We tend to bang on a bit here about the way the ABC seem to be keen to promote every comedy they can as the most shocking and controversial thing since… well, the last time The Chaser / Chris Lilley made fun of dead people. Partly that’s because we’re simply interested in the behind-the-scenes goings on with Australian comedy; partly that’s because this focus on being shocking and controversial may actually extend beyond the promotional side of things and into the offices where they actually decide what comedies they give the green light to.
Look at it this way: in an increasingly crowded entertainment market, a new television show needs all the publicity it can get if it’s to attract viewers. The ABC, having no money, needs to get other newspapers and magazines talking about its’ programming to get the word out. So with that in mind, and with all other things being equal, which comedy show do you think they’d commission – the funny but inoffensive one, or the funny one that’ll get a bunch of outraged stories in The Herald-Sun once word leaks out about the Pedophile Prime Minister (“don’t let him kiss your baby”) routine?
(yes, we know all things are rarely equal. That’s why we dislike this trend: “controversial” comedy is often shit comedy, relying on shock tactics rather than decent performances or solid scripts)
With that said, we move across to the most recent episode of the Boxcutters podcast, which features an interview with At Home with Julia Executive Producer Rick Kalowski. In a frank conversation with co-host Josh Kinnal, Kalowski expresses surprise at the amount of controversy the series generated, saying that before it was broadcast he’d assumed that any initial controversy about the show focusing on the life of a sitting Prime Minister would die away as it progressed.
RK: The one thing that we thought probably would engender a bit of controversy was the flag issue, but we never imagined how that would play out, I’ve got to say.
JK: That felt to me, a little bit…because that happened…that’s episode 3 when the flag issue happens…
JK: And, I read the press leading up to it…to me that felt a little bit forced, controversy-wise. It felt like the sort of thing that nobody would be aware of unless the ABC leaked it out there.
RK: No, they didn’t. I’m glad we’re speaking because one of the things I’d like to clarify is that in fact the ABC had nothing to do with it. Our attitude was that it was a really sweet, fun scene, and to the extent that it was going to cause any controversy it’d be nice if nobody knew about it before it happened. The way that it happened was there were preview copies sent out, obviously, to TV critics, of the episodes; David Knox who is a lovely guy, he’s the editor of TV Tonight, reviewed the episode and he averted to it without giving it away, because he’s a decent guy, he reviewed the episode positively but averted to the fact that there’s something controversial in it. Someone from the Herald-Sun in Melbourne, I think it was Colin Vickery, which is a News Limited paper, smelled the possibility of a story and tried to find out from David Knox – this is what I understand to be the case – tried to find out from David Knox what the controversial thing was, and Knox wouldn’t tell him. He tried to get, then, he tried to find out from the ABC and the ABC wouldn’t tell him, so as I understand it he took from the TV critic at the Herald-Sun the copy of the episode, which apparently he wasn’t meant to do, it was meant to be seen by the TV critic and not by him, and he then, as I understand it, watched it and took a screen capture of the shot with the flag and put it in the newspaper, and that’s how the story got out.
RK: The ABC had no intention of drumming-up controversy, and in fact you’ll notice that one of the things that’s aggravated, for example, Neil Mitchell on 3AW in Melbourne so much is that the ABC wouldn’t allow, didn’t want, anybody to speak to Neil Mitchell and drum up further controversy, and in fact the ABC’s attitude was the opposite, which was actually to say nothing.
JK: You know, you could have saved yourself about two minutes of explanation if you’d just said “Colin Vickery”.
RK: Yes, probably…
The conversation then moved on to a discussion about Colin Vickery’s role in “manufacturing outrage” about a number of ABC comedy programs, and how certain sections of the media (the implication here is those newspapers owned by News Limited) have set narratives for covering comedy in general. If a show is on a commercial network (i.e. The Joy of Sets) stories will generally concern ratings numbers and possible dips therein. If a show is on the public broadcaster (i.e. shows made by The Chaser) journalists will jump on anything potentially controversial (indeed, you can virtually hear them pacing around waiting for something to go to air on The Hamster Wheel that they can be OUTRAGED by).
The problem with Kalowski’s version of events is that Colin Vickery – loathe as we are to admit this – was right: the scene in At Home with Julia was news-worthy. Or at least, news-worthy by the dubious standards of the newspaper he works for. Nice as it would be to believe that the Herald-Sun‘s TV reviewer would look at such a scene and go “Oh no, I won’t mention that scene to anyone else here”, finding out about “controversial things” and reporting on them is what newspapers – and all the people who write for them – are supposed to do.
After all, it’s not like the Herald-Sun doesn’t report on television stories on its front pages when it sees fit; to claim that Vickery “wasn’t meant to” report on a news-worthy moment in an upcoming television show verges on bizarre. By the standards of his workplace, that’s exactly what he was supposed to do – if the ABC doesn’t want the Herald-Sun talking about their shows, they can simply stop providing previews.
With that in mind, and considering that the News Limited reaction to pretty much everything on the ABC that’s even remotely scandalous is well-known and firmly understood even by us, did the ABC or Rick Kalowski honestly think that a scene showing the PM post-coital in her office under an Australian flag would be seen as “a really sweet, fun scene”? Realistically, the most positive spin that can be put on the scene is that they were hoping it would spark controversy and get viewers in for the following episode, only to have Vickery rain on their parade by bringing it to light before it actually aired.
So, ultimately, it’s hard to buy much of Kalowski’s argument that the ABC never tried to drum up publicity for this. Indeed, there’s some suggestion (or possibly evidence) that they actually tried to do this. Here’s what Dennis Dugandzic, Simon Band and Dan Barrett had to say in episode 198 of the podcast Televised Revolution (released 20 September):
DD: …I’m sure they [the ABC] realised they were going to get a bit of backlash…
SB: Realised, or deliberately sought?
DB: Well, it’s interesting you mention this gentleman, because I’m not sure if you guys receive the same ABC press releases that I do, or maybe I just don’t forward them on to you…
SB: Oh, what, the “ABC courts controversy” kinda stuff?
DB: Well, none of that, ABC, when they’ve got a show to promote, or whatever, you get a press release…and so I saw a press release come through, I think it may have been on Monday morning [19th September], may have been over the weekend, I’m not quite sure, could have been Friday [16th September]. Anyway, it was saying episode 3 of At Home with Julia is online to watch and there’s, like, a special thing for the media to login to the ABC to be able to preview things, it’s environmentally friendly, they’re not mailing discs around the place and what not, but people are given a login and can check out their media website. And so they said that episode 3’s online on this site and you can go and check it out, and I thought to myself “That’s a bit unusual, I’m sure there’s probably something to this”. I haven’t watched the episode yet, but I’ll be firing it up later tonight and try to get a review up before it airs tomorrow, but it struck me as interesting that they did this when I haven’t seen a similar press release for the previous two episodes, and so I think they really wanted the media to see this episode and then to spark the discussion.
SB: Off the top of my head, it went from one and bit million to eight hundred and something thousand in between that and the second week, so I would dare suggest that there is the desire to create interest in an otherwise uninteresting show.
DB: I would also suggest that this episode two, of a show courted controversy, that was always going to do down, people will tune in for that curiosity factor, but it’s not likely they’ll stick around on those same levels. I would suggest that for a satirical comedy about politics, on the ABC, on Wednesday nights at 9.30pm, 890,000 is a pretty respectable figure, and I believe you’ll find that that figure will also trounce anything that was on Nine or Ten that night.
SB: You raise an excellent point.
Again, it’s hard to be sure how accurate the suggestions in this conversation are – there must surely have been a press release issued for episode 1 of At Home with Julia, for instance – but Simon Band’s point about the ratings dip between episodes one and two of the show is interesting, despite Dan Barrett’s very reasonable counter-argument that a second episode dip was predictable and that episode 2’s ratings were respectable.
Anyway, what can we conclude from all this? In recent years we’ve seen the ABC become increasingly focused on getting good ratings for and generating a buzz about their programs in a desperate bid to justify their existence. All the while they have continued to undergo a sustained and co-ordinated attack from News Limited newspapers, right-wing talkback hosts, and cynical politicians. People like us would argue that the ABC’s continued existence should be justified by its commitment to quality and niche programming, and its services to regional areas, but that is not the strategy the ABC themselves have plumped for. They’re most interested in ratings, and they’ve worked hard to get them. 15 years ago the ABC didn’t make many populist programs, or have as many people working hard to publicise them. Now look at them: you can’t get people to shut up about The Slap.
So, is it really that hard to believe that someone in ABC publicity decided to that if they couldn’t stop News Limited from busting out their pre-determined invective, then perhaps they could use it to their advantage? Because if there’s one thing that will get lots of people tuning in it’s the promise of a shocking or controversial scene. And who cares if they all complain about it later, because lots of them will tune in next week for more.
As for the ABC being under threat because it aired a sitcom showing a post-coital Prime Minister and First Bloke under the flag… no. No government would shut down the ABC or slash its budget for that, or for any of the ABC comedy OUTRAGES of recent years. The truth of the matter is that the ABC has a rusted-on audience who would fight for it if it were under serious threat, and as the ABC make increasingly populist programs that audience is getting bigger and bigger – too big for News Limited or even a Tony Abbott-led government to kill. Maybe that ratings-led strategy was a good idea?