Show of the week: Footy Classified, Channel Nine, Monday, 10.30pm
IN BOTH a minor quirk of scheduling and a nod to this city's love of all things football, one of the most consistently rating programs on Monday nights in Melbourne is a no-frills panel show that usually airs after 10.30pm.
Footy Classified was created in 2007 with a modest aspiration: to develop a Monday night panel show that differed significantly from the product offered on rival networks.
A combustible panel comprising Craig Hutchison, Garry Lyon, Caroline Wilson and Wayne Carey certainly achieved that. After Carey left in awkward circumstances and it became apparent his replacement Glenn Archer was ill suited to the show's straight-talking ethos, the addition of Grant Thomas has proved one of Classified's enduring strengths.
At the time of his appointment, Thomas was perceived as a risky option for an opinion-driven television program. He is a former coach at St Kilda, where he was a controversial figure. More contentiously, his former roles as an Age columnist and commentator for AM sports station SEN both ended badly.
Yet Thomas has proved a revelation on Mondays, where he is almost unique in the AFL landscape. Unencumbered by formal associations with official media outlets, clubs or the league itself, he feels comfortable delivering an unflinching and forthright opinion on any football matter.
''There is nothing worse than the constant dilution and fabrication of information from the AFL to the general public,'' Thomas says. ''It is the people's game. They have every right to hear an unfiltered view.''
Asked how much information is diluted and messages from league HQ massaged, Thomas declares: ''People are massively compromised. I don't make a career out of media; my focus is my day job running a business. So I'm not interested in kowtowing to common opinion. I think there are too many people in the AFL on too high a contract that they try and maintain at the expense of reporting truth. It's an elephant in the room. Very few say it.''
Each Monday, the show's production team meets with Lyon and Hutchison at 10am to flesh out the weekend's football issues. They are joined for another meeting at 5pm by Wilson; Thomas declines to attend any of these gatherings. Lyon says the decision is mutual.
''We like to keep Grant fresh,'' Lyon says. ''He's a unique talent. We like him unfiltered and raw.''
When Thomas joined Classified, there was palpable tension between he and Wilson, the most accomplished print journalist covering the game. The two clearly have history. Although this has thawed somewhat, there is still an edge to their onscreen relationship.
''They still know how to push each other's buttons,'' Lyon says.
As for Thomas: ''I have a lot of admiration for Caroline. She is a very learned football person, more than most in the industry. She takes a strong stance on things, which I greatly respect her for. We have come a long way.''
Lyon concedes some of the onscreen arguments - a hallmark of the show - are theatre rather than genuine conflict.
''I'd say 85 per cent is genuine,'' Lyon says. ''But if the show is meandering a little, or it's a bit passive or agreeable, someone will throw a hand grenade in. That's usually Hutchy. The thing is, we all have very strong opinions.''
Hutchison says: ''I don't consider us to be a footy program; more of a current affairs show on footy.
''We're a different style of show. We try and keep everybody's views away from each other in our production meetings so there is real reactions and real conflict [on air].''
After five years, the show has settled into a tight rhythm and moves along at a swift pace. Particularly successful is the well-known ''Good Call, Bad Call'' segment, which has become a virtual weekly pop culture reference point among football fans.
Unlike its chief competitor, Fox Footy's On the Couch, Classified rarely hosts guests. On Monday night, for instance, Couch featured AFL executive and Thomas' sworn enemy Adrian Anderson.
Asked how he assesses Anderson and the AFL's year, Thomas is typically reserved.
''I think they're in denial,'' he says. ''It's laughable how they can take a stance and defend a position against the evidence. The public think it's laughable, too. There is nothing wrong with saying [you're] sorry, you mucked something up. They're trying to influence and dictate the game too heavily. But everything they do is superseded by a tactic from a coach or player. It's out of control. Their arrogance and stubbornness is their biggest downfall.''
How then does he rate Footy Classified's season?
''The show is evolving and gets better each year,'' Thomas says. ''The more we push away from game review and more into AFL, the more the show is enjoyed.''