Canal Road: articles

High drama: Channel Nine has high hopes for Canal Road

SINCE 2000, a staggering number of locally produced dramas have left nothing but blots on the TV landscape.

Apart from McLeod's Daughters and Love My Way, it's difficult to think of a drama launched over the past seven years that hasn't ended in total embarrassment.

It is estimated that networks have squandered millions on 16 much-hyped-but-failed dramas including The Alice, Last Man Standing, Headland, CrashBurn, Young Lions and White Collar Blue.

Over the past seven years, audiences have watched US procedural dramas, including the CSI franchise, in big numbers, but ratings suggest there has been little interest in locally-produced, character-driven dramas.

Love My Way won acclaim because it was arguably the finest example of creative synergy in the history of Australian TV. It painted a moving portrait of human strengths and frailties.

In contrast, most of the shows that have failed have suffered from bargain-basement production values and casts who couldn't breathe life into uninspiring scripts.

Development of new drama production slowed to a trickle as networks became increasingly scared of failure (not surprising given that the cost of each hour of a drama ranges from $450,000 to $800,000).

Reality and lifestyle shows won favour because they are produced at a fraction of drama cost and are seen by network programmers as carrying less ratings risk.

Channel 9 Melbourne program boss Len Downs, however, points out that ratings show audiences won't watch drama simply because it's made in Australia.

"Your own figures: 16 failures out of about 20 dramas, shows that," he says. "But you can also have too much Aussie TV drama on a network.

"I don't think viewer consumption for local dramas would stretch to more than four shows a week across all networks. That would be a terrific strike rate."

Yet with Nine's expensive drama slate -- the coming Sea Patrol, Canal Road and Underbelly, along with the existing McLeod's Daughters -- the network will have to go against Downs' philosophy if all are to succeed.

Freelance producer/writer Tony Cavanaugh (The Day of the Roses) believes viewers will watch any amount of Australian drama, providing the writers and producers get it right.

"Clearly, we haven't," he says.

"You only have to look at so many of the shows offered up in recent times to see the flaws, and the audiences see it, too."

Local drama, however, is set to make a bold resurgence.

Drama-production spending is expected to be up 50 per cent this financial year because of the large volume of new shows in production.

Since mid-last year, about $160 million of new drama has been filmed or is in production or pre-production.

Lisa McCune heads Channel 9's Sea Patrol, which, at up to $900,000 an episode, is said to be Australia's most expensive drama ever.

McCune, who plays navy lieutenant Kate McGregor in the series, attributes the new drama surge to the cyclical nature of TV.

"We're coming out of the reality (TV) cycle… that kind of TV is quick and cheap to make, but I think we're (audiences) now looking for something more," McCune says.

NINE has also started production on the Brooke Satchwell drama Canal Road and shooting on the gangland series Underbelly starts within weeks.

Eddie McGuire is leaving the CEO role at Nine after overseeing massive cost cutting, but says he has enormous pride in helping to re-invigorate the network's drama department.

McGuire had an intense personal interest in the network commissioning Underbelly, which will explore Melbourne's gangland wars.

"I pitched the idea to the network four years ago and it has been taken over by Screentime, who are fantastic producers… heaven forbid, I would be accused of having a conflict of interest otherwise," McGuire says with a laugh.

"When actual conflicts exist I do step aside. I have seen scripts and know the (Underbelly) stories intimately. It's looking great.

"Every actor in Australia wants to be on it. They are falling over themselves. In the next 12 months, you'll see (on Nine) the blossoming of a lot of hard work."

Channel 7 has high hopes for its Shane Bourne-led police drama City Homicide, which is shooting in Melbourne and set to screen later this year.

Channel 10 has started work on the Georgie Parker telemovie The Falls, and hopes it warrants a series spin-off.

The ABC has announced it will film a six-episode drama series, East of Everything, starring Richard Roxburgh and Susie Porter (RAN).

SBS has high hopes for its outback drama series The Circuit, with Gary Sweet, and a new police drama, starring William McInnes

By Darren Devlyn and Robert Fidgeon
May 30, 2007
Herald Sun