TwentyfourSeven: acticles

Hot off the press

The latest idea in TV, TwentyfourSeven, lets you write the story, reports JENNY DILLON

Officially, the assault began last week when the staff of SBS's new popular culture magazine drama TwentyfourSeven descended on New Idea's 100th birthday celebrations.

The assault, however, won't prove to have been a victory until people pop into their news agencies and start asking for copies of TwentyfourSeven.

But such is the blur now between reality television and reality, says producer Hal McElroy with just a hint of mischief, that this is not beyond the realms of possibility.

With TwentyfourSeven, a 13-part improvised drama set in the offices of a glossy magazine (called TwentyfourSeven), McElroy is picking up the key wins of his quirky little on-the-run drama Going Home, on SBS last year.

Going Home was a nightly half hour show involving nine city workers chatting about the day's events during their daily train journey home.

The key was that the scripts were written that morning, the scenes shot that day, and it was screened that evening, making it often more topical even than newspapers.

The production schedule for TwentyfourSeven is similar, except that some of the pressures are reduced in that it will screen only once a week instead of daily.

The pressures rise however, with each episode ending with choices the audience can make on how the show develops the following week. While interactive television is making huge inroads into our viewing habits, this is believed to be one of the first times viewers, through SMS text messaging or the show's website, can regularly directly influence a storyline.

"Funnily enough," says McElroy, "many of the Going Home audience thought the actors were real people in a real train, while others relished the opportunity to dictate parts of the drama through the show's website.

"What we learnt from Going Home is that audiences love the topicality and they loved the ability to contribute.

"With TwentyfourSeven, for the first time ever as far as we've established, we can allow the audience to vote at the end of each episode on what happens in next week's episode by offering them three choices.

"On the two or three occasions we did it on Going Home, the web site went into meltdown.

One instance was when somebody borrowed money, about $20, and repaid it with a scratchie. Then that person won about $200, even though he was owed only $20. So who gets the money? Should the guy owed $20 keep it, or share it.

"The audience loved that, it democratises drama."

The cast of TwentyfourSeven includes the editor Robert James Fraser (David Callan), the features editor Jo Pappas (Jenny Apostolou), the production editor Nick Kaldor (John Atkinson), the fashion/style editor Georgia Leighton-Smith (Caroline Brazier), the art director Tony White (Joshua Lawson) the editor's assistant Ellie Moore (Hayley McElhinney) and the receptionist Skye Hadley (Rockell Williamson).

All characters come to the drama with baggage, all of which will be fodder for the viewer vote on the ongoing drama.

"The viewer's choice will not be something like should they lick the envelope," says writer Hadass Segal. "This is the online or SMS version of hecklers. There will be editorial issues, personal relationships, or both -- whatever's the juiciest," says Hadass.

McElroy confesses to being a media junkie, Segal has worked in newspapers and magazines in South Africa and they have employed an editorial consultant familiar with the vagaries and idiosyncracies of the press.

"We're creating very real situations and very real ethical/moral dilemmas," says McElroy.

The audience involvement naturally brings comparisons to Big Brother, something neither McElroy nor Segal are averse to.

"Big Brother is a great concept, great entertainment," says McElroy. "But that vote was to evict an annoyance, here we want to vote for a positive outcome."

Segal compares it with the letters to the editor section , but with far greater consequences.

TwentyfourSeven, Wednesday, SBS, 7.30pm

By Jenny Dillon
Augusy 22, 2002
The Daily Telegraph

The future's in your hands

Interactive drama is here. Viewers will be able to manipulate events on the TV show TwentyfourSeven, starting today. Michael Idato reports.

Veteran TV producer Hal McElroy learned a valuable lesson from his commuter drama Going Home—how to write, shoot, edit and broadcast a TV show in a matter of hours.

"That allowed us to be topical," he says, "and by being topical we could also allow an audience to contribute, so we set up the loop between the storytellers and the audience. The audience loved that because they got to contribute, and we loved it because we got the opportunity to open a dialogue and speak directly to the audience."

Going Home, which screened on SBS, received a warm critical reception. It was clever, without being smug, and innovative, without being unwieldy.

McElroy's new baby, TwentyfourSeven, is, if you like, a stepchild of that concept. A weekly series set in the office of an entertainment magazine, it revolves around the lives of the young editorial team. In production terms, it has a longer turnaround than Going Home—going out weekly instead of daily—but there's is a heightened level of interactivity. Viewers will be able to manipulate events via the show's Web site ( and through SMS messaging.

McElroy says the idea grew out of the fact that he and his wife and business partner, Di McElroy, are media junkies. "We love the media and we know a weekly colour magazine has a real fast turnaround and it's topical. There was a perfect environment in which to set a topical drama series."

McElroy's experience with the interactive format opened his eyes—and ears—to the audience. "In our experience, you produced a program, it went to air later in the year that you made it and the network gave you very little audience feedback. In a sense, you were punching in the dark. And if you made it, and there was something wrong with it, there isn't a damn thing you can do about it."

TwentyfourSeven lets viewers vote on different narrative options. The show will be written on Mondays, shot on Tuesdays and broadcast on Wednesdays.

"It's almost live theatre in that you can hear the applause and you can hear the hisses. And what you hear is the truth, not filtered through a critic or an opinion-maker. It isn't anarchy, because we don't have to agree with everything that is said, but it is exhilarating and empowering."

TwentyfourSeven begins today at 7.30pm on SBS

Michael Idato
August 28, 2002
Sydney Morning Herald

Viewers vote in DIY drama

REMEMBER the Choose Your Own Adventure children's books where the reader got to pick how the story ended? And the videos where viewers could pick their preferred end to a movie?

Interactivity moves to the next level tonight with the premiere of the new SBS drama series TwentyfourSeven, where viewers have the chance to vote on the next week's story-line.

Produced by Hal and Di McElroy, who created the SBS train-set drama Going Home, TwentyfourSeven—not to be confused with Seven's thriller series 24—is set in the offices of the hip and happening celebrity magazine TwentyfourSeven.

In a groundbreaking move, episodes of the series will be written on Monday, filmed on Tuesday and screened on Wednesday, ensuring the content remains topical. Viewers will be able to vote via the internet or SMS on a choice of three story-lines each week.

Three graduates of the WA Academy of Performing Arts feature in the series—Hayley McElhinney (editor's assistant Ellie Moore), Caroline Brazier (fashion editor Georgia Leighton Smith) and John Atkinson (production editor and chief sub Nick Kaldor).

Atkinson has appeared in TV shows ranging from Chances (more on that later) to Corelli but is probably best remembered for his role as youth worker Steve Giordano in the soapie Breakers.

In a bizarre case of life imitating art, Sydney-based Atkinson now works at a drop-in centre between acting roles.

"I met this woman in a pub—she was a youth worker in Glebe," he said during a break in rehearsals last week.

"She took an interest in the show and told me how she would do this or wouldn't do that in real life. When she asked me to come and give it a go for real, I thought she was kidding. But pretending to be one (a youth worker) for two years must have given me insight."

Atkinson prefers not to describe himself as a youth worker but says he can relate to the young people he deals with because "I was a little shit when I was young".

When he's not acting, Atkinson says he imparts life skills, cooks meals and plays sport with kids who visit a drop-in centre in Pyrmont.

Although Atkinson did his character retrospect in reverse for Breakers, he did it in advance for TwentyfourSeven, having already spent time with a subeditor at a popular weekly entertainment and gossip magazine.

Atkinson describes his character Nick Kaldor as a "play hard, work hard guy". He said the show would try to get over the nuts and bolts of magazine making early so they could move on to other issues.

Although viewers can suggest how they would like to see stories and characters develop, they can't vote people off like in Big Brother, so Atkinson's not worried about his longevity.

"But I don't think there's much job security for actors full stop. I think every gig is going to be my last," he joked.

"We have been told we can't be voted off but you can vote for us to do things."

Atkinson is looking forward to the challenging schedule ahead of him and trying to keep the series "as real an experience as possible".

"If people are angry on the show, there's a chance they are really angry, we'll go as far as we can go to maintain the reality."

Atkinson knocked back a role in a US movie to take on the unique challenge of TwentyfourSeven.

"I'm very pleased to be doing a show on SBS—the stuff they have been putting out, like John Safran and Life Support, it's fantastic."

He still hopes someone will realise he and former SeaChange star Kate Atkinson are siblings and will cast them as such.

Atkinson's other recent work includes a US-made, New Zealand filmed telemovie with James Caan and an international TV ad for Land Rover Discovery. He's the chap who strips off and grabs a spear to go fishing.

Luckily Atkinson again avoids baring his butt, something he also managed to do during his stint on the infamous Chances, where most actors had to sign contracts saying they would appear nude.

"I never got my gear off, my butt was never exposed," Atkinson laughed, adding he joined near the end when they were doing "weird stuff with vampires, fun kitsch stuff".

And with the early evening timeslot, it's unlikely Atkinson will get his gear off in TwentyfourSeven either, even if viewers suggest it.

By Sue Yeap
August 28, 2002
The West Australian

Risky business

Written, shot and aired in only three days, TwentyfourSeven keeps everyone on their toes. Guy Allenby reports.

If you've ever been (un)lucky enough to spend time on a film or television set you know how tedious it can be. Visit the set of the new SBS comedy/drama TwentyfourSeven, however, and everyone's hyped up like chickens about to have their heads lopped (on most sets the crew looks like they've just watched Dances with Wolves. Twice).

Off-camera, editor's assistant Ellie (Hayley McElhinney) and news and features editor Joanna (Jenny Apostolou) mumble lines to themselves, eyes closed. Nearby, chief sub-editor Nick (John Atkinson) and fashion and style editor Georgia (Caroline Brazier) shoot a scene. Director Alan Coleman watches proceedings on a small telly just outside. Lines are fluffed.

"Cut," shouts Coleman cheerily and jogs onto the set. "Thanks for that deliberate mistake, that's very kind of you." Coleman's efficient, firm but avuncular presence is obviously crucial to keep things motoring along.

TwentyfourSeven is written on a Monday, shot on a Tuesday and screened on a Wednesday. Look into the eyes of those involved in putting it together and it's not ennui you'll see but a mix of excitement and fear. Which is just how the producers, Hal and Di McElroy, like it. That way they're surrounded by people in states of excitement and heightened awareness similar to their own.

That hyperactivity goes a long way to explaining the McElroys' imposing body of work over recent decades. Past film and television production credits include Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Sum of Us, Water Rats, Blue Heelers and Going Home. It's TwentyfourSeven, however, that is getting the adrenaline flowing like never before.

"It is wildly exciting," Hal McElroy says.

Following the daily workings and intrigues of a weekly entertainment magazine, TwentyfourSeven is shot at Film Australia's offices on Sydney's North Shore. A corner of a building that normally functions as a theatre lobby has been turned into an ersatz magazine office for the duration of the series. Footage is shot on two cameras and the digital images are then fed to a "vision switcher", who does a rough cut of the show, following a shooting script.

Three versions of the footage (from camera one, camera two and the rough cut) are then saved onto a hard drive (with a memory equivalent to "one billion floppy disks", McElroy says). From here the images flow to another bank of computers piloted by the show's editor, Judy Norgate. She is working on material within minutes of it being shot.

As with the McElroys' previous offering, Going Home, the short lag between creation and screening means the material can be extraordinarily up-to-date. It's groundbreaking but, McElroy admits, very risky.

McElroy acknowledges there were teething problems in the early weeks and praises SBS for its support. "They said, 'Don't worry, this is an experimental show.' No one knows how to do this, so we are figuring out how to make it. They wanted something a bit different, they wanted something a bit risky. There was no sense in repeating what everyone else is doing."

Sometimes the gamble pays off; other times the results fall disappointingly short.

"When you are going into uncharted territories you are not going to get it perfect from the word go," he admits. "We understand that. Our thrill comes from producing, not ratings. Ratings are an imperfect record of what happened yesterday and not tomorrow. We just like the process, and to be able to work one-to-one with actors, writers and directors like this is so exciting."

Head writer George Merryman is just as upbeat about the whole process. "It is exhilarating and very rewarding. I actually started out doing stand-up comedy and this is the closest I've come to the thrill of having an idea on the day and seeing it actualised practically on the same night."

Merryman heads a team of three that collaborates on a script partly "written" by viewers, who are given a chance to vote for plot developments on the show's website ( Merryman and his team work to a previously nutted out narrative skeleton, "but we don't actually put meat on the bones until Monday when we know exactly what direction the show is taking", he explains.

Viewers are given a choice of three possible scenarios. For instance, the options for this week's episode are: a) Georgia remains a "virgin"; b) Tony's gambling gets out of control; or c) Ellie tells Tony how she feels about him.

It's interactive television in its infancy. Groundbreaking television indeed.

"SBS have given us this opportunity," McElroy says. "We're grateful for it and we're going for it. We're learning heaps, we're having fun and I think we're doing some interesting work, and that's really the point."

TwentyfourSeven airs on SBS on Wednesdays at 7.30pm.

By Guy Allenby
October 23 2002
Sydney Morning Herald