Underbelly: articles

Crime series pays for lawyers, pirates

It is one of the most expensive Australian miniseries ever produced. Now it looks as though the people who will benefit most from it are lawyers and the criminal world that it portrays.

The banning of the broadcast of Underbelly in Victoria has Channel Nine steaming. After spending more than $10 million on the production, it was supposed to relaunch the network as "the one to watch". Now the network has become the butt of numerous jokes.

If Underbelly had screened in Melbourne last week, Channel Nine might have achieved a weekly viewing audience of 2 million and had the biggest local programming hit since Kath & Kim, rather than mounting legal costs.

Law Institute of Victoria president Tony Burke, a commercial lawyer, said Nine would have paid about $150,000 for the Supreme Court hearing and $250,000 for the Court of Appeal, depending on the counsel it engaged and the time spent preparing for hearings. Senior counsel can cost up to $10,000 a day.

Then there is the lost advertising, which Steve Allen of Fusion Strategy puts at about $2 million.

But it's not just the legal costs that would make Channel Nine, or any other station for that matter, think twice before committing such large sums to a local production again.

As The Age reported during the week, pirated DVD copies of the series are being sold openly in Melbourne, at Laver-ton, Werribee, in the northern suburbs and in city areas, including building sites.

The DVD industry is worth about $1.5 billion, with about a third of that coming from sales of TV series, says payment-software group GFG Australia. It says top-selling dramas can sell up to 20,000 DVDs in the first month of release.

Sonya already has her copy of episodes one to 9. She bought it from "a friend" and says that while she enjoyed the series, she wouldn't bother watching it again on television.

"Why would I? The only difference would be that it's full of ads," she says.

The risk of a $65,000 copyright infringement fine, or five years' jail, has not deterred pirates.

By Peter Weekes
March 16, 2008
The Age