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Homegrown TV: all variety and no vision

When the sun set permanently on the fictional town of Pearl Bay, devotees of SeaChange not only lamented whether they would see Laura and Max again, let alone hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet.

Was the quirky seaside comedy-drama a one-off moment in great Australian television, or would the tide wash up another program to mesmerise them in the same way.

Fast-forward from December, 2000, to September, 2002. Four new dramas launched recently have not exactly set the ratings on fire: two police dramas—Young Lions on Channel Nine, White Collar Blue on Ten—the medico-legal drama MDA on the ABC and the light-hearted legal drama Marshall Law on Seven.

Things have never looked so good in terms of viewer choice and a booming employment industry, especially when you factor in last year's new shows, Seven's Always Greener, Nine's McLeod's Daughters and Ten's The Secret Life of Us, and the established dramas, Seven's Blue Heelers and All Saints, and Nine's Stingers.

But in a game where the ratings dollar speaks volumes, not everyone can be a winner, especially on Tuesdays at 9.30pm when three local dramas compete: MDA, Marshall Law and Stingers.

The top new show is Marshall Law (averaging 1.1 million national weekly viewers since its launch), followed by White Collar Blue (996,375), MDA (903,380) and Young Lions (677,535). The last program since SeaChange to capture the national imagination and regularly appear in the top 10 also espoused big city escapism, Always Greener.

In the cut-throat world of commercial television, the first casualty is Young Lions, (677,535 viewers) which will be switched from 8.30 to 9.30pm on Wednesdays from September 18 after being mauled by Blue Heelers (1.7 million viewers)—a show from the same production company, Southern Star.

The US sketch comedy show The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, will fill the Lions timeslot.

Is it a case that the new shows are flops, or are viewers bombarded with too much choice? TV trend-spotter and researcher David Castran, of Audience Development Australia, says program quality has nothing to do with it because his research reveals the average viewer has time for about two must-watch Australian dramas.

"It's very hard to sell something new when people are very happy with what they've got," he says.

Mr Castran says that when viewers are inundated with drama—especially in the same genre—they get overwhelmed. "I even find myself getting confused when I start talking about the different dramas."

Viewers are faced with four Australian police dramas and their slick US counterparts, such as Law and Order. Never has calibre meant so much. Programs also compete on production values: Australian drama costs $300,000 to $500,000 an hour to make, compared with the US budget of $3million to $5million.

Given that viewers have only two must-watch programs, are TV networks wasting their time? Commercial networks must produce an average of three hours of Australian drama a week under quotas set by the Australian Broadcasting Authority, and high-rating drama enables networks to promote the rest of their schedule. The ABC is not locked into a quota.

The new programs have not impressed TV expert Sue Turnbull, senior lecturer in media studies at La Trobe University, who believes quality prevails in a saturated market.

"I don't think it's necessarily hard to steal the audience from Blue Heelers," she says. "I think it's quite hard to win audiences if the product isn't crash hot."

Dr Turnbull says many of the new programs are following British and American models that the audience has tired of. "Marshall Law is clearly going for an audience that watched Ally McBeal but the audience is kind of over it."

She believes White Collar Blue lacks credibility and Young Lions is aiming for a young audience that does not watch crime shows. Her favourite is MDA because it is a solid social-issues drama, but adds she is a friend of star Kerry Armstrong.

Dr Turnbull says the new shows are not duds but believes the audience deserves better. "I keep thinking that there is something wrong in the industry in that they haven't got a real sense of the sophisticated TV audience in Australia. They underestimate us all the time."

While the top 10 reveals Australians love programs from their own back yard, Dr Turnbull says there is a demographic crying out for more than lifestyle and DIY programs.

"There is another audience out there who would love a cult Australian show of the quality of something like Buffy. We are getting nothing adventurous, nothing new. We're getting Australian revisions of dramas that have run elsewhere."

Marshall Law script writer Cassandra Carter believes the show is the pick of the new bunch because of its personalities—especially four-time Gold Logie winner Lisa McCune—and its witty scripts (of course).

"Lisa has a personal following, so does William McInnes after SeaChange. That's a pretty crash-hot combination."

On Tuesdays at 9.30pm Stingers is winning the ratings race, followed by Marshall Law and MDA. History shows new dramas need time to build an audience—especially when they compete with established programs.

Blue Heelers, All Saints and Water Rats took time to build in their first year, but now Heelers reigns supreme and All Saints sunk the Rats out of existence.

ABC head of programming Marena Manzoufas says she is happy with MDA but would have preferred that it had made its debut at the start of the year to allow it time to build.

"It's tough for MDA because there is so much competition in terms of Australian drama, and it's a little extra tough for us because our budgets are so small," she says.

The executive director of the Screen Producers Association of Australia, Geoff Brown, says local dramas should not be pitted against each other. "The networks should be a bit more bolder the way they schedule Australian drama by pitting them against the US dramas."

Channel Seven programmer Graeme Hill says the boom in drama is good for the industry but adds that programs are designed for specific timeslots to capture an audience for advertisers.

And what about the timeslot clashes? "Viewers will have to make a choice. Commercial television is all about ratings.

By Suzanne Carbone
September 07, 2002
The Age