Underbelly: articles

Underbelly must wait, but might air in May

CHANNEL Nine has lost a court bid to begin screening its Underbelly series in Victoria before the end of an coming gangland murder trial, but could be free to air the 13-part drama as early as May unless further action is taken to stop it.

The Court of Appeal yesterday dismissed Nine's application to overturn Supreme Court Justice Betty King's blanket ban on the series being screened in Victoria before the end of the month-long trial, due to start next week.

In an appeal this month rumoured to have cost Nine $200,000, the network conceded that most of its series could interfere with the trial, but nonetheless pressed ahead with a court bid to immediately screen the first three episodes.

Media buyer Harold Mitchell said Nine was desperate to air Underbelly before ratings ended in November, and was losing about $400,000 in advertising revenue each week it did not screen the series in Victoria.

He said the replacement program, CSI: Miami, would attract half of that income.

"It's such a powerful show around the country, it's pushed Nine to near number one. If they had it here in Melbourne it would add enough viewers to make them number one more often," Mr Mitchell said.

"That helps all of their other programming, they're able to promote other shows and the momentum they get out of being number one can add millions overall, so that's why this would be a blow to them."

A Channel Nine spokeswoman said Underbelly drew a national audience of 1.23 million viewers before the Easter non-ratings period.

Court of Appeal Justices Marilyn Warren, Frank Vincent and Murray Kellam said the series, promoted by Nine as based on real events, had the potential to seriously prejudice the alleged gangland murderer's trial.

They said episode 12, which depicts the murder, would have constituted "a most serious contempt of court" had it aired around the same time as the trial.

"The trial would have commenced with the prosecution case effectively being supported every Wednesday evening by the weekly docu-drama," the judges said in their judgement.

"The fact that the deceased, his family and the alleged employers of (witness) X are depicted so graphically in the series would render it difficult for any juror to separate fact from fiction."

It is unclear whether further action will be taken to prevent the series airing in Victoria.

Victoria's Director of Public Prosecutions Jeremy Rapke, QC, yesterday declined to comment on whether he had concerns about Underbelly's potential to prejudice other forthcoming gangland cases.

Stephen Shirrefs, SC, who represents the accused murderer, said the issue would persist as many other gangland trials are scheduled for this year.

Alleged gangland murderer Tony Mokbel has argued against his extradition from Greece on the ground that he could not receive a fair trial in Australia, partly due to the series.

A Nine spokeswoman said the network intended to broadcast Underbelly in Victoria "as soon as the court permits".

By Kate Hagan
March 27, 2008
The Age