Young Lions: articles

It's D-Day for Nine, despite a year of real-life dramas

So Channel 9, traditionally the tough guy of the TV industry, was the first to blink. All four big networks have been worrying about new local dramas which are, to perpetuate an industry euphemism, "performing below expectations" (real person's English: flopping). The only question was which network would end its embarrassment first.

This week Nine announced that the sexy cop show Young Lions would move from 8.30pm on Wednesday to the less competitive 9.30pm Wednesday timeslot. Its crime was failing to steal any audience from Seven's daggy old cop show Blue Heelers. Since Marshall Law on Tuesday nights is doing even worse than Young Lions, you'd expect similar action soon from Seven—if not a time change, then at least an effort to improve the scripts.

Nine's programming director, John Stephens, theorised last month: "I suspect that there is too much drama on Australian television at the moment. We may have to lighten up." So he decided to replace the young lions with an equally young comedian who impersonates outrageous characters and causes innocent Americans to make fools of themselves on hidden cameras. The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, a blend of Surprise Surprise, Rove, Ali G and Norman Gunston, has the catchline "You've been Xed!". It's the sort of show you'd normally see on Ten, and showing it in prime time signals that Nine hopes to grab a few viewers who are under 40, while leaving the Heelers for the geriatrics.

But is the conventional wisdom—that viewers only want sketch comedy and lifestyle reassurance—correct? A list of the most-watched programs for last Monday night could offer a different interpretation of the national taste. Between 8.30 and 9.30, 5 million people in the mainland capitals were watching grim, intense drama, and 1.5 million of them stayed awake till nearly 11 to experience some of the most harrowing violence ever shown in Australia.

We did start the night with a laugh. At 7.30, Australia's favourite sitcom, Friends, drew 1.9 million viewers for the countdown to the birth of Rachel's baby (the season finale is in two weeks). At 8, Nine's repeat of Malcolm in the Middle drew 1.6 million, while the rest of us floated to a tropical isle on Seven's The Great Outdoors (1.4m) or flirted maritally on Ten's Everybody Loves Raymond (1.1 m).

At 8.30, a million new viewers collapsed onto the sofa and settled in for seriousness. Seven's suspenseful spy show, 24 (kidnapping, murder, treacherous workmates) drew 1.6 million in the mainland capitals. The ABC's Four Corners (torture, terror, Iraq's opposition) drew 700,000. Ten's White Collar Blue (murder, corruption, sexual tension) drew 1 million (superficially a good result, except Ten is in the business of selling to under-40 viewers and most WCB fans are older).

And then there was Nine's new series Band of Brothers, a graphic reflection on US involvement in World War II. Its first hour featured David Schwimmer (Ross from Friends) as an incompetent captain brutalising his trainees. It attracted 1.5 million viewers, not doing as well as Nine's Monday night regular, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, but better than Nine's wildest dreams. A demographic breakdown of the ratings shows that in addition to the older males who were expected to become devotees, Band of Brothers attracted men aged 18-24 and women aged 25-54. These viewers stuck with it during the second hour, which showed the mass slaughter involved in the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944.

After September 11, some programmers predicted Western audiences would shy away from drama and realism in their entertainment choices, and would seek light relief for a long time.

The fact that Band of Brothers on Monday did better than The Best of Bert Newton on Wednesday (average 1.4 million viewers between 8.30 and 10.30) may contradict this theory. It seems Australians are perfectly happy to watch extreme violence—as long as it's in a good cause.

By David Dale
September 07, 2002