Packed To The Rafters: articles

We love a drama

RUNAWAY hit Packed to the Rafters is leading the return of homemade television, writes Garry Williams.

THE ratings year draws to a close this week, with Channel 7 running out a clear winner. But the biggest talking point is the breakout success of Melbourne drama Packed to the Rafters.

Our exclusive lists, which feature the Top 20 regular programs nationally (five city metro) and in Melbourne so far this year, both have Rafters in the No.1 spot.

And Rafters star Michael Caton admits he cannot help gloating.

Caton, who plays grandpa Ted in the hit comedy-drama, says that until recently, television producers had a narrow idea of what the Australian public wanted.

"It's always difficult to put your finger on why a show is successful," he says. "If it wasn't like that, I suppose we'd be knee-deep in hit shows.

"But I remember a producer saying to me, 'Australian people want police shows and hospital shows'. And to a certain extent that's true - just look at the success of Blue Heelers and All Saints.

"Then something different, like SeaChange, comes along and the public eat it up. It's the same thing with Rafters."

Rafters executive producer John Holmes admits he was surprised how quickly the public took to the show.

"You always expect a decent audience after a launch, but the numbers tend to fall away a little after that before settling and rebuilding - they call that the J-curve - but we didn't have that. The figures actually went up for the second episode and stayed there."

Our Top 20 lists illustrate how Australian-made series have been the cornerstone to Seven's success.

All 12 of the network's programs in the national Top 20 are locally made.

"We don't like to boast, but it's fair to say we are very pleased with the result," Seven's Melbourne program and communications manager Brad Lyons says.

"The fact our top-rating shows are all Australian-made makes me so proud."

So far this year, Seven has won 27 national ratings survey weeks, Channel 9 has won 10 and one has been tied between the networks.

But the surveys and our Top 20 lists do not tell the full story.

On one hand, Seven could argue that when sports programs, such as the Olympics and the AFL Grand Final are factored in, the network's dominance is greater.

But it should not be forgotten Nine had a good first half of the year.

On the back of the phenomenal success of Gordon Ramsay's cooking shows, Kitchen Nightmares and Hell's Kitchen, Nine led the early surveys 10 to nine. But after the Olympics it was one-way traffic.

Lyons says timing was a key to the success of Packed to the Rafters, which was launched mid-year.

"Rafters came off the back of the Olympics, where we promoted it heavily," Lyons says. "The audiences sampled it and loved it. The rest is history."

Caton agreed it is a show for the times.

"Australia is in a new era," he says.

"When I was a young fella you couldn't wait to leave home. Let's face it - it was the only way you were going to have a sex life.

"Today, it's very different. The morals have changed. The economic situation has changed. Rents and houses are so expensive. The kids are perfectly happy to stay put.

"(Rafters creator) Bevan Lee and his team have tapped into that brilliantly. The result? A show that has caught the popular consciousness."

Holmes points out a lot of dark drama was made this year, which gave Rafters a point of difference.

"You've got Underbelly and City Homicide and shows like that, which are great, but we're not the same," he says.

"We deal with serious issues, but we don't take ourselves too seriously."

Police drama City Homicide, in its second year, continued to rate impressively, coming in at No.5 nationally and No.3 in hometown Melbourne.

But other "dark dramas" bombed, with Nine's The Strip and Canal Road being axed.

The big anomaly in the two lists is the performance of Nine's real-life crime drama Underbelly. It came in at No.4 nationally, but because of court rulings, only a few heavily edited episodes were screened in Melbourne and did not register in the Top 20.

Apart from Rafters, the other surprise packet was the No.2 show, the Jack Thompson-hosted Find My Family, which reunited adopted children with their birth parents.

Animal-based factual reality series The Zoo (No.3 nationally, No.4 in Melbourne) and RSPCA Animal Rescue (No.9 nationally, No.14 in Melbourne) were also quiet achievers.

Fly-on-the-wall series Border Security and The Force repeated the success they achieved last year.

But there was a big turn-off factor for trashy reality shows, notably Channel 10's Big Brother, which has been axed.

Ten's only show in the Top 20 is So You Think You Can Dance.

The appearance of Seven's news in the Top 20 lists is also significant.

"You can't forget the impact of our news and Today Tonight," Lyons says. "They have given us a great platform every night."

Lyons says the key to Seven breaking the stranglehold that Nine's news and current affairs held for many years was "a relentless drive to make it about Melbourne, promoting local stories".

But Len Downs, Nine's head of programming in Melbourne, says Seven's seeming dominance was misleading.

"To say Seven have won easily shows a lack of understanding of the game," he says.

"Yes, they won overall, but they have a significant skew to an older demographic. From the start of the year we've said our focus will be on the 25 to 54-year-olds, which is the demographic most important in terms of revenue."

Downs admits Rafters is a significant gain for Seven.

"But we've done very well with shows such as 20 To 1 and Farmer Takes A Wife, which give us big numbers in our target demographic," he says.

Downs says Two And A Half Men has been an important show for Nine.

"It has been so strong that it has held off Temptation coming back until summer," he says.

Lyons says reinvention is a key to continued success.

"You can't stand still and stick with one genre. You're always looking for the next trend."

Though he would not be drawn on Nine's situation, his comment could easily apply to the network's handling of Ramsay.

Ramsay features strongly in Melbourne Top 10 (No.5, No.6 and No.8), but his latest series bombed. The general consensus was that Nine had overexposed the celebrity chef.

Lyons prefers to focus on why his network's dramas succeeded.

"We've taken our time with all our drama," he says. "For example, we reshot the pilot for City Homicide. We didn't want to rush things.

"We're always looking for ways to reinvent things and keep them alive. All Saints is one drama we've tried to keep fresh and, although I don't want to give away too much, there will be some exciting new things happening next year.

"But, while it's an exciting time for Australian drama, you shouldn't discount overseas series. A show like Desperate Housewives should not be written off. You can't stand still; you have to keep moving."

Caton agrees.

"We have a lot to do and can't rest on our laurels," he says. "With a new show you're finding your way with the characters. In 2009 I believe we can do even better. Bring it on."

Garry Williams
November 23, 2008
Sunday Herald Sun