires over the weekend.

So now you’re up to date on everything happening at Sunrise and Today! Some alternative but similarly mind-numbing breakfast entertainment options while you’re mulling over which show to pick: chewing your toast at half-speed, forming an opinion on an issue you know nothing about, staring directly into the morning sun.

Further reading? Google “Mel and Kochie” or “Karl Stefanovic salary”.

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