Australia could really do with a domestic drama hit. While 2014 saw success for public broadcaster ABC with Playmaker Media’s six-part thriller The Code, 2015 has witnessed a disastrous outing for Endemol Australia’s Gallipoli and a lacklustre response to Hiding, another scripted series from the Playmaker/ABC alliance.
Gallipoli is a seven-part drama that ran on Nine Network in February and March. Produced to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the famous Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War, it saw its ratings slide from 1.1 million for episode one to a meagre 0.35 million for episode seven.
An obvious assumption would be that the show wasn’t very good, but that view is rejected by the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), which called it a “benchmark Australian television drama that captures the horror of a nation-defining moment with evocative writing, artful direction, strong performances and accomplished production values. This actually is must-see TV, but the public doesn’t appear to be responding.”
The SMH, among others, suggested that a poor slot in the schedule (Mondays at 21.00) did Gallipoli no favours. But it went on to argue that there is perhaps a deeper problem. “Australians have been eager adopters of prestigious American cable drama series, with laudatory debates about whether The Sopranos is better than Breaking Bad and aficionados proudly boasting about being an early adopter of The Wire. But while those shows are among the medium’s very best, there’s also a part of us that bows down to imported acclaim and refuses to believe that we can make truly great television drama in this country. Presented with a worthy Australian programme, some television consumers prefer to wait online in case a new Game of Thrones trailer drops.”
Hiding, which also aired earlier this spring, followed a Gold Coast family forced to enter witness protection in Sydney. After Playmaker’s success with The Code, there were high expectations for the show, which – like Gallipoli – met good reviews from sections of the media. The Australian Newspaper said: “Creator Matt Ford’s show is imaginative, clever and mordantly funny, and the ABC deserves a round of applause for giving him the stage.”
Unfortunately, the audience didn’t bite. In February and March, Hiding was attracting around 330,000 viewers in Australian’s top five cities (a standard ratings measure from ratings panel OzTam) – having debuted with around 730,000 for its opening episode. While this was similar in scale to Fortitude (also airing on ABC), it was around half the audience pulled in by UK crime series Broadchurch (634,000 on ABC). Even further ahead were Grantchester and Downton Abbey (both ABC), underlining the fact that UK and US imports both tend to outperform domestic drama.
There’s another angle to this debate worth noting: ABC, the main investor in original Australian drama, has an ageing audience, with a median viewer age of 63. What it would like to do is use its drama budget to bring this age down (hence Hiding). But the existing audience is perfectly content with the likes of Downton Abbey.
This age issue created a conundrum for ABC regarding Mrs Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a beautifully crafted period drama that attracted audiences of around one million in its first two series. Despite the high ratings, the show attracts an older audience – so ABC decided not to commission a third series last year. However, viewer outcry forced a change of heart, and a third run begins this week.
For ABC it will be a mixed blessing if the show draws barnstorming ratings because it will run counter to the bigger ambition of bringing the network age down (though All3Media International will be happy because it sells the show to international markets).
It’s not obvious where the next Aussie hit will come from, but at least there is one quality drama to look forward to. Coming soon to ABC is The Secret River, a two-part series based on the novel by Kate Grenville. It follows the story of young couple, William and Sal Thornhill, who are transported to the new colony of New South Wales in 1805. The show will explore the colonisation of Australia and the escalating conflict between the Indigenous inhabitants and the newly arrived white convicts and settlers.
The Secret River is likely to make uncomfortable viewing for many Aussies, so don’t expect huge ratings. Ironically, however, it will probably do well if it travels as far as the UK, where Jimmy McGovern’s Aussie convict period drama Banished recently finished a successful run on BBC2. The show’s debut episode attracted 3.4 million, giving BBC2 an unlikely ratings victory over BBC1 and ITV. It then went on to average a respectable 2.9 million over seven weeks. The Guardian’s assessment of Banished was that it was “historically fascinating… romantic, sentimental. Funny too.”
Also in the UK, the big drama ratings story of the week was the launch of Paul Abbott’s provocative police procedural No Offence on Channel 4. With an opening episode rating of 2.5 million, the show was well ahead of the slot average (1.5 million) and marginally ahead of the debut audience for Shameless (2.3 million), Abbot’s biggest hit to date. Given the success of Shameless (which spawned 11 series in the UK and gave birth to a successful US remake on Showtime), C4 will be hoping No Offence has the same staying power.
No Offence’s strong opening is also good news for FremantleMedia International (FMI), which is selling it internationally. So far it has done deals with DR in Denmark and – wait for it – ABC in Australia. Perhaps this is the show (albeit British) that will help give the broadcaster the younger profile it is seeking. After No Offence’s opening, FMI will be confident of further sales, with CEO Jens Richter saying: “No Offence is crime on steroids – it’s gripping, daring and a great reflection of Paul Abbott’s remarkable talents.”
As we’ve noted in other columns, this time of year is also important for US networks in terms of renewals, cancellations and the decision to take shows from pilot to series. We’ll look at this subject again on Monday in our Greenlight column.
For now, though, congratulations to Nashville, which has just secured a fourth season on ABC. With consolidated ratings in the 6.5-7 million range, the show is not a standout performer, but it does have two things on its side: firstly, it’s extremely popular with women aged 18 to 49; secondly, it’s reached the tipping point in terms of appealing to the lucrative US syndication market.
The general rule is that scripted shows that get to four seasons have enough episodes (85-100) to be attractive to syndication. So it is virtually unheard of for shows to be cancelled after three seasons. However, the issue might not be so clear-cut next year – ABC’s Revenge has just been cancelled after four seasons. So May 2016 is more likely to be the moment of truth for Nashville.