Headland: articles

Summer run for Seven's new baby

AFTER a long and agonising development, the Seven Network's ambitious twice-weekly one-hour drama Headland will be catapulted into the schedule next month.

In an unusual move, Seven programmers have decided to launch Headland in mid-November and run it during the non-ratings holiday season to give it a better chance of capturing viewer attention.

With All Saints, Blue Heelers and Home and Away, Seven soon will be airing 6 1/2 hours a week of locally produced series. The ABC does not any local adult series on air. Nine has two hours, with McLeod's Daughters and The Alice (which has been cancelled but will finish its run of episodes at 10.30pm). Ten is running the 30-minute series The Surgeon as well as Neighbours, which is in its 20th year. Seven is so committed to Headland, it has commissioned a second series before a single episode has gone to air, Media understands.

Set in a coastal town among university students and their families, it has a large youthful cast led by Libby Tanner (All Saints, Fireflies), Conrad Coleby (All Saints) and Rachael Taylor, a blonde beauty who is tipped to be "the new Bec Cartwright". It has had no fewer than three titles: Away from Home, Campus and, finally, Headland. It began life as a spin-off from Home and Away which was to see the cast moving out of Summer Bay and going to university. But Britain's Channel5, which screens Home and Away, was not interested, so it was reworked as a stand-alone show, Campus. But the Campus pilot was trashed after failing audience testing and Seven's producers rewrote and re-shot the entire show.

Headland's creator Bevan Lee and producer Jo Porter say they have had to invent a new model for series television to fill a network brief for a twice-weekly one-hour drama. Lee is confident it will work with audiences and describes its slowly unfolding plot as compulsive viewing.

Lee has a record of creating successful long-running TV serials: his credits include Sons and Daughters, Home and Away, All Saints and Always Greener. But he is well aware of how quickly the axe has fallen on so many recent local dramas: Last Man Standing (Seven), The Alice (Nine), The Cooks (Ten).

Dramas are expensive and they are deemed failures if they do notattract large audiences from the outset.

"All serials take time to kick [in]," Lee says.

"Home and Away took 10 weeks and narrowly escaped being cancelled; A Country Practice, The Sullivans and Young Doctors all took a while to settle down; All Saints only kicked in its second year. These days, because there is a strange fascination with ratings, if the press are screaming three weeks in, 'Yet another tank for Seven Network', then the programmers feel the pressure to make a decision. But if it's going out over summer, then by the time ratings kick in it's finally found its momentum."

Lee says Headland has a "viewing imperative" that makes people want to go back to find out what happens. "A lot of recent shows that have tanked - like The Alice, Fireflies and MDA - have very little narrative, very little story," he says. "Very little that makes you want to come back next week."

The drama of Headland is generated by the opening scene of a multi-fatality car crash. Lee says it "propels the show for months and months".

"I was looking for dramatic momentum and while driving down the highway I saw a lamppost with floral tributes to mark a fatality and the idea came to me. That one image started me thinking, 'How could the story be played out to explore all the ripples from that one crash?"'

But it has taken a great deal of hard work to bring Lee's creative spark to fruition. The network wants a successful twice-weekly drama because if it works, it's double the success. (Of course, if it fails it's also double the problem.) But producing two hours of quality prime-time TV a week is a near impossible ask and has never been done before using a single camera and several locations. The logistics are complex and the challenge is to make a show that doesn't look cheap.

"It was the hardest job of my career because we have created a whole new model for television," Lee says. "I started my career in two-hour television but it was very different then: it was much easier because it was all shot with multi-cameras in the studio. The script quality of old two-hour shows, like A Country Practice, wouldn't cut the mustard now."

Shows such as Home and Away - 2 1/2 hours a week - are possible to make only because they are shot primarily in a studio using three cameras.

"Headland, Lee says, "is shot on a single camera and is the equivalent of shooting a feature film a week. That was the hell."

He says Porter has made a two-hours-a-week show look like any other one-hour-a-week show. "It is a production miracle and that's what took us so long; it's running like a well-oiled machine now."

Porter says the schedule is relentless. "On any day we have two crews shooting simultaneously," she says. "I have six to seven directors at various stages of production at all times."

Porter, who left All Saints to work on Headland, says she is thrilled to have been given a softer launch time for the show. "It takes time for an audience to fall in love with characters and fall in love with the world," she says. "Seven knows how to bed a good audience in. The fact that we did audience testing and respond vigorously to feedback is positive. It would have been arrogant not to."

By Amanda Meade
October 27, 2005