At Channel Nine’s Upfronts yesterday, something rather surprising happened: the network announced it would be investing in and prioritising local content over the next three years and, surprisingly, it seemed to really mean it.
For decades now Australia’s commercial networks have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into creating more local content. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, programs like ER and Friends were the major and cost effective ratings successes for Nine. Why spend the time and money on local product when you could be the only avenue through which people could access the biggest international shows?
Both ER and Friends came from the Warner Bros stable, but earlier this year Nine scrapped its output deal with Warner Bros as a savings measure to focus more on local content. Nine will still continue to air new episodes of The Big Bang Theory but has forfeited the right to run repeats of what has been the only major international ratings success for the Network in recent years. Warner Bros produces American titles such as The Mentalist, Fringe, The Following, Gotham, Forever, Stalker, Person of Interest, Arrow and 2 Broke Girls.
But in an age when there are many avenues — both lawful and unlawful — through which Australian audiences can access the most popular international content, these properties are far less commercially attractive than they once were.
The networks have countered this by boosting their reality quota — all three hang their weeknight schedule off a 7.30pm reality blockbuster almost the entire year around — but Nine is now making a return to scripted comedy with its first sitcom in 15 years.
Here Come The Habibs! sees a working class Lebanese migrant family strike it rich and move to one of Australia’s richest (and whitest) postcodes. It’s a great premise for a sitcom and has the potential to deliver plenty of sharply observed comedic cultural conflicts. It’s produced by Jungleboys (behind ABC’s The Moodys and Stan’s No Activity) and created by Rob Shehadie, Tahir Bilgic and Matt Ryan-Garnsey.
Australian commercial networks have traditionally felt that half-hour comedies are too inefficient in terms of cost. That’s why there have been many hour-long dramas with loud comedy notes in recent years, such as Offspring, House Husbands and Winners and Losers. Not only does the full hour create a better economy of scale, it obviously gives the networks a full hour in which to run advertisements.
It’s a bold decision to commission any half hour comedy, but to commission one with a focus on the migrant experience is another big step away from the Caucasian focus of most commercial network dramas.
Nine has taken several other interesting decisions — it is moving its main channel to an HD service, launching a brand new Lifestyle channel and a new streaming service 9Now, which will be not only a catchup service but a live stream of all the Nine Network’s channels (a move which has angered regional networks).
In terms of programming, local dramas House Husbands and Love Child will return with reality shows The Voice, Australia’s Got Talent and The Block all back. The new dramas include Hide & Seek, a contemporary crime thriller and House of Bond, which tells the story of business tycoon Alan Bond.
There are also unscripted new shows like You’re Back in the Room, a hypnosis show hosted by Daryl Somers and a show called This Time Next Year, all about “ordinary people on a mission to transform their lives in extraordinary ways over the course of 12 months.”
More interesting is Prison: First & Last 24 Hours, which traces the experiences of offenders experiencing their first and last days behind bars. It promises to take a wide-ranging look into the circumstances of the prisoners and the impact upon their family, friends and communities.
Disappointingly, the deliberately inflammatory (and ratings bomb) panel show The Verdict will return.
It may well be that in another five to ten years on-demand streaming services become so popular that broadcast is used for nothing but live events and broadcasting local scripted content will be commercially unviable. ACMA will almost certainly face a similar but far more difficult battle to the one it has always faced with networks. It will have to find a way to force international streaming giants like Netflix into producing Australian content.
But while Australians are still adjusting to the world of streaming and the various services are finding their place in the market, a unique window of opportunity for Australian content has opened up. Let’s hope it’s not wasted.