For a while there it looked like we were going to be in some serious trouble. Let’s set the scene: after years of struggling in the wilderness after the fizzle that was Micallef Tonight, followed by a few years of good solid game show hosting on Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation, Shaun Micallef had not one but two shows lined up on Australian television in 2013.
On Ten he has his new lightweight murder mystery series Mr & Mrs Murder, in which he and Kat Stewart play a married couple who making a living from cleaning up murder scenes and just happen to solve the actual murders in their spare time; on the ABC we have the return of Micallef’s news / sketch show Mad as Hell, in which he hosts a fake news show that’s really just an excuse for the kind of sketch comedy he’s been doing since The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) back in the late 1990s.
So far so good… only this is Australian television we’re talking about so some kind of shitfit is never all that far away. In this case, it took the form of scheduling: both shows start next week on Wednesday the 20th. And for a while there it looked likely that they’d both air at the exact same time: 8.30pm. Thankfully it’s not quite that bad, as the ABC are putting Mad as Hell to air at 8pm. So long as you’re quick with the remote, watching both should be doable. Phew.
Yes, Mad as Hell is going to be repeated the next day on ABC2 anyway; yes, if these shows didn’t both star Shaun Micallef most people wouldn’t see them as clashing with each other in any real way. One’s a flat-out comedy, the other is a fairly gentle murder mystery series. But they both star Micallef, so why split his (presumably large – the man has managed to get television series up and running on two separate networks after all) fanbase?
It basically boils down to this: while Australian television is on the air all day every day, there are only a limited amount of timeslots that are actually “in play” where a network can improve their ratings. For example, Seven currently owns Tuesday nights thanks to Packed to the Rafters and Winners & Losers; Nine owns Thursday nights thanks to the Footy Show. Monday night is a night everyone wants, hence all the big guns come out; Friday night is a night no-one really cares about because whoever has the sport usually does okay then.
And for quite a while the ABC owned Wednesday nights thanks to their comedy line-up anchored by Spicks & Specks and its’ million viewers a week. But the hosts of Spicks & Specks grew tired and hey, Andrew Denton reckons word-based game shows will be the next big thing and suddenly the ABC’s hold on Wednesday night was less of a death grip and more like a dead man’s hand. Ten, not so much sensing a weakness as hearing the ABC shouting it from the rooftops, has been screening their quality series – your Offsprings and your Puberty Blues, not to mention Micallef’s own Talkin’ ‘bout Your Generation – on Wednesday nights ever since in the hope of making it their time to shine.
So Micallef is (almost) the victim of a turf war, as both networks battle to claim Wednesday evenings as their own. As usual with Australian television, the losers are the viewers: while the Ten product isn’t exactly comedy, it’s about as close to comedy as commercial television seems likely to get without the words “Hamish & Andy” being thrown in there somewhere.
This is, of course, the whole point of the exercise: Ten wants viewers to have to choose, in the hope that they’ll choose their shows over the ABCs. Which would pretty much fuck local comedy into its long-prepared grave, as it would signal that viewers would rather watch light drama with a few laughs – which is what Micallef is delivering with Mr & Mrs Murder – than something that was more committed to being all-out funny. And if the ABC wins, comedy on the commercial networks becomes even more unlikely. Man, that “Whoever Wins, We Lose” tagline from Aliens vs Predator really is the gift that keeps on giving, isn’t it?