Underbelly: articles

Pirate Underbelly screening exposed

A SOUTH Melbourne hotel last night defied a Supreme Court order by screening controversial channel Nine underworld series Underbelly.

About 10 people watched the first episode of the 13-part series in the front lounge of the Rising Sun Hotel in South Melbourne. The program was beamed into the hotel through a satellite feed from Western Australia.

The hotel advertised the program on a chalk board, saying that it would start at 8pm. It was hoping to show it through Channel Nine affiliate Imparja, which is based in Alice Springs.

About 25 people turned up to watch, but they were frustrated when Imparja instead showed Holy Smoke, the outback movie starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel.

The crowd had dwindled by the time the hotel picked up the WA feed, complete with advertisments for farming equipment, at 10.30pm.

The program was available even earlier for those who wanted to defy the ban by using the internet. About 15 minutes after the broadcast finished in the eastern states, the first pirated version was available for download from the Netherlands-based website mininova.org.

By contrast, Melburnians tuned in to Nine did not see a frame of the heavily-promoted program.

Instead, they saw a brief explanation from Eddie McGuire on why Underbelly , which the former chief executive had strongly backed, was not going to air as initially advertised. This was followed by a re-run of the movie The Shawshank Redemption.

The hotel risks being charged with contempt of court after Justice Betty King on Tuesday suppressed the screening of the program in Victoria.

Nine, which last year lost its ratings crown to Seven, was hoping that the series would springboard its bid to regain ascendancy.

But Justice King, after watching the program on Monday night, ruled that the program could influence jurors in a forthcoming gangland murder trial.

"The criminal justice system is more important that your client's profit margin," she told Nine lawyer Brendan Murphy, QC.

Nine late yesterday lodged an appeal against the ban. Three judges from the Court of Appeal — the state's highest court — will be asked to overturn the suppression order.

It emerged yesterday that Nine knew the risks of producing Underbelly and barrelled ahead.

Executives knew sex, guns and death on TV — with the real-life criminals' trials appearing on the nightly news — would bring to Nine the excitement and positive buzz the network had lacked after two limp years. It was a chance to get on the front page.

Sources inside the Nine Network said that "arrogance" and "swagger" at the top level of the organisation led to concerns about potential legal issues being dismissed.

"I think they've just gone in (to the legal issues) with … bravado and been shot down," a Nine employee said yesterday.

The 13-part dramatisation of the Melbourne gangland war had a hot cast and astonishing hype. A leaked video circulated on email contains clips of violence, nudity, profanity and a tag line of "Bang, Bang".

But the show was too close to the truth, according to Justice King.

"It is, unfortunately for Channel Nine, compelling television. That's one of the problems," she said on Tuesday. Nine spokeswoman Arabella Gibson denied potential legal issues had been ignored leading up to the $10.4 million series.

By Ari Sharp and Daniel Ziffer
with Steve Butcher And Nick Miller
February 14, 2008
The Age