Blue Heelers: articles

Martin Sacks

Brought to heel by flash rivals

The departure of Martin Sacks, failed to excite viewer interest in Blue Heelers.

It must have been some time in 1996 that a parcel arrived at the local post office containing a gift from Channel Seven, one of the trinkets devised by the publicity departments at the various TV networks to promote new programs or celebrate milestones for others. This one was a superb quilted jacket with “Blue Heelers: 100 episodes” emblazoned on the front.

It was a considerable achievement. After the first 30 or so episodes aired in 1994, it looked like the police drama set in country Victoria would be axed because the Sydney audience, the biggest in the land, was not watching. But Seven persisted with it, and after less than three seasons, the show had reached 100 episodes.

The 100th episode jacket endured, too. I still wear it. On a cold Melbourne day, it is as warm as toast, just like the fleecy-lined jumper that arrived in another parcel seven years later. This one has “Blue Heelers: 400 episodes” embroidered on it. Yes, after an uncertain start, Blue Heelers has been around for that long. In fact, last night’s episode was the 487th.

In today’s money, at about $420,000 an episode, that’s about $204 million worth of local TV drama or, put another way, more than $200 million worth of work for many talented Australians. In the 1990s, it was the most-watched home-grown weekly drama in almost 50 years of Australian television. But as the end of this ratings year draws near and the networks begin to plan 2006, there are serious doubts that it will be back for another season.

The ratings are down by 50 per cent. From a weekly average audience of 2.44 million eight years ago, Blue Heelers was down to 1.2 million several weeks ago. In its home town, Melbourne, 784,000 watched it each week in 1997. Recently, the figure has been as low as 385,000. And it no longer is Australia’s favourite local drama. McLeod’s Daughters and All Saints usually beat it.

As well, an inordinately large proportion of its audience is “old” and the biggest spending advertisers are not prepared to commit huge amounts for time on a show that does not reach a large number of spendthrift, younger consumers.

It is hard to pinpoint the reasons for Blue Heelers’ ratings fall. One theory is that after so many years and almost 500 episodes, the audience has tired of having a sleepy backwater in country Victoria portrayed, week after week, as the crime capital of the southern hemisphere. Certainly, there appears to be a continuous crime wave in the town. It’s a wonder that martial law hasn’t been declared.

But more seriously, it seems that Blue Heelers simply has begun to suffer as a result of being compared with big-budget police shows from overseas, particularly the US. There, they spend $4 million or more on one hour of a show such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or Law & Order: Criminal Intent. These shows are flash and sophisticated. It is unfair to say that Blue Heelers looks amateurish by comparison. But it does look relatively cheap. As well, Blue Heelers went through a bad patch several years ago. The ratings suggest that its original fans have not returned, despite the fact that, generally, the show has been much better this year.

The recent episode in which Martin Sacks, an original cast member who played P.J., the Mt Thomas police station’s resident detective, left the series was one of the grittiest and most suspenseful I have seen since 2001.

But it was a sign of the times that even old Blue Heelers fans did not switch on to see Sacks’ departure. They had lost interest and despite all of the promotional work performed by Channel Seven to excite interest in that episode it failed. There was not the huge spike in the ratings that, a few years ago, we might have expected for an episode in which one of the longest serving cast members of a hit show said goodbye.

In the past 18 months, the show has had a makeover, with new and attractive cast members introduced, mainly to seduce young viewers. But it has not worked. Blue Heelers remains a country cop show in which good old Senior Sergeant Tom Croydon, played by John Wood, oversees the work of his young subordinates in everything from murder probes to so-called community policing targeting the local juvenile delinquents, as happened in last night’s rather lame episode.

Wood is a fine actor. He has carried the role of Tom Croydon with skill and aplomb for more than a decade, especially in the past two years, when his character has been made much tougher and stronger than the benign country copper of earlier years. A perpetual nominee for a Gold Logie, he has never won one, beaten usually by a young cover girl. But he has deserved it, year after year.

In the end, though, it probably comes down to this: Channel Seven does not need Blue Heelers to meet its statutory quota of locally produced drama. And for an eighth of the price of an episode of Blue Heelers, Seven probably can find an imported cop show that matches it in the ratings and delivers more of the young viewers advertisers seek. I hope all of the industry speculation is wrong. I really do. But I sense that there will not be another jacket or jumper coming my way celebrating the 500th episode of Blue Heelers.

By Ross Warneke
September 08, 2005
The Age