A wormologist speaks: it is all about theatre
“Put your hands down mate, this isn’t communist Russia,” I was told as I was patted down at the entry to Channel 9’s Melbourne studios on Tuesday. After walking past some photos of network luminaries Daryl Somers, Graham Kennedy and Ossie Ostrich, we “wormologists” were herded into a waiting room just outside the studio and told to watch a schmaltzy health and safety video while we waited.
Conversation swung from friends and family who had been on Deal or No Deal to the calibre of the combatants in the Great Health Debate. We were spoiling for a fight, but as the worm-trail now shows, the Prime Minister won handsomely - at least by our measure.
There is some much-needed debate about the efficacy and accuracy of Channel 9’s worm. As one of Nine’s one hundred wormologists, I’m here to tell our side of the story.
I was told by a friend on Facebook that a marketing research company were looking for suitable people to watch the debate as part of Nine’s studio audience. I was given a phone number to call from the friend, who had had regular dealings with the marketing research company.
I was answered with a “This is Marg” and I then explained to her that I would like to be in the audience for the debate. We went over a few things first - my age (27), my suburb (South Yarra - blue-ribbon Liberal territory) and whether or not I was a swinging voter (no, but I told Marg that yes, I was a swinger.)
I have voted Labor all my life, but as we have a secret ballot in Australian elections, there was no way for her to confirm this without a time machine and an invisibility cloak.
Marg called me on Sunday night to let me know she had a spot for me on the list, and I was to be at the studios at 11am sharp. We would be given a hand-held device with which we were to record our immediate reactions to whatever Rudd or Abbott were saying at the time.
After checking our identification at the door, a lady (incidentally also the boom-microphone operator in the studio) gave each of us a blank envelope containing $50 cash.
We filed into the studio and found our seats. Tracy Grimshaw was milling around in her grey power-suit, holding a clipboard. Once we were all seated, Rob Hurst, the executive producer, gave us a solemn rundown of the machinations of the broadcast - we would be shown at the start of the show, Grimshaw would speak to viewers about the worm, interview Laurie Oakes, then cut to the National Press Club for the debate.
We ran through three rehearsals - Grimshaw was seated directly in front of me.
No matter what they say about A Current Affair, Tracy Grimshaw is a professional and even had an amiable chat with us (I was seated directly behind her during the broadcast). She was making notes on a page headed “Laurie Oakes” in her own handwriting even while telling the woman next to me not to feel too bad about not wearing makeup.
We also received some brief instructions on how to use our hand-held devices, the results from which would determine the path of the worm. The devices resembled large, old-style mobile phone. We were to press anything between 1 and 9 - 1 being the most negative reaction, 9 being the most positive.
We could either press a number once, or hold it down for an indeterminate length of time. Our “votes” were not influenced by Channel 9 staff in any way, direct or indirect. We were only told to vote according to how we felt. We were to watch the debate on the three large overhanging screen in front. We were told we would not see how the worm was tracking.
The broadcast commenced. I read along with Grimshaw’s teleprompter and squeezed the device in my hands, not quite drunk, but tipsy with my apparent power to somehow influence the political discourse - Athenian democracy-style.
She interviewed Laurie Oakes, whose droll remarks about the worm were quickly glossed over by Grimshaw’s banter. She then threw to the Press Club and the debate commenced. One of the staff forgot to turn around the monitor on the ground and for the first two minutes of the debate, during Rudd’s opening remarks, I was able to see Nine’s coverage - worm included.
It was very happy indeed. Someone on the floor noticed me staring at it, and they quickly turned it around.
Rudd got off to a great start. He was positive, he was sunny, he was Kevin07. Abbott, on the other hand, came across as somewhat menacing. There were gasps and bemused tut-tuts amongst the wormologists as he peeled off those misguided jokes and stabs.
I hadn’t had the chance to determine the political sensibilities of the others in the audience, but it was obvious that the vast majority were won over by Rudd’s means-tested, focus group-endorsed smile and his impassioned pleas for bipartisanship.
Abbott, on the other hand, looked like a dim-witted bully. Political arguments and preferences aside, we were voting for the humane and the constructive over brutish quips and scaremongering. Some commentators in the press have so far condemned the partiality of the audience, calling us a dyed-in-the-wool Labor audience, and it is technically possible that we were, given that I’d managed to slip through the cracks.
If there’s one thing to say about the worm, though, it is this: it reacts most favourably to hot air. I thought Rudd’s manner was statesmanlike and polished, his delivery competent while his policy warm, fuzzy and vacuous.
That Abbott couldn’t cut through Rudd’s veneer of details and rhetoric and talk positively about his own policy (he is the Opposition leader, after all - and he did consent to the debate) contributed as much to our distaste of him as did his sadistic bullying of a nerdy Prime Minister.
For these reasons, I became a true swinging voter - I swung from 9 for Rudd and 1 for Abbott the whole time, and boy did my thumb hurt afterwards.
As I walked out of the studio, I paid my respects to Ossie Ostrich, who, I’m sure, would need no reminding that whatever goes on behind the closed door of a TV studio is all theatre.
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