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We spoke with the executive producer behind Q&A, Peter McEvoy and discovered how they pick the tweets that appear on the show, how they assemble the audience and how they ensure the conversation is genuinely national.
TBS: Hi, Peter. Can you please tell The Big Smoke audience a little about how the Q&A audience is put together?
Peter: It’s a mix of people, that means a range of political views, but also a fair representation of critical pieces but also a presentation of the Australian population in terms of age, gender and ethnic diversity. We want to make sure we get people from different areas so that’s the point of having the program travel to Melbourne, Sydney and other places. Whenever the program is in any particular location we also arrange buses so that people can get to the studio even if they don’t live nearby, so as to extend the audience. Wherever we think there will be interest, people can sign up and travel by the bus, so it can take them back to a central point in their area at the end of the program.
The social media commentary on the conversation whilst the show is actually happening is obviously a big part of the show. How do you integrate that into the live show?
Over time, that conversation has grown. Everyone sort of understands the different ways to get involved in Q&A; through social media people understand the Twitter conversation. It started quite small but now we have got people looking at the tweets and helping with the commentary people have as the program develops. There might be between 5,000 and 8,000 of those people actually making comments themselves and 20,000-25,000 tweets about the program each week. We go through and make a selection of those and publish some of them on screen, so the whole audience can see what sort of reaction is happening with the twitter community during the program.
And knowing how the conversation has evolved over time on social media and the way people use Facebook and Twitter now, what sort of difference have you seen in terms of the engagement – not so much in volume but in reaction – as opposed to a few years ago?
One of the things we try to do is to extend onto different platforms. Each social media platform has its own characteristics. I guess Twitter is a bit smaller than Facebook, and sometimes narrower; it can also be more vigorous, sometimes quite intense, and a little bit angry, and that can be one of the things that some people don’t like about Twitter. Facebook tends to be broader, with a wide range of people, but it’s not as quick and reactive as Twitter. So, we find that during the program, there’s a lot of people on Twitter with interesting and thoughtful comments about the program, but there is also some angry commentary as well – we try to filter through that commentary and focus on the positive. On Facebook, people have the opportunity to write at greater length and comment on the program. There is some commentary during the program but mostly the bulk is after the program because we invite the audience to comment on what they thought, and to start a discussion about the questions that were asked, so that becomes a conversation that happens on Facebook long after the program has finished.
It’s quite a mix of people as usual: Peter Singer, the well-known Australian philosopher, and along side him will be Special Minister of State, Scott Ryan; Shadow Minister for Justice, Clare O’Neil; former Abbott Government Advisor Ted Lapkin, and Leyla Acaroglu. Some of the others you may have heard of, but with Leyla, the interesting thing is that she is a sustainability advocate but has a different take on how sustainability can be achieved. She is looking to shake people up so that they think about those issues a little bit differently. One of the best known quandaries she puts forward is should people choose a plastic bag or a paper bag if they want to do the best for the environment; if you dig deeply into it, its not a straight forward choice – the obvious choice to take the brown, paper bag is not necessary the best choice.
What are your expectations as to what the others will bring to the table?
I think they’ll bring a range of things but the the two things that are really important in shaping the conversation on Q&A are what’s happening in the news – so big events, big items on the political agenda – people want to talk about those – but the other thing is about who’s on the panel. So having Peter Singer there for example means the whole range of issues that he is known for talking about and writing about are brought to the table straight away. He has controversial views on the relationship between humans and other animals, and what other rights animals have, such as should apes attract some of the same legal rights as humans enjoy? Is it ethical to eat meat? He has controversial views on euthanasia and assisted dying, and there is an enormous range of topics he has written on over the years, so by bringing him onto the panel we throw all of those into the mix. It’s hard to guess what the questions will be – there are a few obvious things such as politics, the Israeli Prime Minister visiting – but with Leyla and Peter on the panel, there is a whole world of discussion around the environment and philosophy. So I don’t know, we will have to wait and see, and the audience will impact that.
My final question is, The Big Smoke is all about democratising views and opinions and Q&A has very much the same ethos; how important is it to you when you approach a show to make sure that actually happens?
That is central to Q&A, it’s really important that the people who come along know that they might not be in the majority but that there will be other people who are there as part of the program who will share similar views. Of course, everyone has a different take on a whole range of things, but we try to get a mix and a diverse range of views. We ask people about their voting intentions and try to get a rough mix that’s similar to the Australian population. We also try to make sure as many people as possible can get to the program, by the range of buses, by encouraging people to come from different areas and by travelling to areas. We are in Melbourne this week, we were in Sydney last week, we are looking forward to going to Adelaide soon, so it’s important to keep the program travelling and give as many people as possible the opportunity to come along. And if we are not actually in your area that particular week, people can send in their questions by Facebook and Twitter, they can send in video questions, so it’s about keeping Q&A as open as possible to the involvement of all Australians, so it’s a genuinely national conversation.
If you would like to join the Q&A audience or ask a question to the panel, you can register here.