The Karl Stefanovic Phenomenon – why clickbait doesn’t rate

In TV, if no one is taking about you, you’re dead.
Clarkey For Kids Sports Lunch
This Herald story on Karl Stefanovic boosting Today Show ratings is a beat-up. Sunrise have Today up against the wall and they’re tickling them till it hurts. But the continuing popularity of Karl in the online sphere – rather than on TV – proves that Karl is cool in a way that defines many public personalities these days; we won’t switch them on but we will click on them, again and again.
Karl is the televisual equivalent of that friend or colleague who is fun tower firstly but too tiring to hang out with. He’s worth a chat or a cheap laugh, but never a full conversation.
Does Karl care? I doubt it. (Smug!) While he goes about his work, the internet has transformed Karl into a sound-bite factory, gif magic, and perfect YouTube fodder. Even his unassuming, regular Aussie bloke tweets are shareable gold.
That said, he’s a twitstorm in a teacup.
Any sordid joke or witty remark is only hot property for a few short days. The Herald and Telegraph know this and hence, they will fashion a homepage story around his madcap behaviour at any opportunity. The traffic flows into the website, amplified largely by social sharing. And if there is a chance to rehash a popular Karl moment from a year ago, they’ll give it another run. Because while they peak early, these stories can live on forever.
But does the media’s enthusiasm for Karl’s bottled boganism contribute to TV ratings? No. It’s a trivial, nauseating cycle of funny-moments-becoming-YouTube-hits-becoming-news-stories that has been going on for years without the Today Show receiving any significant bump. Even the latest Herald story with Karl in the headline is mostly about how Sunrise romped home with their best lead in years. His name is there because that’s what people click on. Same goes for sex, p0rn and iPhone.
Today has not enjoyed anything like the bump in popularity you might expect with the global enthusiasm for Karl’s latest wear-a-suit-for-a-year stunt. The host’s joke with the Dalai Lama achieved even greater notoriety and has been  more than two million times on YouTube.
In fact, Karl’s top ten most popular clips on YouTube have been viewed more than 15 million times. His Twitter figures are, by most comparisons, extraordinary: 250,000+ followers, 2500 tweets. Scores of retweets follow each mundane observation. (See examples below)
I have set up many TV personalities on Twitter and I’ve told each one of them to just be themselves. For Karl, being himself – his plain speaking, jocular, slightly inappropriate self –  resonates with so many people, you’d be forgiven for thinking Karl was a seriously popular star with a compelling or hilarious feed. Decide for yourself.
People seem to love him regardless.
A friend of mine pointed out that it was not always this way. A few years back, Karl was widely loathed and even worse, ignored. But since the host made headlines around the world for being drunk on-air and trying to crack a dad joke with a Tibetan Buddhist leader, Aussies have embraced Karl as one of their own and will now happily rave about his latest larrikin exploit.
I can’t stand the man, yet even I have pulled out my phone at dinner parties to show friends the latest reason I can’t stand him.
He’s a middle-aged man of the age, a mate who’ll hold your longneck while you take a wizz, Australia’s Kramer – a loathsome, offensive brute, yet I can’t look away.
It’s clear that the only winner in Karl’s situation is Karl’s personal profile. His appeal is in unexpected moments that shock or surprise viewers for a 30-second clip. Sure, the Today Show appears in every clip and gif but as the moments are unscripted, Channel 9 can’t capitalise or fabricate this ineffable brilliance. If I was them I’d be seriously frustrated. But the potential is there and that’s why other TV bosses should pay attention to this phenomenon.
The idea that ratings are the only thing that matters will soon fade . Television audiences will continue to shrink and TV shows that resonate online will
a) attract the next generation of viewers and,
b) get the advertising dollars that are will move online when we are all streaming shows.
Essentially, views will count for more than viewers.
Some networks are already acting on this. Certain shows are being driven to produce more shareable content and are tailoring segments to online audiences – think John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, Jimmy Fallon, or The Voice.
Personalities will still need to be social-savvy, but most are nowadays, and it’s the producers that need to think differently; How will this story translate to online viewers who can scroll through it in ten seconds? Will it work for a commuter watching live on a smartphone? Would I share this segment? How are we using social networks to draw viewers into the next episode?
I didn’t see your cliffhanger last week, sorry. I don’t know who is in the final four. And I’m not even seeing your teases in the cricket or in the 6pm news. I’m busy watching reruns of Karl embarrassing himself in 2010.

Could comedy save us?

Currently, our national conversation feels like being stuck at a dinner party full of people tweeting into their mobile phones.

I’m talking about our political debate and the current state of our election campaign, the stupidity of which is becoming intolerable. And we need relief.

Why does Australia linger on pathetic, trivial stories for as long as we do? I realise we are a small country but we are big enough to know better.

Our water cooler conversation is truly tepid. We make scandals out of misquotes and feature stories out of insults when we all know the topic will usually have blown over in 24 hours.

This campaign lurches from one petty scandal to another, this week focusing on a sexist menu, a shocking shock jock, and our nation’s co-dependent relationship with Kevin Rudd.

It’s a cycle more vicious than Howard Sattler’s camera face.


Perhaps what we need is a good comic to make light of the day’s events, someone to skew the national conversation, to spike the watercooler before the 24-hour news cycle is through.

We’ve not had a sharp-shooter like this since Graham Kennedy. (I am excluding half-baked attempts like Steve Vizard, Mick Molloy and Rove – do remind me if I have missed someone).

I’d back Adam Hills, The Chaser team in their CNNNN format, or News Limited’s Joe Hildebrand. (Give that man a talk show, seriously.)

Stephen Colbert and John Stewart have been doing this for years in the US (albeit to a much larger audience) bringing a hilarious new perspective to issues the nightly news will leave you thinking are actually important. (Scroll down for a good example)

We need talented writers and fast-working producers who will expose the shallowness of it all, shining a light on how pointless all the political hypocrisy really is.

John Clark and Brian Dawe did a great job of this but this stuff needs to be nightly. And sharp. And popular. Like, Daryl Somers popular.

Please, I can’t get no relief. Soon, the only option will be to ignore people discussing these trivialities, which I’ll probably do by tweeting into my mobile.

Chaos, magic and flying phones in Breakfast TV Land

I have just concluded five years inside the bewildering world of breakfast television, a place where secrets are held tight, where inhibitions are lost, reputations are built and an astounding amount of work is drawn from a group of extremely talented people.

I’m the first person to say that this blog is just a way to process my experiences. It’s not seeking to blow the lid on some outrageous work culture. (That’s not to say that the Sunrise lifestyle isn’t outrageous. It is mildly insane. And if it weren’t so ridiculous in both its personalities and pace, it’s unlikely I would’ve stayed for five years – twice as long as I’ve spent in any previous job).

Inside the Sunrise bubble, you’ve got to like the frantic pace. In fact, you’d better fall for it and wish your weekends had the same wham-bam. Otherwise, your nay-saying and drawn looks will soon stand out like a typo in a headline.

Each day at Sunrise starts as soon as the show finishes. For me, the production meetings (a half hour conference call) were the most hilarious part of my day. Whether I was running for the train or doing ablutions in my pyjamas, I never missed one.  The jokes come fast, the wit is often as crude as it is sharp, and somewhere in between people are pitching ideas and a show takes shape. Staff in the office already could attend the meeting in person, and they’d often leave the room crying with laughter. How many jobs can start you off on that note each day?

For most staff, the hours are long. For me, the hours were also flexible, allowing me to work around the clock and my family which worked well to help the show lead in the social media sphere.

Working at Sunrise bled into my regular life in other ways. At least once a week I had the question ‘What are Kochie and Mel really like?’ It came up on Facebook, at cafes, at dinner parties, even at the doctor’s. Unfortunately for this blog, the truth is that they are just like on TV. Mel is really into family. Kochie is really into finance. Both are professional and efficient. Last time I saw them, Mel asked about my kids and Kochie said, “Do you realise ten per cent of household electricity bills are due to appliances left on standby? Ten per cent!”

The personalities of those behind the camera are a little more extreme. Imagine the most extroverted person you went to school with, and combine them with the most creative and driven manager you have had in your career and you are approaching the kind of person it takes to deliver three hours of live television every day.

(As a quick sidenote.. few people seem to understand the importance of this — Sunrise represents about a quarter of the television programming for each day (that is, inside waking hours). So it’s worth a huge amount, it’s taken very seriously at some upper executive level and it takes an enormous amount of effort to get right.)

I believe that part of the reason the show works is because people there care greatly about the minutiae. You may have noticed the length of segments but have you considered the size or speed of the ticker scrolling along the screen, the length of banter between segments, or the order of the cities cycling through the weather on the screen. (I once received about ten complaints via Twitter when these cities got out of order, proving some viewers do notice.)

Producers are trained to think about even the smallest things. What’s in the background behind your talent? What headline works best if someone has the TV turned down? Someone is thinking about the number of seconds any sponsor’s logo appears. Other conversations revolve around the suitability of guests to hosts, couches vs. desks, whether we throw to the break with a tease, banter, a chat or just go straight to the break?

Producers consider such points for every show. Then you watch it play out… and… it’s seamless. If it’s not, producers all definitely hear about it – but only briefly. There’s no time to dwell.

If you’re not in TV land and you don’t care for any of the breakfast TV presenters, I still suggest you watch it one day and ponder how, less than 24 hours earlier, the program may have had no rundown, no script, and, perhaps not even a single interviewee lined up. It should not be possible.

recent video I made on my iPhone made light of the difference between the new HBO drama The Newsroom and the production team of Sunrise. This video was obviously in-jest and the silent shots of the Sunrise team at work belie the times it can turn furious. The banter is less witty and it takes place more often on email, which, I suppose, wouldn’t make a great show about a show.

As in most TV units, some days are quiet while some are frantic – and it’s these ones which can turn rather silly. People swear a lot and make obscene jokes but no one gets offended. Again ,there’s simply no time.

The way to cope with such pressure in breakfast TV is to let loose – have a good yell, burn off stress being a gym junkie or binge on junk food (this was usually me), break into a public song or dance (usually the management), or dress up as a cow… that sort of thing.

There was one time former EP Adam Boland threw his Blackberry across his small office during a production meeting. It wasn’t intentional, as I recall, but the mistake became suddenly more serious when the phone flew out a small gap between the glass wall and ceiling then descended down a level, landing among the 7 News desks. (“Damn! Missed!”, someone said.)

The response of Sunrise producers, typically, was bellows of laughter.

It is as if a mild eccentricity filters down to the troops, perhaps from the VERY top. Sure, you’re spending heaps of money chasing great TV and super ratings, but shouldn’t working inside the magic of TV be enjoyable?

Even when it’s stressful, it’s still thrilling.

(L-R) Mel, Justin, David.

When police canceled Justin Bieber’s concert in 2010 due to safety concerns, Adam called me at 4 in the morning.

He was completely calm as he told me to tweet the thousands of crazed and crying teenage girls that there would be no concert.

There was no suggestion of a back-up plan. This was the wildest moment in my time at Sunrise. Twitter, teenage obsession and a frustrated hormonal climax came together in a genuine social media storm, and all before the actual sunrise.

The emotion soon turned very real as literally thousands of girls marched aggressively toward the Sunrise studio where the glass is thick … but only so thick.

Adam then pulled a Bieber-sized rabbit out of his hat to salvage the PR disaster, somehow ushering the star safely into the studio where he performed behind the glass.

I will never know if it was always plan B but at 4am, then again at 6am, there was still no mention of a plan B, not even to staff. Yet, by 9am, the months of planning, enormous build up and costs had completely paid off.

We felt like heroes.

And it wasn’t just that 5,000 screaming girls were going home happy. Professionalism, with just enough secrecy, had carried the show, the day.

This must be how Sunrise stays on top year after year. I’m not entirely sure. I guess I wasn’t there long enough to find out all the secrets.

That awkward moment when Social Media appears on TV

If the addition of social media to a broadcast is not intended as a distraction to the main game, why is that so often the outcome?

This is something I have wondered as I look at Australia’s attempts and those by networks around the world.

I thought it was self-evident that viewer opinions, when integrated into a television programme, are there to enhance the primary content. But perhaps the pendulum has already swung too far.

Why is it that many shows that have tried out social media on-air are not using innovative techniques, not conjuring up their own clever use adaption of this new community, but instead throw up some clunky graphics or even use the frustrating ‘stop/read a tweet/continue with show’ method.

Exactly who benefits from that?

Poor implementation risks offending both sides. It shows those on social networks that you don’t understand how the stream flows relentlessly on, while those who’ve never signed up for Facebook or Twitter are peeved that their show has new awkward, trendy interruptions.

Good implementation can keep viewers hooked and boost ratings – The Voice in the US is seeing a great response from their use hosts and judges live-tweeting and responding personally to viewers.

One reason TV shows should and are trying to bring social media into the foreground is fear. It’s the fear of any switched on executive producer that the social media stream will become more entertaining than the show itself. People will watch their second screen (mobile devices) more than their first (TV).

Certainly, there’s no better influence for you to switch channels than if all your friends and those you follow are tweeting about #TheVoice.

Hence, broadcasters all over the world are battling with how to bring the social stream into the live TV event. They need to show viewers they are listening to their views, but some integrations of Twitter, especially, are wearing very thin.

I like the UFC‘s approach – use social media to build up hype for the event a week out. Have your main talent interacting with viewers on various platforms throughout the day and then following the event. They understand that owning the conversation is more about taking people in behind the wall of the TV screen than it is the chance to display a highlight reel of the sharpest or fastest tweeters.

Sadly, I think Australia’s one-time leader in this area is now dragging the chain.

QandA is making a mockery of what has become known as Social TV. The show, which can still command large audiences, has long held the torch for social media integration in our country.

Several programs still limit their social network integration to a back-announce of their hashtag as the show ends. (Bit late guys!)

(Lateline is the main offender there, but, I should say, I like the show’s latest idea to give a political or topical personality the reigns as ‘Guest Tweeter’. If you’re going to tell people to “join the conversation”, it makes sense to lead it. This limits carping and provides a loose thread people can join if they wish. If not, your hashtag is just an invitation for everyone to ‘Shout! Now!’)

But back to our beloved QandA.

Each week, an increasingly silly list of tweets are flipped up on the screen.

These days, it’s hard to spot any comment that adds to the discussion. Intelligent questions? Fact-checking? It’s more a procession of punch-lines that would never be appropriate to be read out loud on the show.

It’s more a ticker of sniping, witty retorts and clever word plays that often denigrate a guest. Cardinal Pell was a good example. As was John Howard…

It’s a technique that’s not showing the best side of Twitter, nor is it helping boost engagement for the audience watching at home.

Viewers, as a result, must now tolerate these tweets interrupting the actual debate, on top of Tony Jones’s regular interruptions of panelists (something he’s long been known for). Who benefits? No one but the wise guys who – no doubt – congratulate each other on their televised tweets the next day over the ad agency water cooler.

Imagine the real-life equivalent; You’re in a pub trying to enjoy the footy but you can’t hear the commentary because all the biggest smart-arses in the room have lined up to whisper their witty interjections in your ear.

Tweets that flash up and then disappear only adds to the distraction. (It’s very hard not to look at them. I tried hard and only skipped two. Tell me how you go.)

How about a ticker that continues scrolling in the bottom third – that way I can dip-in if I wish?

But how about some more creative uses of social media?

Get your hosts to tweet LIVE on air and ask for responses.

Give characters in a drama series real-life accounts, updated mid-week, to add to the storyline – and intrigue. (Packed to the Rafters recently started a character blogging – an interesting move.)

Contests can be easily managed via social media. Tweet your trivia answer to this hashtag… Find and LIKE our hidden Facebook page for the next clue… Start a Pinterest and name a Board after our show (Microsoft and Harrods have each tried something similar)

Philosopher Alain de Botton said that the main challenge of smartphones is for us to be more interesting than they are – to stop people’s eyes drifting back to their tiny screen.

The same goes for TV.

There are many ways we can take this Australia. Let’s not leave it as it is. Please?

Pretty soon, my second screen will be much more interesting than my first.

TVs are the new old librarians [updated]


My recent experience of buying a new TV should have delivered me immense satisfaction and loads of testosterone as I made the biggest decision a married male can make on his own.

But somehow, my purchase of a Smart TV” left me feeling much dumber for it.

I work in TV but live most of my life online so in my humble opinion, my new “connected TV” should allow me to do both;

I want to tweet while I watch a show. I want to read my Facebook but keep streaming the news. I want also want to be able to browse the web using a keyboard and trackpad and it doesn’t seem ridiculous to me to expect a TV to be easily able to stream videos on my much smaller-screened Macbook.

But no. For the ten years since plasma TVs came out – and I have been biding my time – the best TV makers have developed is a pretty pixelated digital picture that is thinner and uses less energy.

3D-enabled or not? 50hz or 100hz? Internet-ready? Wifi-connected? What? Why??

Why are we way back here, deciding on small variations of nothingness when even the most sophisticated TV will still only deliver me a dodgy web browsing experience.

(Massive icons, a keypad on the remote with arrows to move the cursor around like a first generation Blackberry. And on most, you enter a URL using numbers like your first NOKIA in 1995!)

After visiting two or three stores, it became obvious that the coolest, $5000 LED-LCD TV won’t yet let me flick between websites, track tweets while I watch a show in the other part of the screen, post on Facebook while I continue watching my favourite show… you know, do what my notebook computer does.

When I went to university and completed my Applied Science in Information Studies, I knew the internet was going to change everything. But that’s all I knew. And the lecturers, who were clouded by years of teaching how information sharing worked the old way,had only just begun accepting essays via email.

TVs are now the librarians of old. The rusty Citroens choking up the info highway, delivering info as they always did and resisting new developments that threaten its mainstay.

It’s no wonder nearly 50% of teens now spend more time on their computers than watching TV. [citation coming]

Looks too me like televisions are an overheated area of glitzy marketing with pretty minimal delivery. There’s lots of jargon, stickers and selling points but I am getting a TV which does little more than the mournful, cumbersome CRT I now have sitting on my living room floor like an orphaned elephant. Yes, a white elephant.

Lucky for me, one clever thing my TV can do is turn itself off if it detects no movement in the room for thirty minutes.

And so far, to Sony’s credit, this has only occurred twice during my favourite show.


Now that I have finally received the WIFI dongle (which had to be transferred from another store) I find that the Sony WIDGETS work on my TV model and one is for Twitter!

This means I CAN have a twitter feed in the right of screen as the show – form any source – plays out on the left of screen. Joy of joys. And my apologies to Sony.

The interface is limited but hey, it’s all a step toward real social TV. Using Sony’s rather good iPhone app ‘Media Remote’ you can type and navigate the screen as good as one might hope.

Oprah’s finale suggest she’s bigger than Jesus

Pictures from Oprah’s Transfiguration – well, it sure looks like she’s bidding farewell to our dear planet.

Seriously, let’s remember. This is simply the final week of a TV show.

Yes, Oprah is a juggernaut of hype and elongated syllables but on a basic level, she is just a successful talk-show host.

I can’t help but compare her to Jesus. Well, at least evangelist Billy Graham – a man who attracted stadium size audiences in Australia fifty years ago.

I could run with that analogy further but isn’t it more enjoyable to poke fun and hold a pop-quiz with twitpics I found??

Just tell me this doesn’t look like HillSong but with more celebrities…

This is
a) The line up outside the Chicago Stadium
b) An unemployment queue
c) All of the above

This is
a) product placement
b) because your love for Oprah will make you cry she is having a career change
c) Hugh Jackman’s seat

This is
a) a superstar embracing an icon
b) the biggest surprise of the night
c) the scariest open-mouth kiss ever

This is
a) Oprah hugging Jerry Seinfeld!
b) Oprah thinking she’s hugging Nick Cage
c) Jerry eyeing the exits


This is
a) An evangelistic event
b) A rock concert
c) A lot of people hoping to get something expensive for free.

Facebook delivers best reviews of ‘Farmer Needs A Wife’

Here are my favourite comments from the Channel 9 Facebook page tonight which rather foolishly suggested;

“It’s impossible not to love Farmer Wants a Wife. Shall we spread the Word?”

The commenting viewers chose to spread hilarious vitriol instead…

Robert Frederick Brewer impossible aye? well guess what. I can’t stand it and wont watch it. So there you go. Not impossible.

Leigh Fletcher I’d rather watch My Kitchen Rules

Jeff Gehrig I’m with you. Yet another example of 9 ignoring what the audience wants.

Warren Leadbeatter Ha! I’m not watching that shit either!

Nathan Retzlaff some of the sheilas look like the cows in the paddock

Rebecca March I am watching it for the first time, it’s so awkward!

Shannon Butler Should be called “The viewers need a life” .

For the record, I didn’t watch it as I am rather into My Kitchen Rules – at least I was until the unveiled ‘Group 2’ tonight, doubling the contestants and halving my commitment – but if the Farmer show appeals to you, go check out if only to count the clichés.


And Channel 9 people, leaving your facebook page open for anyone to post on your wall is, evidently, an invitation for anyone to air their grievances on a popular and seemingly unmoderated public billboard – rarely a good branding exercise.

But a satisfying read, nonetheless.

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