Matt Smith's End of the Spectrum

Melbourne-based writer and journalist. Purveyor of finally crafted radio plays. A Muppet of a man.

Why the best shows go unwatched

First published in The National Times on 10th September, 2010

The Emmy Awards have been handed out for another year, but if you’ve missed that fact you can be forgiven.

While the awards were intended to be dedicated to the art of making television programs, at some point it got lost along the way in a haze of fashionistas demanding ”Who are you wearing?”. The Australian media coverage was limited to telling us who can dress, who can’t dress, and that Australian actors have been snubbed of taking home any trophies. And really, can you blame us? When the major prizes are won by shows that get few viewers in our land, why should we cover their victories?

Of the deserving shows that took home Emmys that night, two in particular highlighted strange gaps in our country’s viewing: that being AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Mad Men walked away with the outstanding drama series for the third year in a row, while Breaking Bad secured another best actor trophy for star Bryan Cranston, and a best supporting gong for his co-star Aaron Paul. If these shows (and they aren’t alone) are amongst the best American television have to offer, it’s strange that they given little exposure in Australia.
The best way to put it is that Australia is spoilt for content choice with little airtime to spare. With five primary free-to-air channels and a small pay TV empire, schedule space is at a premium (although digital channels have improved things).

The situation is further limited by the ACMA Australian content standard dictating that a minimum of 55 per cent of programming between 6am and midnight needs to be Australian. This standard has been great for our economy and our arts community, and while plenty of the 55 per cent is burnt off on daytime television, it has lead to some quality evening offerings such as Packed to the Rafters, MasterChef, and The Gruen Transfer.

The remaining 45 per cent of imported programming goes a long way to show how much of a harsh mistress our free-to-air stations are.

For a show to succeed in this environment it needs to have at least one of three important elements:

1. It needs to be family friendly light comedy material.

2. It needs to be a police / lawyer / medical drama, or any combination

3. It needs to be a reality show with plenty of sizzle factor

Any shows that fall outside these criteria don’t play by the rules. To last they need to prove themselves within the first few episodes or risk either having their timeslot moved, or being put on early hiatus and outside the ratings period. Audiences are built out of loyalty and over time, time they aren’t given on Australian free-to-air. It’s hard to establish an audience when watching a show is like trying to hit a moving target.

Pay TV subscriptions are held by about 30 per cent of Australian households, and that’s where most of these television shows are getting a chance. Breaking Bad is finally getting a bit of room to breath on ABC2, and Mad Men lasted a few episodes on the mainstream media before being ‘sent away to the farm where you can’t visit it’. Only now is it getting a second chance on SBS, where on Sunday nights they’re playing old episodes long since released on DVD. In a way, maybe that’s for the best – commercial television is hardly a forgiving environment. With a standard hour of programming containing up to nineteen minutes of commercials, shows that originated on US cable would require some brutal editing.

If Mad Men was treated differently, it could have been a big success – The Gruen Transfer has gone a long way to show that a program can succeed while being smart and about advertising and the recent telemovie Hawke pulled in big ratings for a period drama about a womanising drunk. Underbelly has shown that television about crime and drugs can rate big, which should bode well for Breaking Bad.

So while these shows might not be mainstream, they are appreciated by those who take the time to watch them, and enjoy smart television that doesn’t take safe directions. They may never cross your television screen, but they’re well loved on the DVD market, and undoubtedly, the world of illegal internet downloads. If you’re tired of pedestrian viewing offerings, it might be worth trying something new, and watching something on DVD that has never crossed your screen. If shows set in advertising in the 60s don’t take your fancy, or drug manufacturers suffering from terminal cancer, then try The Wire, The Shield, Oz, Lost, Justified or any number of shows that never really got a chance on free-to-air to air TV. Who knows, maybe all that critical acclaim might be right.

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This entry was posted on September 13, 2010 by in television and tagged , , , , .
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