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Gruen puts the spin into spin-off

IT IS a couple of hours away from taping the first episode of the new season of The Gruen Transfer and Russel Howcroft is in good form.

IT IS a couple of hours away from taping the first episode of the new season of The Gruen Transfer and Russel Howcroft is in good form.

In the space of about 20 minutes he explains how advertising is essential for democracy, why there should be ads on the ABC and how ads can save the economy. Todd Sampson, the Judy to Howcroft's Punch, does his cheerful best to rein in Howcroft's zeal for the ad industry.

Howcroft, the managing director of George Patterson's Y&R, and Todd Sampson, the chief executive of Leo Burnett, have become two of the best known faces in advertising since signing as panelists on the ABC's unexpected hit, Gruen, which first aired three seasons ago in 2008.

Last year The Gruen Transfer had an average audience of 1.4 million, its election-focused spin-off Gruen Nation, which peaked at 1.6 million, was the ABC's highest rating show of the year.

Sampson, who says he was at first reluctant to take on the gig, wary that it might be putting the boot into the ad industry, says the appeal of the show lies in its focus, which is "not about advertising, but about people, about how we interact with everybody else".

The producer of Gruen, Jon Casimir, who created the show with Andrew Denton, says the idea was never to judge advertising. "I've always said it's about how advertising works and how it works on you. We're sceptical but it's not about judging," he said.

The reaction from the ad industry to the show has shifted markedly in the three years since series one. Casimir says while it was once difficult to get people to take his calls, since the new series and a new spin-off, Gruen Planet, was announced earlier this month, there has not been a day where someone has not called him asking to be on the show.

Gruen Planet, which will air later this year after The Gruen Transfer finishes, will look at the big issues of the week in terms of how they have been spun by public relations, branding and image control. Sampson and Howcroft will again be on the panel with comedian Wil Anderson hosting, but they will be joined by a rotating group from public relations, the media and other arms of professional communications.

Neither show has any chance of running out of material, and had Planet started already, Casimir says, the News Corporation saga would have been ideal fodder.

In the first episode of Transfer, airing on Wednesday, topics will include the carbon tax ads from both sides of the debate and the supermarket wars. It is not giving too much away to reveal that the only thing Sampson and Russel fully agree on is that the federal government should have spent more on its ads.

Casimir takes it as a good yardstick that he gets equal feedback from those who love and loathe advertising. "Some people in the industry think it's genuinely a bad thing, they think it demeans advertising. Equally we get told ... we don't kick the crap out of it enough."

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