Sunday, 30 December 2007

The Year That Was... #10: Farewells

For our final tribute to the year 2007, some of those that sadly departed us this year:

Andrea Stretton, journalist and TV presenter
Charmaine Dragun, newsreader
Chris Mainwaring, sports presenter
Gordon Sloan, Big Brother contestant
Justine Saunders, actress
Kevin Crease, newsreader
Lucky Grills, actor/performer
Matt Price, journalist and commentator
Norman Kaye, actor
Robert Fidgeon, TV critic
Stan Zemanek, TV/radio presenter
Tony Johnston, TV writer

Friday, 28 December 2007

The Year That Was... #9: Game shows sing, spell and con through '07

Game shows are a staple in any TV network's diet, but this year saw an absolute gluttony on the genre as new titles were unleashed onto the viewing public.

The game show battle started in January when Seven launched The Rich List hosted by Andrew O'Keefe (pictured), already of Deal Or No Deal fame. The US version of the program was not a huge hit, but the Australian version had more pleasing results over its limited episode run and is gearing up for another series in 2008.

Indirectly competing with The Rich List, on the same night but different timeslot, was the Nine Network's new offering 1 vs 100 which could perhaps be described as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire for dummies. Boasting the largest game show stage in the southern hemisphere and hosted by Nine CEO Eddie McGuire (pictured), there was obviously a lot riding on the program. But upon sampling the opening episodes, 1 vs 100 copped feedback that it was 'dumbed down' with simple questions given the weight and tension worthy of the old Mastermind. Also, McGuire's padding out of questions with conversations with contestants and throwing to ad breaks were classic Millionaire tactics that grated on viewers.

Figures for 1 vs 100 dropped well below the desired 1 million mark, with Nine eventually "resting" (TV-speak for "axing") the show in September - only to replace it with a revamped Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. David Gyngell, whose return to the position of Nine CEO brought a boost to the network's flagging morale, announced the return of Millionaire among the first of his 'new' program initiatives for the network. The difference with the 'new' Millionaire is that it would be live to air, for 90 minutes from 7.00pm every Monday, and the million dollar maximum prize-money upped to $5 million.

The relaunch of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire did not get the maximum ratings Nine may have hoped for, instead it was soundly beaten by both Seven and Ten networks. The program played out its six episodes for the series, but Nine may carefully consider if the program in its new format should live on in 2008.

Another game show launched by Nine was The Singing Bee on Sunday nights. Based on a US format, and employing the same US host Joey Fatone, The Singing Bee was studio karaoke with a big cash prize. The program didn't start completely horrendously in the ratings but it had a fight up against Seven's National Bingo Night.

Another format bought from the US (Australian networks seem to have a lack of being able to devise original game show formats?), National Bingo Night got off to an over-hyped start, and a strong rating result but the novelty wore off quickly. The show's popularity was not helped by a smear campaign by Nine's A Current Affair which made plenty about "uncovering" the game show as a supposed scam - although perhaps A Current Affair might like to divert their attention to a program on their own network, the late-night phone-in quiz The Mint, whose cryptic puzzles with seemingly illogical (or ill-explained) answers and charging viewers the right to compete seems to be a government investigation just waiting to happen.

Network Ten also entered into the game show arena with two new offerings this year - The Con Test and Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?The Con Test, based on an English program, encouraged contestants to bluff their way to trick their opponents to give themselves up. Hosted by Australian Idol co-host Andrew G and Melbourne radio identity Brigitte Duclos (pictured), it only held up modest results. Ten had a little more luck with Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? adapted from the US and hosted by network golden boy Rove McManus. The program gave solid ratings to help Ten maintain a strong Wednesday night line-up following the series final of Thank God You're Here.

But it wasn't just Ten that was quizzing kids in prime-time, even SBS got into the act with Hot Spell! A mix of the traditional spelling bee, with some game-show twists, the series hosted by Michael Tuahine (pictured) was the culmination of auditions held in schools around Australia and was screened over ten consecutive nights.

With all this game show activity in prime-time, it is easy to forget the traditional half-hour game shows are still fighting it out - with one casualty. Temptation continued in its merry way despite suggestions it was to be "rested" mid-year to make way for a five-night Millionaire format, but a last minute change by CEO David Gyngell saved Temptation's fate and kept it running Tuesday to Friday nights to work around his relaunched Millionaire on Mondays.

Seven's Deal Or No Deal continued through the year, though it managed to fight off a challenge from Nine's Bert's Family Feud (pictured) which was axed during the year. However, Deal Or No Deal can't rest on its laurels as Nine's replacement program, the cheap UK Antiques Roadshow, is giving Deal a run for its money at a fraction of the cost of Bert's Family Feud.

The Year That Was... #8: Reality check

The lights may have faded a bit on reality TV's ratings this year but the genre still has some life left in it.

Network Ten's big name franchises The Biggest Loser, Big Brother and Australian Idol all came back for more this year.

The Biggest Loser largely followed the formula of last year but this year added the twist of introducing two "intruders" half-way through the series - with one of the intruders, Chris Garling, going on to win the series. The series final also scored an audience of over 2 million, not an easy feat in this era of declining free-to-air audiences.

Big Brother (pictured) returned for its seventh series but in the wake of intense criticism last year over the "turkey slap" incident, this year's series was shown to be a lot more restrained. Gone was the adults-only Big Brother Uncut program, and despite producer's claims that the incoming housemates were all more "worldly" than their predecessors, the group of housemates appeared to be a fairly pedestrian slice of white Australia. Despite the apparent lack of diversity among the housemates there were some exceptions - such as Turkish belly dancer Demet, fiery Brazilian Daniela and Melbourne corset maker Zach Douglas.

There were some new twists in this year's Big Brother; the concept of the "white room", where potential housemates were kept in a sensory-deprived environment, was met with criticism, while other twists such as housemate couple Andrew and Hayley whose relationship was initially kept secret, and was also tested when producers introduced Billy, a former boyfriend of Hayley's, into the house.

The producer's also copped criticism and headlines when housemate Kate Gladman was forced to confront the trauma of a miscarriage when the housemates were given the task of looking after baby dolls. More headlines followed when the father of housemate Emma Cornell had passed away while she was in the house but producer's decided against advising her of his death, in accordance with the wishes of Cornell's family and of the dying wishes of her father.

Producers also copped a serve from none other than the Mexican Government when one of its Friday Night Live games had contestants hurling goo-filled balloons at an upside-down Mexican flag.

Then after one of the longest Big Brother finales on record, due to a close vote between Cobram hairdresser Aleisha Cowcher and self-confessed 'drama queen' Zach Douglas, 21-year-old Cowcher won the series with a prize-money of $450,000.

But Big Brother's biggest twists came after the finale, with announcements that host Gretel Killeen (pictured) is to be replaced next year by Sydney radio hosts Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O, the adults-only "uncut" series will be back, and that Big Brother Up-Late with Mike Goldman won't return in '08.

Ten's Australian Idol returned for a fifth series, though the spotlight - or at least t
he headlines - seemed to be on the judges rather than the contestants. With ratings down in comparison to earlier series, it was probably no coincidence that a lot of the reported 'tensions' between judges appeared in the Sunday newspapers, giving the show ample media exposure leading up to the regular Sunday night show.

The series final of Australian Idol, which saw Melbourne's Natalie Gauci win the title, appeared to be dogged by technical hitches which wouldn't have helped its ratings - scoring only 1.4 million viewers compared to last year's finale watched by 2.1 million.

Over at Seven, they continued to mix the reality genre with variety with two more series of Dancing With The Stars (hosts Daryl Somers and Sonia Kruger pictured), another series of the singing contest It Takes Two, and the new Australia's Got Talent.

Coupled with US import Ugly Betty, Australia's Got Talent spearheaded Seven's Sunday night schedule early in the year. While the program is actually an adaptation of an overseas format, viewers could have confused it as a one-hour version of the Red Faces segment from Hey Hey It's Saturday - also as one of the show's judges was Red Faces icon Red Symons. The series was to be won by 12-year-old singer Bonnie Anderson.

Dancing With The Stars scored controversy from within its own network when Today Tonight ran a report questioning that funds raised by the show's SMS voting were being properly funneled to their respective charitable causes. Despite the stories, Dancing scored very well in the ratings, though did not match the numbers of previous series. Celebrity winners were Kate Ceberano in series six, and actor Bridie Carter in series seven later in the year.

Following the end of series seven of Dancing, host Somers decided it was time to move on. There were media reports that Somers had left after being refused some pressing demands on Seven and the show's producer Granada International. Other reports suggested that there was still some unease at Somers working for Seven chief David Leckie, the same executive that axed Somers' long-running Hey Hey It's Saturday at Nine in 1999. A replacement host has yet to be found for Dancing, though rumours suggest that former Home And Away
actor Tim Campbell (also a former Dancing contestant, and host of National Bingo Night), Deal Or No Deal host Andrew O'Keefe or even Somers' former sidekick Sonia Kruger could take the coveted role.

In between Dancing With The Stars' two series this year was another series of It Takes Two which ran very successfully last year on Sunday nights, and continued to score well for Seven this year. The singing competition, hosted by former Sunrise weatherman Grant Denyer and Gold Logie winner Kate Ritchie, was won by All Saints actor Jolene Anderson (pictured).

The Year That Was... #7: Nine and WIN fight it out

This year's big TV battle wasn't just the high profile ratings stoush between Seven and Nine, it was also a boardroom battle between Nine and its largest regional affiliate WIN Television.

For almost twenty years WIN had enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Nine as its affiliate in regional markets in New South Wales (including the Australian Capital Territory), Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia with a schedule dominated by Nine Network product.

This year saw that somewhat cosy relationship almost fall to pieces as the affiliation agreement which gave WIN access to Nine's program supply was up for renewal. WIN owner Bruce Gordon (pictured) had been mates with Nine's owner Kerry Packer - but now
with Packer passed away, and Nine no longer controlled by the Packer family, with a new management structure in place and a majority now owned by private equity firm CVC Asia-Pacific, it was now a different playing field.

Nine made it clear to Gordon that they now wanted to increase the premium that WIN already paid for the rights to Nine's programs in its regional markets. The previous agreement between Nine and WIN had the regional network paying around 32% of all revenue to Nine in return for its program feed - a higher rate than WIN's competitors were paying other networks Seven and Ten, but Gordon agreed as Nine was the top rating network and so therefore allowed WIN to also charge a premium to advertisers as its ratings would have followed Nine's trend.

The new deal reportedly put forward by Nine was for WIN to pay 50% of all revenue for access to Nine's programs, and also to lock WIN into a long-term deal up to ten years. Gordon felt such an increase was not justified in the wake of Nine's lowered ratings performance which saw the network beaten this year by arch rival Seven, and also did not want to agree to such a costly deal for a lengthy ten-year term.

The negotiations between Nine and WIN appeared to make little progress - Nine wasn't prepared to budge from its original offer, and Gordon wasn't prepared to meet Nine on its terms. The process became very public as Gordon was happy to talk to the press about what he felt was an unjustified rate increase by Nine. Gordon also publicly questioned some of Nine's programming decisions which, under the affiliation deal, WIN is normally obliged to emulate.

As the existing agreement lapsed, the situation turned nasty as WIN started pulling Nine programs off its schedule and replacing with programs it had sourced itself. Gordon is well established in international TV circles, having worked for many years as an execute with Paramount Television, and made the claim that WIN did not need Nine's program supply to be sustainable, and could instead source its own programs independently - creating an unprecedented move to establishing a competitive independent regional network not to be fed programs from one of the capital city networks.

Separate to the affiliation negotiations, WIN was also in battle against Nine's owner PBL Media as both were vying for control of the Nine Network's affiliate stations in Perth and Adelaide - which were owned by Sunraysia Television and Southern Cross Broadcasting respectively. Sunraysia had accepted an offer by PBL Media to buy its STW9 Perth, which was less than a similar bid that WIN had already made - highlighting a long-running feud between Gordon and Sunraysia chief Eva Presser. WIN then took legal action against PBL's offer, and eventually won control of STW9 for $163 million. The battle for control of NWS9 Adelaide was less frantic, as WIN bought the station for $105 million.

WIN also fought Nine for control over Northern NSW regional broadcaster NBN - representing a market of around 2 million viewers, making it comparable in size to a number of capital cities. The battle for NBN was not won by WIN, as PBL Media gained control for around $250 million.

With WIN now owning Nine's affiliates in Perth and Adelaide, this gave them a stronger negotiation position in forcing Nine to review its affiliation demands - although NWS9's program supply from Nine was assured as it had already entered into a renewed deal by its previous owners - because if WIN pulled out of the Nine program feed to its regional markets as well as Perth, that would severely impact Nine's direct revenue as WIN's affiliation potentially contributes as much as 30 per cent of Nine's revenue. And the addition of the Perth and Adelaide markets to its portfolio meant WIN now had extra buying power in negotiating its own program supply deals away from Nine.

But Gordon's ambition to program WIN independently from Nine was not a flawless proposition. Despite Gordon's industry connections, it would be a challenge to be able to program WIN with a 24-hour schedule that would be competitive against the network-sourced offerings of its rivals. WIN would also have to source, fund or produce a required quota of Australian program content - with individual quotas also applied to first-run children's and drama programming. Being of largely regional operations, WIN would have lacked the necessary infrastructure, at least in the short term, to support such levels of local production

An independently-programmed WIN would also hit walls in negotiating supply deals with the major US distributors as most of them are locked into exclusive deals with the Australian Seven, Nine and Ten networks - possibly preventing WIN entering into its own contracts.

Basically, WIN needs Nine as much as Nine needs WIN.

Gordon's next play in the negotiations was to go through - to a small but significant extent - with his threat to withdraw from the Nine partnership. WIN had managed to switch its South Australian outlets (SES8 Mt Gambier and RTS5A Riverland) from a Nine Network format, to a Seven Network affiliation - effectively taking Nine's programming out of the reach of viewers in those markets as the only other local commercial TV outlet there is a Network Ten relay, also operated by WIN. The total number of viewers this represents is small in comparison to WIN's other markets but its entering into a deal with Seven showed that Gordon was willing to explore other options to Nine in sourcing programs

The deal between WIN and Seven proved to be the final straw in negotiations, as barely days later, WIN and Nine announced they had reached an agreement for its other regional markets, and for STW9 Perth, which would reportedly see WIN paying 35 per cent of all revenue for Nine's program feed over a five-year period.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Twas the night before Christmas

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Australia's biggest Christmas carols event, Carols By Candlelight.

The idea for Carols By Candlelight was conceived by Melbourne radio identity Norman Banks, who in 1937 was strolling along a suburban street after a late-night on-air shift when he witnessed an elderly woman, her face lit only by candlelight, singing along to carols on the radio. This inspired Banks to approach his employer, radio station 3KZ, to put together the first Carols By Candlelight event on Christmas Eve the following year.

The first Carols By Candlelight was attended by 10,000 people at Melbourne's Alexandra Gardens. The following year, 40,000 attended the event which began at 11.00pm and ended with a reproduction of the chimes of London's Big Ben at midnight.

The first well-known identity to perform at Carols was Gladys Moncrieff in 1942 - hence beginning a Carols tradition of featuring famous performers.

From its earliest days, Carols By Candlelight operated as a fund-raiser for charitable causes. From 1949 the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind (now Vision Australia) was selected as one of the main recipients of proceeds from the event. In 1965, RVIB became the sole beneficiary from the event.

The first telecast of Carols By Candlelight was presented by Melbourne's ATV0 in 1969 - also the first year that RVIB took over the running of Carols from 3KZ. Three years later, the telecast was extended to other stations in the 0-10 Network, and in 1974 was televised for the first time in colour.

The Nine Network took over as the telecast partner of the event in 1979. GTV9 newsreader Brian Naylor took on the role of host for ten years before it was handed to national network identity Ray Martin.

Despite its early connections to radio station 3KZ, the radio broadcast partner for Carols By Candlelight has changed a number of times. In more recent times the event has been broadcast by Melbourne radio stations 3AW and Magic 1278, and relayed across Australia through its network of sister stations and also by Vision Australia's own national radio network.

This year's Carols By Candlelight will mark the 50th year the event has been held at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. Performers this year will include former Australian Idol winner Anthony Callea (who is also the ambassador of this year's event), The Choir Of Hard Knocks (from the ABC series of earlier this year), the Australian cast of the stage production Guys And Dolls, Kate Ceberano, Rachael Beck, Ian Stenlake and Carols regulars Hi-5, Denis Walter, Marina Prior and Silvie Paladino.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Vision Australia's Carols By Candlelight. Christmas Eve, 24 December, 9.00pm, repeated at 1.30pm Christmas Day, on Nine*

Source: Vision Australia
Picture: TV Week, 26 December 1981
* Melbourne. Other areas check local guides

Saturday, 22 December 2007

The Year That Was... #6: Drama makes a comeback

The year 2006 brought on all sorts of doom and gloom about TV drama production; ABC didn't have money to make any, Seven had axed Blue Heelers after 12 years of loyal service, Ten had some luck with telemovies but Tripping Over didn't fare so well, and their only ongoing production was the veteran soap Neighbours, and Nine had only McLeod's Daughters as the main project on its drama slate.

However, the corner was turned this year as a number of new projects came to fruition and one old-timer got a new coat of paint.

The big newcomers this year were City Homicide (pictured, above) and Sea Patrol - with these shows headlining the crucial battle between arch rivals Seven and Nine, both shows were given huge budgets, lots of live action, and both also promised familiar faces - Shane Bourne, Noni Hazelhurst, Nadine Garner, Aaron Pedersen and Damien Richardson on City Homicide, and Lisa McCune, Ian Stenlake, Josh Lawson, Kristian Schmid and Jay Ryan on Sea Patrol.

Both programs earned strong ratings figures, though City Homicide was perhaps more consistent than its Nine rival however both series have been renewed for 2008.

ABC did manage to get some dramas to air during this year; the rural/farming drama Rain Shadow, the 1998 waterfront crisis in Bastard Boys and the historical Curtin starring William McInnes.

The year also saw an increased drama presence on SBS with a number of productions aired this year - all of which put new emphasis onto familiar themes. The Circuit put an outback and indigenous perspective onto legal drama but its 9.30 Sunday timeslot probably meant most viewers stayed oblivious to it.

Saturday evenings saw the much lighter drama of Kick (pictured, left) an eight-part series based in Melbourne's multicultural suburb of Brunswick and featuring a diverse range of characters and cultures, though little is made of either. Hard to believe that Kick came from the same city that gives us the mono-cultural and sanitised Neighbours.

A late entry to SBS' schedule this year was the Sydney-based East West 101, from the producers of ABC's former series Wildside. Like with Kick, East West 101 was based in an area with a strong multicultural mix and covers the tensions that can come with that sort of diversity whether it be in the community or in the police force that is entrusted to protect it.

While all these new projects were seeing the light of day, one old-stager Neighbours was also in the spotlight. Ratings for the suburban soap have dropped in recent years in the wake of the high-profile battle between current affairs shows Today Tonight and A Current Affair in the same timeslot. With a healthy injection of funds to flow on from the show's shift in the UK from BBC to Channel 5 - in a deal worth around $A700m over ten years - the show's producers decided this year was the time to give the series a much-needed revamp to boost its profile in its home country.

A two-month teaser campaign on Ten promised 'a change is coming' and when the red-letter day, 23 July, arrived there were certainly changes but probably not as significant as the publicity had perhaps indicated. Sure there was a new family moving into Ramsay Street, there were some new sets and some more location filming, and the signature tune was re-worked, as was the iconic Neighbours logo, but apart from these rather superficial changes, there was little else to notice. Producers have been at pains to point out, however, that the revival of Neighbours is a work in progress and now with a new executive producer (Susan Bower) in charge, the changes are set to continue. Neighbours' ratings did take a spike when 23 July came and went, but soon settled back to familiar territory around the 600-700k mark - not a desirable position for a prime-time Aussie-made production but it still rates well in its desired demographic and gives Ten valuable drama content points.

Ten this year also gave us Murder In The Outback - The Joanne Lees Story which traced the mystery surrounding the murder of British tourist Peter Falconio, told from the perspective of his partner Joanne Lees.

Meanwhile at Seven, their drama content was well kept up by Home And Away and All Saints. Both series earning great results this year which considering the age of both programs (Home And Away is now up to its twentieth anniversary, and All Saints is up to ten years) is an amazing effort.

The Nine Network's long-running McLeod's Daughters limped through 2007 as producers may have struggled to find a way to keep finding long-lost 'daughters' to replace outgoing cast members. The series suffered a ratings drop this year, and Nine has already announced that the 2008 series will be its last.

The drama on our screens wasn't just on the free-to-air networks either. This year Foxtel came up with more of Love My Way starring Claudia Karvan, new series Dangerous, the adults-only drama Satisfaction and the award winning telemovie The King: The Graham Kennedy Story (pictured) starring Stephen Curry.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Christmas cheer from SBS! (1983)

More cheesy celebrity smiles at Christmas! Christmas usually brings out the inevitable Santa costumes - and in 1983, Network 0/28 host Basia Bonkowski was no exception, accompanied by newsreader George Donikian who instead opted for the traditional Greek costume.

Picture: TV Week, 24 December 1983

Thursday, 20 December 2007

The Year That Was... #5: The dawn of HD

New Year's Day 2007 marked a change to Australia's digital television landscape. From that day on, commercial stations were permitted to open a dedicated high-definition (HD) channel with content separate to the analogue or standard-definition channels (or the core channels as ACMA identifies them)

Didn't hear about it? You weren't alone. We all thought the networks continued through the year as if it was still 2006 as not a word was uttered about this partial lifting of multi-channel restriction on commercial stations. (ABC and SBS have been allowed to offer multi-channelling since digital TV started in 2001)

Then, on 14 September, out of the blue comes an announcement from Network Ten that after months of planning, they are going to launch their 'break-out' high-definition channel TenHD in December.

The new channel would offer around 50 hours per week of exclusive content not available on the core channels. Programming would include time-shifted content such as delayed broadcasts of Ten News, and would also include movies, sci-fi, documentaries and extensions of existing Ten programs such as Australian Idol.

The announcement from Ten seemed to spark some interest among its rivals, as only a day after their announcement the Seven Network said they will also be launching a separate high-definition channel, also to launch in December. However while Ten was able to spell out its program strategy and station identification for TenHD, Seven was only able to offer a vague statement as to its HD offering. There was no channel identification and no indication of programming. It looked as if Seven had been caught on the hop by Ten, and perhaps tried to 'spoil' Ten's announcement with a rushed press release to state its intentions.

Then the Nine Network got involved with parent company PBL Media boss Ian Law making a statement to the
press that Nine will be beating both Seven and Ten with their own HD channel to launch in November. No suggestion of programming other than a vague statement that it will be a mix of high-definition and standard-definition (something which defies the rules set out by ACMA), and nothing else to give away - not even a name of the channel (though 9HD seems a safe bet).

Also an interesting announcement by Mr Law given that Nine is regarded as being disadvantaged in the HD arena by not having the infrastructure in place to support it, as opposed to the more modern facilities operated by Seven and Ten. While Nine's previous owner, the late Kerry Packer was happy to spend millions on hiring celebrities and buying content for his network, he was not known to show the same generosity in some of his stations' infrastructure. One Nine staffer was quoted as describing some of Nine's equipment as being archaic and that it is a pure miracle that Nine gets some of its stories to air in time. How Nine was going to get a functional HD channel on the air by November would certainly have been interesting - but Law was quoted in the same press article that Nine had been planning their HD channel in 'top secret'.

Can you see a trend happening here?

Once all that initial chest-beating was out of the way, there wasn't much else made public about these much-flaunted HD channels although Ten had started airing some well-made station promos to get the message out about TenHD - another sign that Ten was certainly more progressed than Nine and Seven appeared to be.

But then a month later, viewers of Seven's high-definition channel noticed a different program being broadcast as opposed to their core channels. What was this about? Is this their new channel? As it turned out, yes, it was 7HD - but don't worry about any pre-launch announcement or promotion, just put out a press release the next day to make the statement that Seven was now the first to launch their HD channel. But once they cut through the spin, viewers realised not to get too excited as 7HD was only offering two hours of late-night programming a night for the time being and still no firm indication as to the channel's intentions. A case of rushing to air just so they could claim to be 'first'? Perhaps.

But it's not always a matter of who is first to launch - but rather who is best to launch, and it still appeared that Ten was going to lead even though still only snippets of information was being released to the public, but Ten was not going to be stirred up by Seven's catch-up attempts and big statements.

Then November came and went - and there was no sign of Nine's 'top secret' HD channel until new CEO David Gyngell told the press that Nine's new HD channel would now not launch until March 2008, and would not be treated as a separate channel - as Seven and Ten were promoting theirs - but rather just an enhancement of their mainstream channel, although all three networks had been doing that anyway in providing an HD simulcast of many standard-definition programs - so Nine's intentions were still not totally clear but at least being upfront enough to they are not going to fall for the ego trip that Seven seems to have taken.

When Ten announced that TenHD would launch on Sunday 16 December, you'd never guess what happened next - Seven decided to beat them to it by launching their full-scale 7HD channel a week earlier, prompting another proud press release. Seven was first yet again, but take a glance at 7HD's 'full' line-up and a lot of its content appeared to be re-runs of programs from their archives, and not all of it was even produced in HD, another sign that the channel was rushed together just to beat any launch date that Ten had offered in advance.

TenHD did finally launch, as announced, on 16 December with some interesting programming initiatives such as a dedicated sci-fi night, and some time-shifted content as promised although this is so far limited to only a 30-minute 'shift' for the 5.00pm news, and the US daytime soap The Bold And The Beautiful. More sport is expected in the new year and when ratings return in February one hopes that there will be more of their promised 50 hours a week of exclusive content, and more time-shifted content.

Despite 7HD's initial schedule perhaps being underwhelming, there is some potential for innovation with Seven planning some original content for 7HD such as new talk shows from Deal Or No Deal host Andrew O'Keefe, and from the producer of Sunrise, Adam Boland. The promise of original content specifically for HD shows that perhaps underneath all the bravado, there is a genuine opportunity for HD to experiment a little with formats that would perhaps never see the light of day on mainstream television which in turn may see some innovation filter through to the mainstream channels - and it is one aspect that Ten has possibly ignored with TenHD.

Thanks for MoeVideos, identsdotTV and galoresoftware for the YouTube clips.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

The Year That Was... #4: Lots of laughs in '07

Australians love their comedy on TV, but in the last couple of years, apart from a few stand out successes like Spicks & Specks and Thank God You're Here, there wasn't a great deal to laugh about.

Then 2007 came along and the tide was turning. ABC's The Chaser's War On Everything was plucked from last year's late-night timeslot to take The Glass House's spot on Wednesday nights, and virtually doubled its audience as a result of the change. Various stunts of the Chaser team (pictured) inspired many headlines and a lot of outrage - whether it be the team infiltrating the iron-clad security of the APEC Summit in Sydney, making crude remarks about deceased personalities or gate-crashing the offices of Today Tonight, a program that was the subject of much derision by the team.

Also on ABC this year was another comedy hit - Summer Heights High. This long-awaited follow-up from Chris Lilley, who gave us the mockumentary styled series We Can Be Heroes in 2005, received plenty of mixed reaction and also its fair share of headlines. Parents and teachers were outraged when school children were now mocking the crude phrases of troubled student Jonah. Similar outrage was also felt when one of the show's central storylines, the death of a student from a drug overdose, was seen to mirror that of a similar real-life case where the victim happened to have the same first name as the fictional character depicted. In that case it was found to be an unfortunate coincidence as the series had been written and produced before the real-life incident occurred.

At the same time, Summer Heights High also received its share of accolades as Lilley, who wrote the series and performed the three very different key roles - private schoolgirl Ja'mie King (pictured), self-obsessed drama teacher Mr G, and student Jonah - very aptly covered various issues found in today's schools such as drugs, bullying, racism, violence, disability and homophobia.

Following on from Summer Heights High was The Librarians - a title that doesn't inspire much excitement but instead showed that inside a library is a pit of sexual tension, jealousy, bitchiness and bigotry in the lead up to the biggest event in the suburban library calendar, Book Week.

But possibly the biggest comedy event to hit Australian TV this year was the comeback of those foxy ladies, Kath & Kim. It was thought to be an April Fool's Day gag when on 1 April, the Seven Network announced it had shelled out $3 million to drag the popular pair across from ABC where they'd presented three top-rating series and a telemovie. It was also ironic in that Seven is where the characters were formed in the first place, as characters in the sketch comedies Big Girl's Blouse (1994) and Something Stupid (1998).

Success in the transition from ABC to commercial TV isn't always a given, it has been tried before by others with mixed results, but Seven's debut of series four of Kath & Kim on 19 August attracted over 2.5 million viewers in the capital cities and the series had a series average of 2.128 million - the highest of any TV series all year.

Network Ten
presented a third series of Thank God You're Here, providing more unpredictable performances from actors thrown into scenarios without the safety of a script. A creation of Working Dog Productions, Thank God You're Here was the second most watched series of 2007 with 1.86 million viewers. The success of the format in Australia has seen it franchised around the world although it did stumble in the US after its initial six-week run when it was shown on NBC, currently the fourth-ranked commercial network.

Despite the format's continued success in Australia, there is still uncertainty as to whether it will be back in 2008 although it looks like the rival Nine Network could be stringing together a similar concept in a bid to regain its ratings dominance. Nine will hope that the new show gives it something to laugh about because 2007 was a year they'd probably like to forget.

Nine's ratings failings this year were not helped by Mick Molloy's The Nation which aimed to put a humorous spin on the week's events - a concept not entirely new to viewers familiar with similar programs such as The Panel. The gamble on Molloy (pictured) was puzzling, given that his last venture at the Nine Network was the ill-fated Mick Molloy Show which set new benchmarks for questionable taste, and it would appear that viewers hadn't quite forgiven him enough to give The Nation a go.

Nine's other new comic venture this year was nothing really new at all - Surprise Surprise Gotcha was a thinly-veiled attempt to repackage a series that it had made almost a decade ago, complete with segments simply cut-and-pasted from the original version. Nine also followed on from Surprise Surprise Gotcha with another cheap format, Commercial Breakdown, with former AFL footballer Dermot Brereton presenting packages of funny or quirky commercials. Again, a format that had been done plenty of times before.

Although ABC had good results this year from Spicks & Specks and The Chaser's War On Everything, they had less success with The Sideshow, a show loosely modelled on the broadcaster's former hit The Big Gig. Launching in ratings graveyard of Saturday nights, The Sideshow was always going to struggle to find an audience and the 7.30 timeslot was at odds with presenting the more risque humour better suited to a later timeslot. Then ABC did shift the program to 9.30 but perhaps by then the damage was done, and it was cancelled shortly after.

Finally, over to SBS who delivered their own humorous take on the news with Newstopia, a creation of comedian and radio host Shaun Micallef (pictured), though was said to be a local take on the US series The Daily Show. SBS also aired a sixth series of urban comedy Pizza.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

TV Week's Strictly Christmas (1992)

The hit Australian movie of 1992 was Strictly Ballroom - so TV Week's celebrity Christmas issue that year was titled Strictly Christmas.

Gathered for the annual celebrity Christmas photo shoot was Steven Jacobs (All Together Now, and these days on Today), Bruce Roberts (Home And Away), Gia Carides from Strictly Ballroom and also in the ABC series Police Rescue, Simon Denny (E Street) before his transformation to US star Simon Baker - and of course, that 'little fat kid' from Hey Dad! - Matthew Krok.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

An unlikely New Year's tradition

Television often gives us quirky traditions that become a part of popular culture - and SBS is guilty of probably the two quirkiest on Australian TV - the Eurovision Song Contest in May, and every New Year's Eve it presents Dinner For One.

Dinner For One was a comedy sketch regularly performed in British music halls since the 1920s and in the early 1960s a German TV producer caught a performance in the UK and decided to adapt the performance for a one-off TV special back home. The special, produced in black-and-white, was made in 1963 starring actors Freddie Frinton and May Warden - and is spoken entirely in English.

The sketch is based around an elderly woman Miss Sophie (Warden) hosting a dinner for her 90th birthday. Unfortunately Miss Sophie has outlived all of her male admirers, so it is up to her butler (Frinton) to impersonate each one at the dinner table - and on the insistence of Miss Sophie, the butler drinks a toast at every course and progressively becoming more drunk each time.

The program was not initially of much significance but when a local network NDR decided to slot it in for a New Year's Eve screening in the early '70s it became something of a favourite with Germans and consequently would appear on German TV every New Year's Eve, receiving massive audience figures every year. Catchphrases from the program have become a regular part of the language in Germany.

Despite the program being made in English and being known across much of Europe (for instance, in Norway it is a long-running pre-Christmas tradition, shown on 23 December), it is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world - except for Australia where the multicultural SBS added the sketch to its own New Year's Eve schedule in the late 1980s and has appeared every year since then.

Dinner For One. New Year's Eve, Monday 31 December, 8.00pm, SBS.
Source: Dinner For One

The Year That Was... #3: Telling it how it really is...

For over thirty years, Mal Walden has been a journalist and news presenter on Melbourne television - so he is perhaps justified to speak his mind when something just isn't right:

... referring to an earlier story in the news bulletin about former air hostess Lisa Robertson doing a sexy photo shoot for mens magazine Zoo, after being accused of having sex with actor Ralph Fiennes on a flight from Australia to India.

Mal's on-air swipe appeared on 10 April.

Thanks to bigdan for posting the clip to YouTube

Monday, 10 December 2007

Merry Christmas from QTQ9! (1967)

Brisbane QTQ9's Christmas wishes to TV Week readers in 1967. The angel at the top of the tree is QTQ9 presenter Annette Allison. Children's presenter 'Captain Jim' (Jim Iliffe) is left on the middle row, and newsreaders Don Seccombe (centre) and Brian Cahill (right) on the bottom row.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

The Year That Was... #2: SBS makes its own news

If there can be only one constant in television land, it is change - and nobody is immune from it. In years gone by we've seen changes both behind and in front of the cameras at all networks with varying levels of success.

This year it was SBS' turn to ring in some major changes - and in doing so made plenty of headlines.

Managing director Shaun Brown came from TVNZ across the Tasman in 2003 to head Australia's multicultural broadcaster. With Brown came news director Paul Cutler, a former colleague who had also worked for global media giant CNN.

Brown initiated a number of moves at SBS including re-working the schedule, launching some less traditional SBS fare including a dating show Desperately Seeking Shiela and a game show RockWiz. Some initiatives were more welcome than others, and in the revamp a number of long-term staffers had moved on - some voluntarily, others not necessarily so. The most notable departures from SBS were presenters David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz who had left The Movie Show which they pioneered for SBS in 1986, to start up a similar program, At The Movies, at ABC.

However Brown's most visible change came late in 2006 with the decision to restructure commercial breaks on SBS to appear within programs, as opposed to the previous custom of only in between programs or in 'natural program breaks' such as half-time in football matches. The change in this structure was based on the belief that viewers switch off SBS in between programs, hence advertisers' messages were being ignored. Running commercial breaks inside programs would therefore make them less likely to be skipped by viewers - and hence would be worth charging a higher premium to advertisers.

The change was understandably met with opposition. It is true that SBS has quite happily run commercials since 1991 without the sky falling in, though it was only allowed around five minutes per hour as opposed to the commercial networks playing anything up to fifteen minutes of ads each hour. But changing the structure of the commercial breaks it was feared would open the floodgates to more advertising per hour, and more frighteningly for SBS supporters, the broadcaster's increasing dependence on the advertising dollar having an influence on its program content and news coverage.

It is also feared that this increase in advertising time on SBS could also set a precedent that could one day see the same change happen to 'aunty' ABC which takes pride in being commercial-free on its radio and TV outlets - except for high-rotation promotions for ABC merchandise.

However if the move to its commercial breaks wasn't enough cause for concern amongst SBS loyalists, Brown had sights set on re-working another SBS landmark - World News Australia.

Since its inception in 1980, World News has been widely acclaimed for providing a global perspective on news coverage by not focussing predominantly on local stories or tabloid headlines. And no cute animal stories to end the bulletins either - World News was unashamedly serious particularly with so much conflict happening away from our shores. In the overall scheme of things World News was never going to win any ratings surveys but it maintained a loyal audience and set SBS apart from the other TV news media - particularly commercial TV.

Former Sydney radio announcer George Donikian was the first newsreader back in 1980 but in 1988 heard the call of commercial television and joined the Nine Network - even though he moved to a relatively minor role at Nine, it was perhaps a belated sign that commercial TV had finally accepted that its news presenters did not have to all be mono-cultural.

Replacing Donikian at the World News desk was a name already familiar to those at SBS - Mary Kostakidis.

Unlike the more routine TV custom of hiring news readers from the ranks of journalists, Kostakidis came from within management. Kostakidis was part of the founding management team when SBS was forming its new television channel back in 1980 - and was involved in setting up the station's subtitling unit, as well as program purchasing, classification and policy. In 1986, Kostakidis also added acting to her resume, playing Rebekah Elmaloglou's mother in the mini-series Five Times Dizzy.

For almost twenty years, Kostakidis was the main face of World News - acclaimed for her delivery of the day's news stories with class, sophistication and integrity, and for giving the the news the gravitas that it needed without sensationalism.

The situation stayed largely unchanged until 2007 - when Brown and his news chief Cutler decided to overhaul the half-hour news bulletin. The first change was to dismantle the long-running sports program World Sports which supplemented the half-hour news bulletin. World News Australia (the 'Australia' was added to the title in 2004) would then be expanded to a one-hour format to fill the half-hour gap left by World Sports.

The next change was for Cutler to to bring a second newsreader to the World News desk, one of his former CNN talents Stan Grant.

In hiring Grant at SBS, what Cutler possibly had not realised was that while Grant had won a number of awards for journalism both here and overseas, he did not carry that sort of credibility with the Australian viewing public.

Grant was a former ABC reporter who made the move across to commercial TV in 1992 to host Seven's new current affairs program Real Life. It was quite a leap for a reporter with a relatively low profile to suddenly be hosting a national current affairs program. The program often struggled up against Nine's evening flagship A Current Affair, with Grant seen as lightweight up against his Nine rival, the very popular Jana Wendt, and his predecessor Derryn Hinch who had since moved to Ten. Then the current affairs satire Frontline appeared on ABC, fronted by fictional host Mike Moore (played by Rob Sitch) who it was rumoured to have been loosely based on Grant.

Grant's credibility in Australia wasn't helped either by his personal life, when in 2000 he left his wife for a romance with a colleague, Tracey Holmes. After being shamed by the tabloid press, the pair were sacked from Seven and went overseas where Grant ultimately ended up at CNN in China, working for Cutler.

The arrival of Grant to World News Australia, announced at the end of 2006, was reportedly not met kindly by Kostakidis, who had read the news solo for almost twenty years and was now being sidelined to sharing the role with her new colleague.

Adding salt to Kostakidis' wounds was the re-formatting of World News Australia to incorporate the new commercial break structure, something which she had openly protested in the past, and also a perceived 'dumbing down' of the news service as a means of grabbing more ratings and hence more revenue, working against the traditional principles of SBS - which she was personally involved in setting up. For Kostakidis, it must have surely been a bitter pill to swallow the night that World News Australia had as its lead story the latest on celebrity socialite and jailbird Paris Hilton.

In another instance Kostakidis made a blunt on-air assessment of one celebrity news story:

The off-screen relationship between Kostakidis and Grant was reportedly less than amiable, and as a result attempts to have some sort of casual interaction on screen between news stories also fell flat.

The tension came to a head in August when Kostakidis signed off from the news bulletin as normal on the evening of Friday 10 August. She left the office and drove home, and never returned to the news room. Officially she was on sick leave, but it was apparent that there was more to it than that - and soon after came news that Kostakidis had hired a prominent Melbourne lawyer to represent her in legal action against the network - citing a breach of contract due to the significant change to her newsreading duties, and bullying by management. The case was able to be settled out of court, with details of the settlement to be kept confidential.

Kostakidis' only statement after the settlement was "I would like SBS viewers to know that I leave with absolute goodwill towards the organisation and wish it all the best."

And despite all the upheaval, headlines and legal negotiations - it appears to have been for nought. Ratings for World News Australia have fallen by tens of thousands since the revamped format was introduced back in January, the broadcaster has lost its long-standing newsreader, and there are now reports that Stan Grant, whose appointment appeared to be the catalyst for a lot of the uneasiness, is now considering leaving SBS to return overseas, possibly to al-Jazeera English or back to CNN.

And a year after SBS restructed itself to run commercial breaks during programs - the end result at the close of the 2007 ratings year has seen the broadcaster increase its prime-time audience share by a mere 0.1 per cent when compared to 2006. The question perhaps should be asked, has it been worth all the bother?

The Year That Was... #1: Nine's The Catch-Up

Some strange programming choices came out of the Nine Network this year. One - actually, two - that was a little puzzling this year was their afternoon line-up.

In years gone by, Nine was the unbeatable leader in daytime TV - their rock-solid lineup of The Mike Walsh Show (later The Midday Show) followed by US soaps Days Of Our Lives and The Young And The Restless, set them up for the afternoon for two decades and no matter what Seven and Ten threw at it, it seemed invincible.

Perhaps the rot started to set in when The Midday Show was packed up finally in 1998. Nine had tried to cancel, or "rest" (as is the current terminology), the show back in 1994 after Derryn Hinch's year as host. The show came back in mid-1995 with hosts Tracy Grimshaw (now the crusader of everything moral and decent at A Current Affair) and David Reyne (now of 9am With David & Kim fame on Ten) who put a talk focus onto what was traditionally variety TV. Tracy and David's efforts were short-lived, and then came Kerri-Anne Kennerley who put the glam back into the show, and created a defining moment when she did the macarena with (now former) federal treasurer Peter Costello.

Fast forward almost a decade, and Nine had struggled to fill the gap left by Midday but had finally settled on US talk show Dr Phil - not as schmaltzy as Oprah but far less trashy than Jerry Springer, who were both on Ten. Then at the close of 2006, Nine decided not to increase its bid to renew its long-standing agreement with US network CBS, letting the deal go to Ten, hence losing shows including Dr Phil in the process.

At around the same time Nine quietly decided not to renew its contract with Sony Pictures for The Young And The Restless - a series that had been a permanent fixture on Nine's schedule since 1974 - hoping perhaps that nobody would notice.

To lose one part of its afternoon schedule would have been bad enough, but to let go a 30-year veteran - which still enjoyed a strong following - is unthinkable. And if Nine should have known one thing, it is not to offend your loyal housewife audience - something which Nine had done once before when it chopped out four years of episodes of both Days Of Our Lives and The Young And The Restless to bring Australia in line with current-day storylines in the US. Despite this, as many as 200,000 were still avidly following The Young And The Restless, and as many again were watching re-runs of Dr Phil. These are not big figures by prime-time standards, but for daytime they are figures to be treasured.

Knowing that they were going to lose a two-hour chunk of their afternoon schedule, Nine must have had something gold to take its place - especially to placate the soap opera fans who had endured the indignity of losing four years of their long-time favourites, and now also having to subscribe to a premium Foxtel package to keep up with The Young And The Restless.

Enter The Catch-Up.

The Catch-Up, a product of Nine's newly-hired "creative services director" Mia Freedman, was loosely based on the popular US talk show The View (already shown on Foxtel here) which featured a panel of females discussing issues of the day - a concept that could have had potential here, but Nine stumbled.

Whereas The View was headlined by veteran journalist Barbara Walters and more recently by comedian-actress-talkshow host Rosie O'Donnell, The Catch-Up featured three unknowns and one Libbi Gorr whose TV career hit a peak about a decade ago. The three other presenters were FM radio chick Zoe Sheridan, politician's wife Lisa Oldfield, and Mary Moody, described by Nine as 'adventurer, author, documentary producer, director, gardener, photographer, publisher and editor' and a presenter on ABC's Gardening Australia - but yet, who is she?

Nine had a lot riding on this show - and opening episodes returned figures of over 240,000 which gave it promise but it was downhill from there. The situation was not helped by an apparent lack of any chemistry between the four presenters. As a result, viewers already disenchanted by the loss of two popular shows, even though they sampled The Catch-Up, didn't stick with it.

Not even a slip-up by guest star, underworld figure Judy Moran, who named suspects in a pending court case on-air in the show's opening days, raised any significant interest in the show.

As the show continued and ratings continued to slide, media reports alleged various backstage tension between the four presenters - though whether this was for real or just a case of ratings-seeking behaviour by the network - obviously keen to get some return on their expensive venture - was not known.

The program also unwittingly became a pawn in negotiations over contract renewals between Nine and regional affiliate WIN. WIN chief Bruce Gordon starting pulling Nine Network programs off his WIN schedule in protest to Nine's intent to increase affiliation fees which Gordon deemed unjustified. The Catch Up and other off-peak programs from Nine were removed from WIN's schedule across the country as they were seen to generate income to Nine through various product placement deals and other in-program advertorials, though this income did not filter through to WIN.

With declining audiences and largely negative feedback about the show both in content and the presenters (and also a curious self-assessment by panellist Oldfield that she was to blame for the show's poor performance), the situation got desperate enough that reinforcements had to be called in. Enter veteran journalist, magazine editor, publisher and businesswoman Ita Buttrose to appear as a panellist on the show. The addition of a well-known, respected and credible identity like Ita, who has had ties to the Nine Network in the past and its sister company ACP as a long-standing magazine editor, to the program really highlighted that she was the sort of identity that should have been headlining the show from the very start. Though her addition to the lineup may have been too late to save it.

By mid-June, Nine had lost CEO Eddie McGuire and producer Freedman had also offered her resignation - so without its biggest supporter and its producer on board, the inevitable happened and The Catch Up was wound up - replaced by midday movies.

The Nine Network has gone to great lengths and expense to boost its fortunes in 2008 but little mention has been made as to whether this extends to their floundering afternoon schedule - being held up only by Days Of Our Lives and the kids program Hi-5.