When Size Doesn't Matter


Back in 1956, three fledgling television networks, Channels Seven, Nine and the ABC began competing for the attention of a meagre potential audience of less than 10 million, many of whom would be without TV for many years to come such was the slow unravelling of the technology over Australia’s vast regional hinterlands.

Meanwhile, over in the more geographically compact and already over-crowded British Isles, the BBC was well in command of its captive audience of 50 million, having broadcast the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 to a nation of TV watchers who bought their first set especially for the occasion, the year before ITV, the commercial network, was even granted a licence.

While the dawning of Britain’s TV age was heralded by royal pomp and ceremony, Australia’s depended on sport. Arguably, not much has changed since people huddled around their smaller-than-a-laptop black and white screens to watch the Melbourne Olympic Games. Except now the screens are huge, oblong and flat, mounted on a wall and equipped with surround sound for the full stadium effect.

In 2008, the highest rating television show of the year was the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, followed by the AFL Grand Final, the Australian Open and the Melbourne Cup, all of which were screened on Channel Seven. Australians still love their sport.

This was clearly Channel Seven’s year. Whether it was the massive TV sporting events, or the 10 most popular programs of which it produced eight, Channel Seven clearly had its finger on the Australian TV watching pulse.

Not that Channel Nine didn’t try, but Nine’s only two shows in the top ten were Underbelly and that old firehorse, 60 Minutes. Granted Underbelly might have knocked Seven’s well crafted family dramedy Packed to the Rafters off the number one slot if Justice Betty King hadn’t pulled the Victorian plug, but it didn’t. Two out of 10 must have been hard to bear.

Nevertheless, even without the Victorian rating figures, Underbelly did well for Nine in both the metropolitan and regional markets. Whether this was because it was an outstanding crime series, or because it was "real" with a frisson of controversy, is hard to tell. With its pop music soundtrack, stylised direction, and combination of bare-breasted sex and brutal violence, Underbelly was a hit.

However, Channel Nine struggled in 2008, not least with its image. Shows came and went with astonishing rapidity, yanked off air almost as soon as the ratings revealed they had missed their mark. Remember Viva Laughlin produced by Australian darling Hugh Jackman for CBS? Sadly, nobody liked it much, even CBS who cancelled it quick smart.

Channel Seven also unceremoniously dumped the American NBC version of Kath and Kim after only two episodes after the ratings dropped dramatically for episode two.

In an increasingly crowded TV market, with pay TV expanding its reach, and new digital channels on the horizon, there would appear to be very little margin for error in any television project at the moment. Which explains why Channel Ten finally pulled the plug on the global Big Brother franchise after eight years during which the novelty of a multi-platform TV event had worn thin. Even the well-padded provocateur Kyle Sandilands failed to inject any energy into a show which simply looked desperate.

While Big Brother may have failed to rate for Ten, two other reality hybrids, The Biggest Loser and So You Think you Can Dance were the network’s highest rating shows, suggesting that there may be life in the old reality show genre yet.

Five of Seven’s top rating shows fitted neatly into the reality TV bracket, including Find my Family, Zoo, RSPCA, The Force, and Border Security. And then there was the homespun variety-fest, Australia’s Got Talent.

What’s most interesting about the top rating free to air shows of 2008 is that all of them were Australian. This would suggest that the majority of Australians (if such a majority can be said to be indicated by ratings figures), prefer the Australian TV product over the imported – which has actually always been the case.

The excitement which greeted Homicide in 1964, Australia’s first home grown crime series produced by the Crawford company is typical of the excitement generated by every new Australian drama series produced since — and 2008 was no exception. Audiences want to like the Australian product, even if critics can be a tad condescending, and the first night of any new Australia show usually rates highly.

Looking back over 2008, we eagerly awaited East of Everything and Bed of Roses from the ABC; Canal Road and The Strip from Nine, and Rush from Channel Ten. The fact that only Bed of Roses, Rush and Packed to the Rafters will survive into 2009 should not be cause for alarm. The renewal of three out of six new drama shows constitutes a 50 per cent success rate. Not bad for a small national industry where there as always been too much television to go around.

More and more television will be on offer in 2009, most of it reruns and repeats. Whether the local industry will continue to survive to produce new product depends on whether or not investing in home grown television continues to pay the dividends.

While Australian television may have come full circle, the future is less than certain.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.