It’s a hit with audiences of all ages and a social media lightning rod – but what is it that makes Q&A tick? Nick Jarvis goes behind the scenes to find out

If you didn’t already know that Tony Jones was a ‘star’ as much as a broadcaster, Time Out suggests you hang out at the ABC on a Monday. Jones’s magnetism is on show the night we do just that, cutting a swathe through a 200-strong crowd in the towering, marble-floored lobby of Aunty's HQ in Sydney's Ultimo. All sharp black suit, broad grin and firm handshake – like a politician himself (though he insists he’ll never dabble in politics) – he is about to deliver his customary pre-show address to those gathered for the night’s taping of Q&A.

A flurry of whispers goes up when he appears (“It’s Tony!”) and the punters curve into a semi-circle around him. There’s an interesting night ahead, he explains: the budget is due the next day, so the producers have brought in former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson, businessman Mark Bouris, the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing Mark Butler, Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer and – incongruously – musician Kate Miller-Heidke to talk money, aged care and the woes of the Labor party.

On a saucier note, allegations have just broken about union boss Craig Thomson using his Health Services Union credit card to pay for escort services. It’s a gift for warm-up comedian Tommy Dean, tasked with loosening up the crowd and panel in the studio. As Jones prepares to go live with a pre-show promo, Dean unleashes a joke about escorts in his weekly attempt to get Jones to laugh on air. This week, he almost succeeds.

The charismatic frontman. The warm-up guy. If it all feels like a taping for something other than a current affairs programme – Letterman perhaps? – you might be on to something. In four years, Q&A has become arguably the most exciting and talked about Australian political programme, ever. It has jazzed up the current affairs format for lovers of the form and tapped into new audiences as it went, particularly those under 30. How? There has been the deft hand of Jones, the shrewd use of social media, a Midas touch for panellist chemistry – any number of smart innovations. But ask those who make up its swelling ratings, and Q&A’s success might boil down to something simpler. In the buzzy ABC lobby, Canberra teen Edward Prentice puts it this way: “I’m hoping for someone to be put on the spot – everyone loves to see someone put on the spot.”

Q&A’s journey to becoming the place to put people on the spot began in 2008. It replaced panel show Difference of Opinion, then languishing in its Thursday slot with an audience that never broke 400,000. There would be similarities – the new show would be filmed in front of a studio audience that would have the opportunity to ask questions – but two key differences: Q&A would be broadcast live and the audience in the studio and at home would ask all the questions. Lateline’s Tony Jones was to be mediator, not interlocutor.

Lodged in his ear – and overseeing the venture – would be veteran journalist Peter McEvoy, a Gold Walkley winner and former Executive Producer of Media Watch. He was finishing a yearlong ABC scholarship studying media ethics at Oxford when Aunty roped him back in. McEvoy’s plan was to make the new programme as interactive and democratic as possible. Even the UK’s popular Question Time, which inspired McEvoy to have all-audience questions, is not broadcast live: Q&A was to be something completely new. “It’s about participation and interaction,” McEvoy says. “We wanted not just the audience in the studio to be able to interact, but also the audience out there.”

Going live was a risk – the public broadcaster hadn’t done live TV like this for a long time. “We have no safety net at all,” says Jones. “And it’s important not to. What you’re really seeing is a piece of spontaneous interaction between humans, some of whom are in power or are very interesting people, and some of whom are citizens given a chance for the first time to engage with them. By and large it’s a lot harder to dodge a question from a voter than from a journalist.”

Right from the outset, the approach seemed to work. Q&A's pilot aired in May 2008 with Tony Abbott, Tanya Plibersek and journalist Stephen Crittenden discussing the GFC. In just the first few episodes, Q&A attracted 100,000 more viewers on average than Difference of Opinion; in 2010 – boosted by the election campaign and the introduction of a live, buzz-generating Twitter feed – viewers climbed to a weekly average of 610,000.

With those figures, it’s no wonder the mood is a touch tense backstage when we visit. Richardson seems most at home, reclining in a chair in the mirror-lined make-up room and bantering with publicists about the luxury of the ABC’s backstage facilities compared to Sky News where he hosts chat show, Richo. There’s even more palpable tension in the windowless, monitor-filled Control Room, where McEvoy, in jeans and an old polo, and his seven-person team hold court during the hour of live broadcast. Between McEvoy’s voice in Jones’s earpiece and Jones’s own judgement, they’ll cut between questions from the live audience and video or email questions.

The Control Room is also where Series Producer Amanda Collinge and two web producers manage the live onscreen Twitter feed – a political TV phenomenon on the level of the infamous ‘worm’. The first Q&A to incorporate the Twitter feed in 2010 saw only 100 tweets using the #qanda hashtag. Now Q&A regularly trends worldwide on Monday nights, with around 20,000 tweets pouring in during the hour. The feed is as much water-cooler talk as the show itself. In one corner of the room, the web producers sit before a bank of monitors, scanning the torrent of tweets flooding through the custom-built publishing software. They make split-second decisions, selecting tweets to flag for Collinge, who keeps one eye on the monitors showing the panel and one eye on her laptop, lining up pithy commentary to appear onscreen at six second intervals.

Twentysomething viewer Anna Dear appreciates the effort. “It’s a nice experience to be all watching something on TV in different living rooms and knowing when something really pisses you off, it pisses off other people as well,” shesays in the lobby.

Of course, not everyone is singing Q&A’s praises. With five to six panellists working with less than ten minutes each to answer several big questions, critics have accused Q&A of bypassing in-depth debate. Journalist Alan Stokes criticised the show in the Australian Financial Review last year: “…at its worst [it] validates divisive inflammatory opinion without much rational thought.” Crikey writer Mel Campbell went even further, accusing Q&A of being an avatar of the “dully predictable, preening, posturing spectacle that passes for public debate in this country, accompanied by demented quipping and ranting on Twitter.”

But media analysts whom Time Out approached praised Q&A for invigorating the public debate. “Q&A’s real value,” says Catharine Lumby, director of Journalism and Media Research at UNSW, “is that it exposes the people and the personalities behind key debates and gives viewers a deeper understanding of the values which so often underwrite political differences of opinion.” Fiona Martin, the Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at Sydney University says, “On a heavy pollie night, when Tony Jones is flanked by three MPs rehearsing mutual put downs, it can be unforgivably dull and I think it probably drives the nation to bed. But when a couple of hot thinkers connect on an issue or escape Jones’s control, Q&A can fire.”

Getting the right panellists, though, is key. Musician Kate Miller-Heidke is on tonight and she’s struggling. Asked whether she’s excited about the upcoming budget she reaches for flippancy: “If Wayne Swan being the best treasurer in the world isn’t enough to save Labor then one budget doesn’t have much of a chance.” Asked whether the carbon tax interests her more than the budget she says, “I don’t really care about either of them.”

The studio audience laughs, but the Twitterati aren’t as kind ("If Kate Miller-Heidke is expected to add something to #qanda it can't be long before George Brandis is guest programming Rage.”). Of all people, reality pop star Anthony Callea tweets that his fellow singer “is a total waste of space...embarrassing rep for Gen Y!” Miller-Heidke is not pleased. She succinctly tweets back – “Pot Kettle F*ckwit” – and posts a note to her Facebook page complaining that Q&A producers misled her about the range of topics to be discussed and admitting that her contributions were, “about as useful as a waterproof teabag”.

Jones disagrees. “That’s one of the things that makes the show unique: you might get Joe Hockey spontaneously talking about his Palestinian background, or a singer talking about her grandmother in a discussion of aged.” As Miller-Heidke did.

It’s not all that strange the singer made the panel – she fits a demographic with whom Q&A is really hitting home. Jones informs us that more than 70 per cent of the audience is often under the age of 40. The show is immensely popular in regional communities, too – a recent episode in Toowoomba attracted 1,300 people (1.5 per cent of the local population) and they’ve filmed as far afield as Darwin and Dandenong. “We find our most engaged audiences [in rural areas],” says Jones. “It is incredible, heartening and slightly scary to see how happy people are that we’ve come to their place to hear their questions and comments.”

The audience that’s done just that in very urban Sydney the night we visit spills out of the studio and into the marble foyer around 10.30pm, buzzing from their hour-long brush with Australia’s influencers, decision makers and “Tony!”. For some, like Canberra teenager Matthew Diep, it’s been an interesting “insight into what the public are worried about and what they want addressed.” For others, like Manly’s Katie Gauld, it’s “something a bit different and interesting to do on a Monday night.”

For McEvoy, who’s watching the crowd file from the studio and is visibly relaxing from the rush of shooting live, headphones still clasped around his neck, the buzz in the room stems from a clear and simple source – a bigger part of Q&A’s success than live taping and Twitter and the host. “There’s nothing like actually being there and being able to stick your hand up, ask a question and get an answer from your politicians.”

Q&A airs Mondays on ABC1 at 9.30pm.

TOP FIVE Q&A MOMENTS

John Howard gets shoed
Oct 25 2010
Protestor Peter Gray throws his shoes at former PM John Howard in protest against Howard’s support of the invasion of Iraq. Gray, suffering inoperable cancer, asks that the shoes be auctioned off by the ABC after his death. Volley buys the shoes for $3,650, with Howard and Gray agreeing that the money should go to the Red Cross’s efforts in Iraq.

Dawkins v Pell
Apr 9 2012
A record number of viewers tune in to watch the two curmudgeons argue over the meaning of life.

The Q&A Campaign
Aug 9 & 16 2010
The 2010 election earns the moniker of 'The Q&A Campaign' after Gillard and Abbott appear on the programme for solo performances on consecutive weeks, drawing 860,000 viewers for each episode.

Episode of Dangerous Ideas
Oct 3 2011
Q&A takes advantage of the talent in town for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas to book a raucous, fascinating panel including polemicist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, Britain’s leading female war reporter Kate Adie and gonzo journalist, writer and filmmaker Jon Ronson. Curiously, every panellist has a Gaddafi anecdote.

Q&A in Albury
May 2 2011
An audience of 800 people – 1 per cent of the local population – come out in Albury for Q&A’s first ever trip to regional Australia, to discuss issues of importance to regional areas (and the assassination of bin Laden).

First published on . Updated on .

By Nick Jarvis   |   Photos by Daniel Boud

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