This week SBS’ long running forum show Insight travelled to Melbourne to discuss a topical subject inviting a broad range of opinions. In the old Pumphouse building at Scienceworks, Spotswood, SBS staged a live to air outside broadcast on the topic of bushfires, climate change and the danger zone.
TV Tonight was there as gale force winds were howling down on the city, ironically reminding the 54 audience guests of the force of nature. Many of them, survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires, needed no reminding. The wind grew so loud it was impossible for host Jenny Brockie not to comment on it during the show itself.
“That’s the thing with live television,” she said later. “They’re the kinds of things that when you check out a location that you don’t anticipate that a huge wind could come up in an old place like this.”
Nonetheless, Insight intends to add more live broadcasts this year.
“It just depends on the topic really. Sometimes we pre-record because it’s a good idea if people have deeply personal stories that they want to tell and you want to give them time to tell them. Sometimes we pre-record because of people’s availability. Because it’s such an event to get more than 50 people in one room at the same time on one night.
“It also depends on how much money we have because it’s expensive. But we like to move around. We bring a lot of our guests in from around Australia, so you’ve always got people representing different parts of the country. In a sense people don’t even know where we are because of that,” she said.
Forums, conversation and talk are emerging more on television lately. ABC has added Q&A, The Hack Half Hour, while Sunday Night / The All In Call also include forums. 60 Minutes and our 6:30 current affairs have a long history of debates.
“That’s got to be a good thing. The more debate the better, I think,” says Brockie.
Having hosted the show since 2001 she is well versed in making reserved audience members relaxed enough to open up. Her ability to remember audience members by name is impressive.
“Australians are notoriously reticent and you can often find yourself coaxing to open up. But a lot of the time they want to open up. I was just talking to a young boy, Chris, for ages after the show about his experience and losing his best mate. And he really just wanted to talk about it.
“What often happens in our forums, because we do have people talking about their personal experiences, is that they often meet one another or they’re listening to a story. And they’ve never realised that someone else has gone through something similar.
“What you often find is they all want to hang around afterwards and talk to one another, or exchange phone numbers.”
Choosing the right topic at the right time is also crucial. Brockie says it would have been too raw to tackle the bushfire subject immediately after it happened (Sunday Night on the other hand, did briefly touch upon it).
“It would have been very hard to talk about some of that stuff in that kind of detail three weeks ago,” she says. “We also wanted to broaden it beyond the bushfires to look at the kind of predictions that are being made about cyclones as well. We try to pull back a bit from the more immediate agenda and take a broader view.”
On occasions Brockie also serves as something of a mediator but says the audience itself will step in before it becomes necessary to become a television referee.
“If anyone tries to dominate for too long you can almost feel a collective disapproval. Because everybody knows the deal, which is you’re there to have your say and then listen to other people. There is a kind of unstated understanding of that. You’ve got to be a particular kind of personality to fly in the face of that in a room of 54 people.
“If that happens I do have to rein them in.”
In coming weeks the show will turn its attention to other pressing social and economic issues.
“There will be a lot on jobs this year,” Brockie promises. “Various aspects of what’s happening in the economy. We always try to do that stuff in a way that is directly relevant to people’s day to day experience. We will be looking for those stories. We will be talking to people in the community about what’s happening on the ground while economists are arguing over what’s likely to happen.
“Quite often when we start casting that net out, start talking to people about their lives, you find that the story on the ground is quite different. It cuts a lot more deeply than is yet filtering through to the opinion leaders. And that’s our job. To get those stories out there.
“Hopefully we’ll have a bit of fun as well. We don’t want it to be all doom and gloom.”
Insight airs 7:30pm Tuesdays on SBS. Next week: “Birth. Do we know the risks?”