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Sexy new 'tent poles' fail to hold up

The word is flop. There is no other way to say it. And we might have to say it four times.

In the past month, the TV networks introduced big-budget Australian dramas, designed to be the "tent poles" that held up their programming for the second half of the year.

Now there's enough audience data to make the judgement: so far every new local drama is failing.

As John Stephens, Nine's director of programming, admitted yesterday: "It's just a personal opinion, but I suspect that there is too much drama on Australian television at the moment. We may have to lighten up".

Young Lions, Nine's sexy cop thriller, which launched a month ago with a first night audience of 1 million, could manage only 760,000 in the mainland capitals last Wednesday.

White Collar Blue, Ten's sexy cop thriller, started with 1.03 million last week but dropped to 950,000 on Monday. What's worse for Ten is that its target 16-39 age group prefer Seven's American spy thriller 24 in that timeslot.

Marshall Law, Seven's sexy legal drama-comedy, started with 1.3 million viewers last week, but dropped to 871,000 on Tuesday.

MDA, the ABC's challenging medico-legal thriller, began with a million, but by Tuesday had dropped to 660,000.

This does not mean Australians are rejecting Australian drama. The traditional favourites Blue Heelers and All Saints are soaring (1.9 million and 1.5 million this week); only the newcomers are floundering.

Asked yesterday if he would move Young Lions from its 8.30pm Wednesday slot, Nine's John Stephens said: "We were dissecting the ratings for Young Lions and we certainly realised it is not performing up to expectations. If we moved it to a later time, we'd put something lighter in the slot."

Seven's program director, Chris O'Mara, agreed he was disappointed with this week's performance of Marshall Law, but said it was too early to judge. "We'll be monitoring it closely in the next few weeks," he said. "It may be that this week's episode was a bit too edgy, and if we need to pull back on that, we will. But we are committed to the show."

He thought television's problem was a lack of variety and surprise in the drama line-up. And Marshall Law was a perfect example of how to "lighten up".

Ten's corporate communications manager, Margaret Fearn, objected to the suggestion that the new Australian dramas were performing badly: "In some ways it's a pity they all launched so close to each other. You can't write any drama off on the basis of three or four weeks. As with Blue Heelers and All Saints, you need to give a new drama time to settle in."

The ABC's network programmer, Sue Lester, said the ABC would start a series of "character-based promos" next week designed to rebuild the audience for MDA. "We are confident with the cast and the subject matter, and we want to give it a second breath of life," she said. "The competition is tough, but the goal is to be back to a million viewers by the end of the season."

By David Dale
August 23, 2002
Sydney Morning Herald