As Nine has been demonstrating, making hit TV isn’t as easy as it looks

I must confess I walked home with a slightly troubled conscience last night.  


I’d stayed a little late in the office, caught the final minutes of Australia’s Perfect Couple, felt somewhere between horrified and fascinated and took a quick dive onto Twitter to see what the buzz was.

As I reported last night, Perfect Couple was not creating a positive response.

But then as I started to wander the mean streets of Redfern, I began to worry. (It provided a welcome distraction from thinking about being mugged.)

Twitter potentially gives a very different view to the wider Australian public. The likelihood of metro-leaning, latte-sipping bias is strong. Because it was confirming my own prejudices, had I got carried away and posted something unrepresentative? Popular TV has to engage with a far wider demographic than journo wankas and their twitterati mates.

So I was actually a bit relieved when the ratings for Australia’s Perfect Couple came in this morning at less than 800,000.

Not least when colleagues who’d seen the whole episode began to describe it: the buzzer challenge (seeing if you can get your lollipop round a wire without completing the circuit);  guess who you’re kissing? More like party games than primetime TV.

But it’s very easy to sit in the peanut gallery and lob bottles, which is what it’s been all too tempting to do with Nine’s reality output recently – Home Made, Dance Your Ass Off, Australia’s Perfect Couple.

On the one hand networks get criticised for cancelling stuff too early; on the other they get daily kickings from the likes of me when something doesn’t work.

Yet it’s only a year or so since Nine introduced us to Underbelly, and Gordon Ramsay was flavour of the month. At that point Nine was back and pushing for a 35% share of ad revenue. The book title Who Killed Channel Nine? was looking a bit silly.

Since then $300m has dropped out of the market, and that affects budgets across all the networks. As Home Made demonstrated, shows that get sponsor support have to stay in the schedule, regardless of ratings. On nights when rivals have a strong line up, cheap fillers may need to be used, even if they won’t rate. And if local productions don’t work, they’re too expensive to drop.

For Nine – and its debt-laden parent PBL – that reduces options just like it does with the other hard-pressed networks.

So do not assume that the station is full of idiots. Its progammers are experienced people, stretching the budget as far as they possibly can, whilst trying to work out how to invest in digital too.

It’s tempting to assume otherwise, that unlike its days under Kerry Packer they are out of touch with the audience. Certainly they are putting shows to air that I’m sure they wouldn’t choose to watch in their own loungerooms.

But it’s a little more complex than that. It’s a reality of commercial TV that where we are in the cycle means that flops will inevitably get on air at any station. They simply cannot afford to do anything else.

Ten’s been lucky and had a couple of relatively unexpected hits with Talkin Bout Your Generation and, of course, Masterchef.

Nine might be next. Underbelly 3 is on the way and personally I’ve got high hopes for The Apprentice. It’s a great format if the casting is right. A couple of hits can make a huge difference.

When the networks fail, they do it very publically. They should be held to high standards – their use of the public airwaves justifies that – but when they fail, they also deserve a little understanding. It’s not as easy as it looks. Particularly right now.

( 3.30pm update: Pretty much as I was posting this, Nine was announcing that it had axed Dance Your Ass Off (and Little Britain from the late night slot too). I do have one further thought: could at least some of this seemingly suicidal scheduling be a rapidfire way of introducing the Nine audience to coming delights on digital channel Go?)


Tim Burrowes


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