Underbelly: articles

Vince Colosimo

Vince Colosimo stars as Alphonse Gangitano in Underbelly.

Network banking on a high body count

Channel Nine is hoping its retelling of Melbourne's underworld war is a ratings hit, writes Scott Ellis.

IT'S A violent story of drugs, betrayal and murder that left more than 30 people dead, but Underbelly might just be the series that can breathe life back into Channel Nine.

The 13-part series is a dramatic retelling of the gangland war that gripped Melbourne from 1995 to 2004.

Based on Melbourne crime writers John Silvester and Andrew Rule's book Leadbelly, it has a stellar cast, including Vince Colosimo, Alex Dimitriades, Frankie J Holden, Simon Westaway, Martin Sacks and veteran Gerard Kennedy.

While the blood flows fast from the first episode, Channel Nine executives are quietly hoping ratings will follow and the series will help resurrect the once-mighty network's failing fortunes.

"We've had some challenges in the past couple of years for a number of reasons and they've been well documented," head of programming Michael Healey said. "We're enormously proud of Underbelly. It is a sensational piece of television and an extraordinary story ... it is a shape-shifter.

"There are no guarantees in anything so until I see the numbers I won't relax [but] I think what this will do as well is bring in non-traditional commercial viewers to Nine."

If that happens, it will be a welcome relief for the network. Last week it was revealed that, for the first time, Nine had placed third in advertising revenue share, behind rivals Seven and Ten.

It followed Nine's poor performance in the 2007 ratings year when, again for the first time, it failed to win the year, finishing second to Seven.

This year, when all three commercial networks will suffer the effects of the American writers' strike, which has halted production on most of the big US dramas and comedies, Underbelly, produced in Australia by Screentime productions, could be key to helping the network back to the top.

"Every now and again a show comes along that takes on a life of its own in terms of the momentum and the publicity and the appetite for the story, and certainly Underbelly has hit fever pitch," Healey said.

"This is just an incredible Australian story."

That the drama will win huge ratings for Nine seems almost a forgone conclusion.

Few series in recent years have generated as much pre-release interest, and Nine plans to continue the hype with a series of bold promotions throughout Australia.

In Sydney, thousands of empty bullet casings with "Underbellytv.com" stamped on them will be distributed in nightclubs and pubs.

In Martin Place, the network plans to stage a mock shooting, with an actor playing the part of a gangland victim.

At selected sites throughout the city, chalk outlines similar to those used to mark the location of dead bodies will be drawn. It is all designed to draw attention to what was already one of the most riveting news stories in Australian history.

"A lot of the story people already know," said actor Vince Colosimo, who stars as murdered underworld figure Alphonse "The Black Prince" Gangitano.

"But why things happened and why people did what they did is still something we wanted to know so we're trying to tell that."

By Scott Ellis
February 3, 2008
The Sun-Herald