Being agreeable and not stooping to chase cheap attention may sound like minor milestones, but when you’re talking about The Footy Show they’re actual achievements
Returning with a new format, new hosts, and most importantly, a new attitude, after years of decline in terms of both ratings and philosophy, the debut episode of the perennial AFL panel show from Channel Nine, the owner of this masthead, was modestly enjoyable.
The live audience still waved their club scarves, but this was more a CEOs presentation than a players’ pie night. It was a little rushed, as first episodes generally are, but with promising signs, including happily not having to endure the desiccated shtick of previously emblematic star Sam Newman.
Having calcified to the point where Channel Seven’s banter-friendly upstart The Front Bar had become the ratings champion, this was close to a complete rebuild for The Footy Show.
Comic Anthony ‘Lehmo’ Lehmann – wearing a pair of thick-rimmed glasses for some hosting gravitas – had the lead chair, with Fox Footy’s Neroli Meadows, an accomplished journalist and presenter, as co-host.
It was a cover all the bases combination, which is also the show’s philosophy. There were laughs – earned through genial digs instead of mockery – and analysis, punditry and pre-recorded sketches. The mix reflected how Australian Rules can simultaneously be an obsessive passion, a demanding industry, and a source of athletic wonder. Reducing the game to a stereotype doesn’t work anymore, so why do the same to coverage of it?
Instead there was a scripted opening monologue that snapped from one gag to the next, with heavy mining of social media. Both Lehmann and Fevola have done years in breakfast radio, and the early segments had that format’s aesthetic: eager to please, with a slightly jerky rhythm. It was only in one of the final segments that Meadows let her reporter’s instincts take hold, cutting back from the next question on the running sheet for former NRL great turned St Kilda leadership consultant Billy Slater to get him to expand on an interesting previous answer.
The desire to be fresh and upbeat did impinge negatively on the news side. The show was several segments in, including genial interviews with Collingwood’s American import Mason Cox and Hawthorn veteran Shaun Burgoyne, before it addressed the misogynistic online attacks – “a bit of controversy,” as Meadows put it – experienced by Carlton AFLW star Tayla Harris.
It was a slow response exacerbated by Nine’s news headline leading with it during a commercial break. The eventual discussion was enthusiastic in supporting Harris and the many who’d rallied to her side but notably brief, as if it wasn’t allowed to spoil the cheery mood. Someone needed to acknowledge that Harris had been let down by Seven initially deleting the social media post that had drawn the trolls’ attention.
The disciplining of star Fremantle recruit Jesse Hogan, which involves mental health issues, was equally succinct.
Cox and Burgoyne thankfully both got past the clichés so many players deliver, while the expert opinions from former champion players Matthew Lloyd, whose straight shooter instincts were welcome, and Nathan Brown were a modest primer for the coming AFL season.
The episode did a lot of things reasonably well, without excelling in any one, and that might mean a struggle to establish a winning identity, as The Front Bar has. Given how controversy and breaking news powers the game’s narrative now, the new regime will also need a sharper approach to headline making eruptions.
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