If you take risks in TV, of course there will be failures

I always thought that being a footballer must be one of the worst jobs in the world. Having thousands of people watching you up close and howling at your every error.

If I tried to cope with that in my day job, my spelling would be even worse than it is already.

But being a TV programmer must be worse.

There aren’t many gigs where millions of people judge your work every single day.

Every morning at 8.30am, the ratings come through – and we all find out if they are dunces or geniuses.

Right now, it’s the turn of Ten’s David Mott in the firing line. This year, he took a chance on several new pieces of Australian-made programming and so far most of them have not fired.

Which leaves the network struggling for audience share and facing dreadful headlines.

I’m part of that problem, by the way. I wait for the ratings to come in, looking for a winner or loser to write about.

Sometimes it’s easy to call. I must confess that after I watched the now axed Everybody Dance Now make its debut last Sunday night, I wrote the next day’s rating story that night and left gaps for the actual numbers – it was that obvious as a viewer that the show was going to flop. Not just because of the content (Sarah Murdoch is just too nice a middle class woman to say “That’s off the hook” with anything approaching authenticity), but also because it was up against the final night of the Olympics.

The same happened the next night. The story was again written before the Everybody Dance Now ratings were in. This time, the flawed show and the competition from the first night of Big Brother combined.

I had a couple of meetings with TV people last week and the same question was: “What were they thinking?”

Not being idiots, I suspect there was a point between when Ten commissioned it from Fremantle Media and when it got made that it went astray. They must have realised before it went to air that they were up against it. Like Andrew Denton once said, nobody sets out to make bad television.

Speaking of Denton, he’s one of the brains behind Can Of Worms which returned for a second series on Ten on Monday night with a disappointing 590,000. He’s also the front man of Randling which hasn’t done great numbers for the ABC. Which makes him sound like an idiot – until you add into the mix his co-creation of The Gruen Transfer and of course Enough Rope.

He’s a classic example that if you want original programming, you have to take risks. And that means that not everything will rate. Personally, I thought the Gruen format sounded a bit silly before it launched. I was delighted but surprised when it worked.

And let’s remember that sometimes these risks work. Last week, Ten also aired the Southern Star-made Puberty Blues, which was excellent, and rated respectably, particular in younger demographics.

Southern Star, incidentally, was also behind Howzat: Kerry Packer’s Cricket War on Nine this week, which was by far the best piece of locally made television I’ve seen this year.

And you can’t always call it. Masterchef was a risk for Ten. And for the first few episodes the first series didn’t even rate and they were all idiots. But then it took off and they were all geniuses. Then they tried to repeat it with The Renovators and they were all idiots again.

Right now, this week Ten’s bosses are back to being labelled idiots.

Yet they deserve so much credit for investing in making local shows – of all genres.

Even The Shire. Yes it was dumb. But it was well crafted dumb. Particularly the first couple of episodes.

Ten’s chief sales officer Barry O’Brien made an obvious point a few days ago when he repeated David Leckie’s mantra: you only need one hit. Don’t forget that Seven’s entire fortunes turned eight years ago because two US hits came from nowhere – Desperate Housewives and Lost.

An the alternative to Ten’s risk-taking approach is Nine’s. Remember the previous three years or so when the network relied almost entirely on Two And A Half Men and Big Bang Theory?

Wouldn’t you rather a few local flops than double episodes of Modern Family every night? The thing about risk is that if it is a genuine risk, then it might fail without anyone actually being at fault.

The worst possible outcome of the last couple of weeks will be if the networks become less willing to risk investing in local content.

As it happens, I suspect that Ten will turn it around. There’s a lot of goodwill in the market – the newly arrived Barry O’Brien is very popular, and the media agencies know they need Ten to be viable to keep Seven and Nine honest.

And they just need one hit. Just one hit.

Tim Burrowes










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