Something In The Air: articles

Life goes on after a bad Air day

THE two Rogers are late for our meeting. They’ve been busy, telling the cast and crew of the ABC soap opera, Something in the Air, that the show is about to be axed. But there’s no hint of that when they arrive at their office in North Melbourne.

“Hello, I’m Roger Le Mesurier,” says the plumper one with the beard. “Hi, I’m Roger Simpson,” says the shorter one with the slight Kiwi accent. At this point I’m expecting them to join in a chorus: “…AND TOGETHER WE’RE THE TWO ROGERS.” But of course that doesn’t happen. After 21 years of business partnership, producing some of Australia’s most successful TV dramas, the novelty of having the same first name has well and truly worn off.

In any case, as I was soon to discover, the pair had a lot on their mind. They were ready to let fly with several serious allegations about the ABC’s treatment of Something in the Air—treatment which they argue rendered the show dead in the water.

But more of that in a minute. First, a quick description of these two stalwarts of the Australian television industry. They met 30 years ago when they started work on the same day at the Melbourne production company, Crawfords. Simpson had just graduated with a law degree from Auckland University and wanted to be a TV script writer. Le Mesurier had been working at Seven in Sydney and took up a job as a script editor. Together they worked on some classic shows such as Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police.

Three decades later the Rogers are still churning out shows about law and order, although today’s fare has moved a long way from the classic shoot-em-up, car-chasing cop shows on the 70s. Their credits include Halifax fp, Stingers, Dogwoman and Good Guys Bad Guys—all for the Nine network.

They’ve also produced a couple of moderately successful movies—Squizzy Taylor and The Nostradamus Kid—and several other shows for Nine, the ABC and Seven.

The TV shows they produce are unashamedly mainstream and designed for widespread commercial release. When asked what they’ve done that’s truly original they offer only Good Guys Bad Guys, the series they created for actor Marcus Graham in 1996. Simpson says, “The crime fighting dry cleaner is a brave new genre in television.”

The Rogers formed their business partnership in 1981 and later joined with the giant production house, Beyond, to become Beyond Simpson Le Mesurier. They look after the creative side and deal with the Australian networks to get new projects up and running while the people at Beyond look after funding and overseas sales.

But it hasn’t all been easy. That’s the message they want to convey. Sitting in their boardroom, housed in the prison cells of the old North Melbourne police station, they sound more like the two Ronnies as they feed each other gags and finish each other’s sentences.

Simpson: “After our first production, Squizzy Taylor, we didn’t work for three years. Our next production, Sword of Honour [about the Vietnam war], was three years later. it’s easy to look at us now and say it’s a bit easy, but it wasn’t like that in the beginning.”

Le Mesurier: “We put in the hard yards.”

Simpson: “We had lots of lunches.”

But long lunches haven’t been enough to save their foray into soap opera. The ABC and Beyond Simpson Le Mesurier mutually agreed last Wednesday not to continue with a third series of Something in the Air. The drama, based on a radio station in the fictional town of Emu Springs, has been a victim of the turmoil engulfing the ABC since the appointment of Jonathan Shier as managing director in March last year.

The team’s normally jovial demeanour changes quickly when talking about the experience of dealing with the ABC.

“Our relationship with the ABC during [former director of television] Gail Jarvis’s reign was a disaster,” says Simpson. “The show was commissioned to do a certain task, which was to provide a soap opera four nights a week at 6.30. It was strategically designed to feed into the ABC news and [attract] a sector of the audience which had deserted the ABC news.”

The pair believe the show was performing that role. They say it was rating between 10 and 11 per cent in some cities (and 6 and 7 per cent elsewhere) and that the ABC’s former TV programmer, Hugh McGowan, had agreed it was “meeting expectations”. They blame its subsequent woes on Jarvis’s “moronic” decision to take the show off air for three months at the beginning of this year before bringing it back for one hour a week on Saturday nights.

“Well, she was director of television,” says Le Mesurier. “I don’t know who else you blame,” adds Simpson.

The decision to halve the show’s overall airtime each week created a back-log of episodes and, as Simpson points out, some “ ludicrous ramifications. For example, last night’s episode was about Anzac Day but it went to air on August 15. I mean how mad is that? How disruptive, how insulting to the audience, how insulting to the people who made the show.”

Le Mesurier adds: “It was as if they didn’t give a stuff about their own audience. We had communication where they said to us, if this show doesn’t go to air on Saturday night, in that form, we won’t put it to air—$11 million of taxpayers’ money would have sat on the shelf if they didn’t get their way.”

When Jarvis resigned in early June, her replacement Sandra Levy flew to Melbourne, met the two Rogers and offered to change the timeslot back to weekdays at 6pm.

But they say it wasn’t enough to save the show. “All Sandra could do was restore the show to the dignity of the format for which it was designed. I mean the damage had already been done,” says Simpson.

However, one ABC insider—who wishes to remain anonymous—disputes this version of events. The real reason the show folded, says the source, is because Something in the Air failed to win overseas sales. The source says the show “never had a hope in hell” of getting a third series because of its ratings performance.

The source also says Jarvis is annoyed that the Rogers have criticised her handling of the issue, as she believes the show was given a greater chance of success when it was re-scheduled to Saturday nights. The source also says Jarvis fought hard for the show when the ABC board was reluctant to fund the second series last year.

In turn, the Rogers argue that overseas sales were affected by the scheduling decisions of the ABC.

“The international market was bewildered why the Australian broadcaster would take it off the air for three months and then bring it back for one hour a week,” says Simpson.

The Rogers have emerged from the experience feeling “bruised and damaged. We’ve had lots of shows cancelled in 21 years, but this is the bitter pill, the one that should not have happened,” says Simpson.

The pair say the show was forced to masquerade as a prime-time drama because the ABC had become desperate for something to fill the void left by the end of SeaChange. The ABC source does not deny this was the case but says Jarvis was more interested in acting in the interests of the ABC rather than individual producers.

Recently, Beyond Simpson Le Mesurier declined an invitation from Levy to tender for the next round of drama programs at the ABC because, as Simpson says: “There’s a lot of anger on our side of the table about Something in the Air, and it’s not just us: the cast, the writers, the production crew, everyone involved feels pissed off about it.”

Despite this they say Levy’s appointment is “the best thing that has happened at the ABC since Shier took over” and that they might go back to the ABC when Levy has Shier’s job.

“Sandra Levy should be running the organisation and when she is we’ll be the first to make a submission,” says Simpson.

But in the meantime, as if to rub the ABC’s face in it, the pair are talking to the Ten network, where the ABC’s former head of drama, Sue Masters, now runs things. It was Masters who originally commissioned Something in the Air for the ABC. Now they’re negotiating over a new legal series called Life to be aired by Ten next year.

Your feedback:

I was disappointed that the ABC intends to drop Something in the Air. I look forward to this program every night it is shown. I agree that the Saturday night format just didn’t work, but the 6.00/6.30 slot is so much better. A shame that the ABC doesn’t listen to its viewers. Another quality program bites the dust. Remember Rock Arena, Countdown, Beatbox, the list goes on.

Karen Brown

While producers, execs and pro and anti-Shierites etc are engaged in off air battles, does anyone spare a thought for the very many viewers who absolutely love Something in the Air and even, consider it to be one of the best shows the ABC has presented for some time? The decision to axe that gem of a production could emanate only from a collection of true-blue airheads!

Henk Verhoeven

I cannot believe that the ABC is axing Something in the Air. Both my mother and I love the program and we both look forward to spending time together watching it, as both our lives are hectic in this workaday world. Why does the ABC want to drop it? Do they not want to broadcast quality TV? If they are going to replace it with repeats of Keeping up Appearances, I think I may scream!

Ross Keane

By Andrew Dodd
August 23, 2001
The Australian