Fran Kelly’s Frankly shows the ABC is making only the safest of safe choices – The Guardian

ABC programming seems to be built on the assumption that people will eventually get old and tune in. But where are the opportunities for new faces?
One way to think about talk shows in 2022 is to evoke the metaphor of a beached whale: an old thing washed up on the shores of a world where it could never survive. Yet last night, ABC TV launched a new one: Frankly, a half hour of good ol’ fashioned chit-chat hosted by Fran Kelly, the former RN Breakfast presenter, whose soft charisma has the vibes of an open-minded aunty.
Kelly stepped on to the set to the sounds of David Bowie’s Changes, performed by the house band. Her opening piece-to-camera revealed the song choice was machine-tooled for the monologue: “There sure have been a lot of changes around here lately,” she began, the major one being that “I’m now hosting my very own show!” Kelly continued: “I’ve definitely moved out of my comfort zone. If you can call waking up at 3.30 in the morning to interview Barnaby Joyce comfortable.”
From the perspective of ABC programming, Frankly does not turn and face the stranger: it’s a familiar format and the safest of safe choices. Contrary to Kelly’s own words, Frankly is, absolutely, your everyday chatshow. And the selection of Kelly as host clearly indicates this production is not – as they say in TV parlance – a “reach driver”, aiming to extend ABC viewership beyond people who weren’t alive the day Jesus was crucified.
The choice for first guest showed that once you’re an entrenched name in the network, they keep wheeling you out ad infinitum. The final episode of Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell aired just a couple of weeks ago – yet here Micallef was, back already on our screens. “When you said farewell, you were rating your socks off.” Kelly asked the satirical comedy doyen. “Why did you pull the plug?”
“I genuinely wanted to give the microphone over to somebody who was perhaps younger, or just some different voices,” Micallef said in his reply, making things a smidge awkward for anyone aware of the criticism that’s been levelled at the ABC for selecting Kelly for such a gig over somebody younger and perhaps less familiar.
One recent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald argued “the ABC appears allergic to big thinking or change-making”. Only two kinds of people would deny that is true: those who are completely delusional, and those who are on the payroll. More and more, the ABC’s programming decisions seem to be built on the assumption that people will eventually get old and tune in. The network isn’t just allergic to big-thinking, but depressingly risk averse. It seems to despise anything remotely provocative, with only occasional exceptions found in narrative programming such as Get Krack!n and the Gen Z series Why Are You Like This (which, of course, has not been renewed for a second season.)
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My favourite ABC panel show used to be Dirty Laundry, which was hosted by Lawrence Mooney. It was frequently laugh-out-loud funny and had a slightly dangerous energy – probably the reason it was cancelled after three seasons. There was a powder keg of talent behind the sketch comedy series Black Comedy, cancelled after four seasons. And there was the infamous case of Tonightly with Tom Ballard, axed in 2018 after just one. More than any other ABC programming decision in recent years, that cancellation sent a message to younger audiences: this network isn’t really for you.
The other two guests on Frankly’s first episode were Dr Richard Harris (the anaesthetist and cave diver involved in the Tham Luang cave rescue) and astrophysicist Kirsten Banks. Everybody was likable, but the tight half hour format had a pressurising effect, condensing conversations and clipping Kelly’s interviewing abilities. I know she’s a talented interviewer, but I know that from listening to her on the radio. Frankly just isn’t a great showcase of her talents.
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And while Kelly is an experienced interviewer, she is not an experienced TV talk show host. Very few people are. The hardest thing a host can do is make the gig feel effortless. When they limber up and have a good time, they bring the audience with them. Any performer experienced in MCing a standup comedy night understands this. Being a comedy MC, in fact, is more valuable experience for this type of gig than being a talkback radio host, which has no focus on the energy in the room.
Next time such an opportunity comes up, perhaps ABC producers can – god forbid – get out of the office and visit a comedy club for inspiration, rather than pulling another name from the same Rolodex.

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