I’m a Celebrity’s EP on ratings growth, filming during COVID and where to next for the show

I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! has been back for a week, and Network Ten's head of entertainment and factual programs, Stephen Tate, expects it will only get better from here. Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby speaks to Tate and the show's COVID consultant, Dr Henning Lilijeqvist, about this season's cast and ratings, why "people [were] finding it frustrating" adjusting to COVID measures initially, and why "you would have to question whether you would return to Africa".

Actor, singer, and TV presenter Toni Pearen was repeatedly bitten on the face by snakes. The Bachelor’s Abbie Chatfield spoke up against slut shaming and taught a campmate Cardi B’s Wet Ass Pussy dance. Former AFL player Travis Varcoe spoke about the impact of his sister’s death and racism. And TV personality Grant Denyer confessed to a potential problem with alcohol.

All of that was squeezed into the first week of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!’s seventh season.

This season is set in the northern New South Wales bush

Premiering last Sunday night (3 January) to 1.031 million metro viewers, the show dropped to 820,000 metro viewers on Monday night for its second outing, and raked in 752,000 on Tuesday, 720,000 on Wednesday, and 678,000 on Thursday last week. Last night, 744,000 metro viewers tuned in.

Network Ten’s head of entertainment and factual programs, and executive producer on I’m a Celebrity, Stephen Tate, is “absolutely thrilled” with ratings that have been “better than we expected”, but he expects the post-premiere decline (not uncommon) will soon reverse.

“Obviously we hope that free-to-air audiences are going to fall back into a more usual viewing pattern, as people return to work and finish some holidays,” he explains.

“So we fully expect to see significant growth from here.”

Viewers are enjoying the local season so much, Tate claims, that the Ten team will “assess” whether it resumes international filming long-term, once travel restrictions lift.

“At the moment, the audience is responding so strongly to an Australian version that you would have to question whether you would return to Africa,” he says. “Because we are very much led by the audience and they are loving it.”

And it’s not just viewers who are invested. This season, a record number of sponsors have signed on to the show. Ready-made meals, snacks and drinks company Youfoodz are featured in one episode as the hot meal delivered to the winning team, and last night’s episode involved a challenge sponsored by Origin Energy.

Tate thinks the uptake is because “we were a very safe bet this year” after advertisers “saw the results last year” – the program’s best-performing season to date – while national sales director, Lisa Squillace, notes the show, so far, has been “achieving record shares and recording double the audience in people 25 to 54 compared to its competitors”.

“It’s providing us with our biggest January since 2018 and as well as a 40% commercial share,” she says.

“I’m grateful to our sponsors and our creative teams who have innovatively and seamlessly integrated these brands into the narrative of the show.”

Dr Chris Brown and Julia Morris are the program’s long-term hosts

Usually, I’m a Celebrity is a quick turnaround show, with only a few hours for the edit suite to transform 24 hours worth of footage into a movie-length episode.

Last year, ITV executive producer Alex Mavroidakis told Mumbrella “there’s no time to change anybody into anything they’re not … If you go in there and you’re the nicest person in the world, that’s what you will be on the show. If you go in and you’re the biggest dickhead in the world, that’s what you will be. There is no time to save you or fix you [in the edit suite].”

But this season, the episodes were filmed late last year in Northern New South Wales (the finale, however, is still expected to be live and air on 31 January, although Ten is yet to confirm the date). Does that mean more time was spent in post production?

“No, it didn’t,” Tate responds.

“What we tried to do is keep the viewing experience as true to the format as possible. So we still did a very fast turnaround. Alex and I, and the rest of the team, were still screening pretty much the following day from the shoot, as we had done previously in Africa.”

At the moment, ‘conflict isn’t what audiences want’

Tate explains that the production team spends a lot of time with each contestant before they were cast and sent into the jungle (or in the case of this season, the bush) to ensure the group would gel, and create successful TV moments.

“We really do get to know them properly,” Tate explains.

“We get to see the layers that will be revealed through the process.”

A challenge from the first week of the new season, featuring Grant Denyer, Toni Pearen, and Mel Buttle

The pandemic impacted the dynamic “because they’ve gone into this experience with a different mindset to any other cast that we’ve had,” Tate says. “They’ve all experienced what we were all experiencing throughout the world, and so they have a different perspective.”

And surprisingly, they struck the very rare balance of creating “hardly any conflict” – Tate muses that “in the current environment, conflict isn’t what audiences want” – and not needing to be produced.

“They’re self-producing. We had to do very little with them. They were just absolutely brilliant.”

The closest the group has come to drama so far is an interaction between The Bachelor and Bachelor in Paradise contestant Chatfield, and ex-AFL player Robert ‘Dippa’ DiPierdomenico. In response to the former walking around camp in a bikini, the latter quipped: “How can you walk around like that? … As a father, you’re not going out like that … It’s like you’re seeking attention and asking for it.”

Chatfield pushed back, and separately said: “That’s the implication, that men are dangerous and it’s our [women’s] fault.”

When asked about the conversations such moments spark, Tate comments: “Abbie’s fantastic. Obviously we got to know her on The Bachelor … but that was in a specific environment where it’s all about love and relationships.

“This is a much broader format and the environment itself is obviously quite challenging. And so it becomes quite disarming when you really get to know the person properly.”

Accessing talent and making a TV show during a pandemic

Chatfield, Denyer, Pearen, DiPierdomenico, and Varcoe are joined in the bush by Australian Idol contestant Paulini Curuenavuli, chef and My Kitchen Rules judge Colin Fassnidge, comedian Ash Williams, Australia’s Got Talent winner and The Voice star Jack Vidgen, Real Housewives of Melbourne’s Pettifleur Berenger, and radio and TV personality Jess Eva.

Comedian Mel Buttle left the competition a couple of days in, and Pete Evans was dropped from the show just before filming began after he posted neo-Nazi symbols on social media.

This season’s cast

The consensus is that the I’m a Celebrity cast is less ‘famous’ this time around than in previous seasons, as The Guardian made clear with a piece titled: ‘Are the cast of I’m a Celebrity Australia actually celebrities? Why haven’t I heard of any of them?’.

COVID-19 travel restrictions made it impossible to lock in international celebrities like Geordie Shore’s Charlotte Crosby or celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton, both of whom appeared on previous seasons. But locally, the program actually had access to more talent than ever, according to Tate.

“Because of the quarantine that we needed to impose on the cast before they entered camp so that we could create a bubble, it meant that the commitment was longer,” he notes.

“So that had an impact on who was available, but then … more people were available and open to the idea. So we had probably people to choose from that would not normally have been available.

“They really embraced the experience because they found it to be a privilege, because essentially, for some of them, it was the first time that actually they had left their suburb this year.”

The pandemic has inevitably impacted not only casting, but production. In fact, Ten recruited a specialised COVID consultant, Dr Henning Lilijeqvist to ensure the cast and crew complied with government directives and filmed safely.

The epidemiologist was a medic on the UK, US and German versions of I’m a Celebrity before working for the United Nations and World Health Organisation, specialising in pandemic planning and responses.

A COVID consultant is a “role that tends to impose restrictions on people”, Dr Lilijeqvist explains.

“This is a public health objective to reduce the risk of there being clusters or outbreaks in the community by the production. And then on the secondary level, to protect the production from being closed down.”

The position requires “very careful planning”, liaising with the head of every department, and ensuring the cast and crew is practising social distancing, wearing masks where possible, and washing their hands frequently.

“There was a cultural shift … the culture had to change a little production in order for that to happen.”

Tate notes that the crew grew to find the COVID safety measures “incredibly enabling”, because, without them, “we couldn’t have made the show”.

“There were initial difficulties and questions and people finding it frustrating to wear a mask when they’re traveling in a car and things like this,” Dr Lilijeqvist remarks.

“But then, as you say, when people realised that it facilitated the work, I could observe the culture change.”

The doctor suggests TV shows like I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! play an important mental health role during the pandemic, bringing some levity and a “sense of normalcy” to viewers.

“That’s one of the things we actually said when we addressed the crew at the beginning of the season, was that we were going to be providing an antidote to all of the scary news that’s out there at the moment,” chimes Tate.

“We are providing escapism and that’s a very important thing. It shouldn’t be underestimated how important escapism is.”


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