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Column: Film and TV

The forgotten ratings battlefield

by Jess Alice , July 31, 2013Leave a comment

tv remote

It feels ridiculously old fashioned to be talking about free-to-air television schedules, like someone’s grandpa lurching into the room to complain that there’s no-one interesting on the CB Radio these days. Doesn’t everyone just stream television, or torrent it, or – if they’re desperately clinging to the dark remains of a crumbling way of life – buy it on DVD? But free-to-air scheduling does have some impact on what becomes available to torrent or stream or watch in box set form, especially if you’re interested in home-grown drama. A show that rates badly on free-to-air television will almost always be axed; you can’t download a show that’s not being made any more.

To return to broadcast television is to return to a world full of strange continents governed by different rules. What happened to putting sitcoms on at 7.30pm? Now it’s all reality shows and the sitcoms don’t start until 11pm. Not everything’s different: Thursday nights at 9.30pm are dominated by the various footy panels, Channel Ten still shows The Simpsons at 6pm, Channel Seven always has some lightweight Aussie drama at 8.30pm Tuesdays, Friday nights are home renovation shows before some sporting event I won’t be watching, and Wednesday night is when the ABC wheels out the comedy. Or is it?

Occasionally one network or another will get annoyed with the status quo and start throwing their weight around. Remember when Seven kept trying to make their own footy shows happen on a Thursday night? Or the times when various interchangeable cooking shows or talent quests were scheduled up against each other in a clash to the death? Usually no-one cares about this stuff because the shows being flung against each other are meant to be disposable: they only work if you watch them live, so if everyone stops watching one it’s no big deal if it gets axed.

But occasionally – as has been happening on Wednesday nights for the last year or two – one network decides to start fighting quality with quality. When the ABC wrapped production on Spicks and Specks in 2011, they waved goodbye to the lynchpin of their Wednesday night comedy line-up. Spicks and Specks aired at 8.30pm, pulled in more than a million viewers a week, and finished promptly at 9pm, leaving those million viewers with the choice of either turning over to watch the second half of a show already in progress (every other network runs hour-long shows from 8.30pm) or sticking around to watch what was next. So everything after Spicks and Specks rated amazingly well too.

The ABC seemed confident they could keep their Wednesday night audiences in 2012 even without Spicks and Specks to bring in the crowds. Sensing weakness, Channel Ten pounced… well, not so much pounced as moved their own successful comedy panel show Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation into the Wednesday 8.30pm slot. Other Aussie comedy-dramas like Offspring and Puberty Blues replaced it in that timeslot; while lauded by critics, their ratings were less than impressive.

Meanwhile over at the ABC their Wednesday night line-up was also struggling.  Spicks and Specks replacement Randling turned out to be a dud and the various other comedy shows on around it weren’t faring much better. Amazingly, it seems when you force the audience for one kind of show to choose between two similar shows, both shows rate badly. Who saw that coming?

Not caring one whit for the previous paragraph’s logic, Ten kicked off ratings season 2013 with Shaun Micallef’s lightweight mystery series Mr & Mrs Murder in the Wednesday night slot. Micallef also struggled – partly against himself, as the ABC was also showing his sketch comedy show Mad as Hell Wednesdays at 8pm.  So Ten would make sure Mr & Mrs Murder started a little late so Micallef fans would have time to turn over, right? As they say in the classics, yeah nah: Mr & Mrs Murder actually started airing earlier, just to make sure you had to pick one or the other.

The stalemate continues: Ten is now airing live comedy panel show This Week Live Wednesdays at 9.30 against the ABC’s political sketch comedy (I use that word advisedly) Wednesday Night Live. Whatever the merits of either show, they’re still two fairly similar local efforts aimed at the same audience airing at the exact same time. But with the ABC announcing that their upcoming comedies Upper Middle Bogan and It’s A Date are going to be shown on Thursdays from August 15, perhaps the end is in sight?

Oh hang on a second: that’s just so the ABC can run their election comedies The Hamster Decides and Gruen Nation on Wednesday nights in August. The war goes on…


Anthony Morris is a Killings columnist and has been reviewing films for almost 20 years for a variety of publications, many of which have closed down through no fault of his own. Though his insistence on reviewing every single Adam Sandler movie may have played a part.

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