You can conclude a lot about the mood of a commercial network by how it stages its upfronts presentation.
My abiding memory of Ten’s event last year was watching them handing out portable televisions from the back of a lorry. In the style of an episode of Oprah, everybody who attended got one as they left.
Watching drunk media types wandering into the darkness of Sydney’s Hickson Road with electrical goods tucked under their arms, the image that popped into my mind was of the looters at the London riots a week before.
This year’s event from Ten was a less over-the-top, slightly more considered breakfast affair.
Meanwhile Seven’s was the over-the-top one this year – complete with indoor fireworks.
Nine had a small event this week around its in-house branded entertainment and integration operation Powered. But its main TV season preview is still a few weeks away. The network usually tends to go big though.
Which brings us to SBS, which held its Sydney showcase for the media yesterday afternoon. And fair to say that it feels like it is a network showing (very) early signs of regaining its mojo.
Last year, I must confess they had so little to say that I didn’t even bother to attend.
This time round, the situation has improved for the network, which gets limited advertising revenue, along with public money. In May, media minister Stephen Conroy increased that amount significantly.
Many members of the senior team are also new. MD Michael Ebeid has been in place for little more than a year. Director of TV and online content Tony Iffland just a few months. Marketing director Helen Kellie a few weeks.
Most notable, SBS now has a few dollars to spend on drama again. Yesterday, the network announced that David Wenham, Bryan Brown and Claudia Karvan are among the cast for Better Man, which will tell of the life and death of Van Nguyen, the Vietnamese-Australian who was executed for drug trafficking in Singapore in 2005.
Also on the slate is another series of Paul Fenech’s politically incorrect comedy drama Houso’s, although I was slightly surprised to see it was somewhat downplayed in Iffland’s presentation.
Other promising home grown content is another series of Who Do You Think You Are?. The episodes featuring Rove McManus, Michael Caton, Adam Hills and Asher Keddie should all rate.
Also intriguing is three part documentary series Dirty Business – How Mining made Australia.
And a one off documentary – intended for online rather than broadcast – is an examination of the Cronulla Riots. It will come alongside Once Upon A Time in Cabramatta, which will air on SBS1 as a four part history of Lebanese-Australians.
Overseas acquisitions is where you see SBS being hampered by its limited budget. It’l be airing series four of Mad Men, which of course went out on Foxtel long ago.
And it has made a couple of sensible new acquisitions – although neither is a guaranteed hit either locally . Lilyhammer is a fish-out-of-water comedy drama featuring The Sporanos’ Steven Van Zandt as a gangster relocated to Scandinavia.
Bullet in the Face is a face-swap crime comedy featuring Eddie Izzard.
Clearly the portfolio is not as deep as the other networks – the cash just isn’t there.
And if the lineup lacks one thing at this stage, it’s a sense of where the edginess and controversy needed by a network like SBS – and which it used to have – is going to come from.
The new season feels like a step forward. Hopefully the sense of danger will follow.