Blue Heelers: articles

Australian television drama in strife with loss of its most successful product


ALONG with Homicide, the landmark Channel Seven police series that ran for 509 episodes from 1964 until 1976, Blue Heelers will go down as the most successful local drama in the 50 years of Australian television.

This year, when the final episode goes to air, it will beat Homicide’s record by just one episode.

But it was lucky to survive after its first year. Initially, the show did not work in Sydney, Australia’s biggest television market, and Seven was reluctant to proceed with a second season. At 7.30pm, it was said to be too soft. Some cajoling by its producers, however, saw it moved to 8.30pm, which allowed more adult storylines.

It never looked back. For more than a decade, Blue Heelers, made in Melbourne, successfully mixed rural folksiness with honest, street-wise police work.

There were none of the high-tech, big-budget investigations that are the hallmark of successful imported police series of recent years. Blue Heelers always has been about country cops who resolve the crime of the week through local contacts and intuition.

At its peak in 1997, it was averaging 2.5 million viewers nationally and 800,000 in Melbourne. These days, network programmers can only dream of such figures. Last year, the top-rating series — the imported Desperate Housewives — averaged 2.1 million viewers nationally. The most-watched Australian drama, McLeod’s Daughters, on Channel Nine averaged only 1.3 million. Blue Heelers was down to 1.2 million nationally and only 410,000 in Melbourne.

Put simply, pay TV has eroded the audience for free-to-air TV by between 10 to 15 per cent. As well, Australian drama is on the nose with viewers. It looks cheap compared with the big budget imports. And it is. An episode of Blue Heelers, for example, cost about $450,000 to make, a 10th of what a hit US police show costs.

With its demise, Australian TV is left with little local drama. Seven is continuing with the nightly soapie, Home And Away, and the weekly, Sydney-made hospital drama All Saints. (It’s newest drama, Headland, faces an uncertain future with low ratings over summer.) Ten has its veteran nightly soapie, Neighbours. Nine will continue with McLeod’s Daughters. Pay TV has the acclaimed drama, Love My Way, returning next month. But Nine, Ten and the ABC have no new weekly dramas in the pipeline for 2006.

The end of Blue Heelers signals the end of the glory days of local television drama.

By Ross Warnecke
January 14, 2006
The Age