Hey, Australia – Where’s all the scripted TV?

The end of ratings season last weekend revealed a shocking fact: Aussies love watching sport.

The 16 most-watched shows across free-to-air television during 2023 were all sporting matches.

There were various Matildas and non-Matildas soccer games; the AFL Finals; the pre-game part where former players predict what’s about to happen; the post-game part where trophies are held aloft and breathless players gasp out platitudes; three State of Origins; and the NRL Finals… in no particular order.

Then, at #17, we have the MAFS final dinner party episode. Then The Block finale. Then the MAFS finale (which is obviously less a drawcard than the final dinner party). Then the Australian Open final. And so it goes.

Sport. Sport. Reality TV. Sport. Repeat to fade.

What you won’t see much of in the list of the 50 most-watched shows in Australia is any scripted drama.

Or scripted anything, really. None of the slew of overseas scripted series we’ve all been obsessed with these past few years, nor any of our excellent locally produced content – be it comedy, drama, or anywhere in-between.

Among the 50 most-watched shows this year in Australia, on free-to-air TV, the scripted program that got the biggest audiences was (drum-roll) an episode of British crime drama Vera, which is proudly sitting at #36.

If you haven’t seen this show, it’s basically an updated Miss Marple. It airs on ABC every Sunday night at the plum time of 8:19pm (really!) to an audience primed for provincial drama by Antiques Roadshow.

We also have a single episode of Home and Away – one of roughly 200 aired throughout the year – at #46.

That’s it.

So, if one half-hour of a drama series that debuted in 1988 is the only local scripted production to land in the top-fifty shows watched on free-to-air TV, what does this suggest?

Easy – it means nobody cares about scripted TV anymore. Especially not Australian scripted TV. Case closed.

Except, of course, Australian scripted television is having one of its strongest years in history.

Bluey is the biggest Australian export since Hemsworth and Bros. Ltd. ABC comedy Fisk landed on Netflix this year, and within two weeks, it was one of the top 10 shows on Netflix globally, while Colin From Accounts (commissioned by Foxtel) was a ratings hit on the BBC, a streaming hit on Paramount Plus in the US, and scored nominations at the Venice TV Awards, the European Broadcasting Union’s Rose D’Or awards, and Content London’s C21 International Awards.

Even Neighbours, which Ten axed after 37 years and a dozen Karl Kennedy affairs, was immediately resurrected by Amazon to air in the UK on its Freevee service, along with decades of back episodes to keep the Brits warm (or at least keep them believing Melbourne is).

Australian scripted TV is going through a purple patch. And that’s just local TV I’m focused on above – you’ll note that zero American scripted shows made the top 50. That’s quite incredible.

The dearth of US scripted content may seem to be a result of the Hollywood writer’s strike, but that will largely impact productions set to air next year and into 2025 – this is a separate problem.

So, why the huge disconnect with these free-to-air viewing figures, and the amount of scripted TV we all empirically seem to be watching? Is it just that people are turning to the streaming services for their scripted content?

One obvious factor is the way in which we watch scripted TV has changed, for good.

We want it when we want it, and we want it all, now. You can blame the internet, blame phones, blame a thousand mp3s in your pocket at the start of the century, blame the Cottee’s cordial that raised the kids, blame 24-hour news channels, blame Tupac for writing too many verses and releasing too many songs too fast. But it seems to be the way things are, in regards to culture. Nobody is waiting around week to week, sitting dutifully in front of a box at a certain time to see a scripted show plod out in seven minute slices.

Foxtel’s streaming service is called Binge. SBS has On Demand. (Slice is actually an excellent name for a streaming service, but this is besides the point).

Seven told Mumbrella during Upfronts season that Home and Away clocked the most streaming hours on their 7plus platform across all programming. It’s also by far the most popular scripted show, week in week out, across all free-to-air stations, regularly inside each night’s top ten list. But it is a huge anomaly.

The biggest recent streaming successes internationally have all been scripted dramas – Squid Game, Stranger Things, The Queen’s Gambit, The Crown – you could even argue that the Marvel films that rule the cinematic world at least started with a script.

On the other hand, podcasts – still considered an emerging format after two decades and hundred-million-dollar deals – are awash in documentary-style storytelling, true crime, and long-form conversations.

All of which to say, maybe it’s not the format but the delivery system.

It seems to be the natural siloing of these different types of entertainment.

In a world with fractured attention spans and multiple formats and devices vying for it, scripted TV makes more sense on a streaming service – organised in a library, able to be knocked out in a weekend, or doled out daily with dinner. A cricket match competing with a historical drama for viewership seems as absurd as programming a Picasso painting to come on after the tennis.

Free-to-air TV is considered live TV — even if it’s not — and we no longer see scripted series as ephemeral things that need to be caught in the moment. When I was growing up, if you missed an episode of a TV show, you just missed it. There’s forever an hour-sized gap in your understanding of a show. It was a real investment. The Lemonheads/Smudge song ‘The Outdoor Type’ has the line: “I can’t go away with you on a rock-climbing weekend, what if something’s on TV, and it’s never shown again.” It was a real concern.

It is no longer so – at least not for scripted TV. But it is for sports. Sports remains the only thing in society that cannot be spoiled by someone yapping about the secret trap door near the halfway line, if you watch it live. This is also true of the other national pastime: watching people compete for love or glory on reality TV.

One thing that many people bemoan in the binge-watching era is the loss of so-called water cooler TV. Now you cannot simply ask if someone is watching a show, without having the rushed ‘where are you up to don’t tell me anything’ follow up rant. It’s rare you’ll be up to the same episode of the same show with someone unless you share a viewing couch with them.

Free-to-air TV still provides this – not only that, it seems to be the only place we are getting this.

Australians love watching Australians be good at things, whether it’s baking the perfect crust, running the fastest, or singing while dressed as an alfalfa. It’s why we all tune into swimming every four years, despite the majority of the action taking place under water, and it’s why we all went mad for a month and bought soccer kits and started digging around the shed for that old ball pump and shin guards. It’s why we laugh at the American baseball finals being named The World Series, while straight-faced calling ourselves the world champions of sporting codes in which we only compete with a number of tiny islands.

As the success of The Matildas showed us, appointment viewing is still alive and well. This is where free-to-air TV matters.

Sports and reality TV. It’s what Australians want to watch. And so, we do.

And nobody could have scripted it better.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.