Details are sketchy

Hmmm…this sure sounds worrying for the ABC…

An output deal between the BBC and ABC will end after nearly 50 years following the announcement of a new BBC Drama and Comedy channel on Foxtel.

Almost all the BBC Dramas and Comedies will shift to the new channel as Australian premieres, many which will be fast-tracked, and will only become available for Free to Air after 12 months.

But the ABC is unhappy it was not consulted on the new deal.

“In the past, the ABC has been able to point to our audience share, distinctive reach and the unique relationship between the two organisations, which has lasted 50 years,” an ABC spokesman said.

“The ABC is disappointed that this decision was taken without any consultation.

“The decision has no impact on the ABC’s ability to acquire content from other British production houses and television networks like ITV and Channel 4.”

On the other hand, when only 30% of the country can be bothered to get Foxtel this may be less of a problem than we think: the 70% without Foxtel will patiently wait a year to watch it on the ABC, right? The ones who haven’t learnt to torrent, that is.

Even so, you’ve got to wonder how the ABC are going retain their reputation for quality programming when less and less first-run quality broadcasting will be available on their channels. Want first run HBO? Sign up to Quickflix, or get it from iTunes or Foxtel. Want first run BBC, get Foxtel and watch it on their channel.

You have to feel sorry for the ABC, unlike the BBC or HBO, or the other big UK and US networks, they’ve never made almost all of the programmes they air. In a multi-channel environment it’s easy for an organisation like the BBC set up on their own; according to Wikipedia their flagship channel BBC One presented 100% original programming in peak time in 2010/11, and they’ve been on air since 1932 so they’ve also got quite a large archive.

Any broadcaster who either can’t get access to first run overseas shows or who isn’t making compelling, distinctive and good quality new programming for itself is going to become less and less relevant, and less and less watched. The ABC needs to make more Australian shows – including comedy. They’ll also need to be braver about the subject matter and formats if they want to stand out.

The most recent episode of Boxcutters concludes with a discussion of Greg Fleet’s Die On Your Feet, a dramedy featuring an all-star cast and directed by industry veteran Ted Robinson, which was filmed a couple of years ago but is most famous for not having made it to air. It was screened at MICF recently and Boxcutters presenter Josh Kinal went along to see it. “It wasn’t great”, he concluded, but the theories for it not airing are far more interesting. Cast member Adam Hills apparently reckons the ABC doesn’t want him, their flagship nice guy, playing a character who’s a “largely swearing arsehole”. There also seemed to be some hints that the show’s failure to make it to air was as much to do with politics as quality. For us, there are questions about whether a show with Alan Brough, Greg Fleet, Adam Hills, Steven Gates and Corinne Grant, and made by Ted Robinson, is likely to be worse than Please Like Me or Laid. If you’ve seen Die On Your Feet and have some thoughts on it please post a comment.

Also on the most recent Boxcutters was a discussion of The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting and Australia’s recent lack of success in the area of sketch comedy. Josh Kinal said of …Knife Fighting “It’s really good, really good…the sketches are funny”, and praised the show for being about things that happen in the real world as opposed to being parodies of television.

There was also much praise the British system of developing comedy talent by giving newcomers opportunities in radio, to get experience and grow, as opposed to the Australian system of throwing a bunch of people into a room and hoping for the best. “It misses out on all the great chemistry that’s developed from performers and the writing that can come from that” said comedian and Boxcutters presenter Courtney Hocking.

We probably don’t need to point this out, but it’s notable that The Elegant Gentleman’s Guide to Knife Fighting is more an example of the “throwing a bunch of people into a room” system while the consistently excellent Mad As Hell comes from a team who’ve (mostly) been working together for a couple of decades. We know which we think is the better show.

The recent announcement that Quail Television will soon start production on a weekly topical sketch show called Wednesday Night Fever will also test this theory. The Creator/Executive Producer is Rick Kalowski (The Honourable Wally Norman, Big Bite, Comedy Inc – The Late Shift, Double Take, At Home with Julia) and the show will feature a mix of old and new talent:

There’s a new wave of young comedic talent in Australia and this series is the perfect vehicle to showcase them, while playing alongside some of Australia’s more established comedians.

Given that the show will be topical in nature it seems likely that Kalowski’s old cohorts Amanda Bishop and Paul McCarthy will be reprising their Gillard, Rudd and Abbott impressions. Hopefully amusingly.

This could go one of two ways. It could be a “bunch of people in a room” show as Kalowski gets in a load of new faces in the hope that they’ll come up with the goods. Or Kalowski could bring in a bunch of tried and tested names from his days on a string of somewhat similar sketch comedy shows and hope that reliability will win out over inspiration.

Ideally a show like this would start out on radio or ABC2 out of the spotlight, take the time to develop new talent and give them the skills required to write successful topical sketches, and then when a group develops that works lift them up into the big time. Instead we’re getting a show that may come together and work – or it may stumble early on, lose the faith of viewers, get bumped back to a later timeslot and then vanish, remembered only when someone wants to make the dubious point that Australian audiences seemingly aren’t interested in comedy any more.

Still, look on the bright side: with Mad as Hell and The Roast and The Chaser’s upcoming election work, it’s not like the ABC is going to run short of topical news satire any time soon.

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28 Comments

  • Jumperpants says:

    I have seen Die on Your Feet. I didn’t stay for the whole thing. There are a lot of reasons why it will not be bought or aired unless for drama points. Here are some.
    1. Very little story. Largely a group of comedians sitting round talking about the comedy industry and not being particularly entertaining.
    2. Adam Hills and Corinne Grant cannot act.
    3. Shot like a soapy. Terrible lighting, there are scenes where outdoor scenes look like they were shot in a studio.
    4. Way way too much swearing to play it at a reasonable hour. Most of the swearing is pointless and boring.

    5. The ‘story’ is intercut with to camera pieces where the characters talk about comedy. This is not really different from the other scenes and adds nothing.

    6. All of the characters are all unlikeable and very similar.

    7. The ‘drama’ is awful, Corinne Grant and Adam Hills have zero chemistry and you don’t believe for a second that they went out.

    8. They admitted they started shooting without finishing the script and it shows.

    9. Very poorly directed. Some scenes have documentary style shaky cam, some have traditional set shots but with weird cut aways to actors saying nothing and looking blanks, probably indicating a lack of coverage. Strange use of crane shots when actors a sitting in an empty theatre for no apparent reason other than GNW having the crane in place for the Gala.

    9. The ‘plot’ in unbelievable. In episode one Brough’s character laments that he isn’t on at the gala and as such will not sell tickets to his show. The other characters act like this is the end of the world and he will never get on at such short notice. In the next scene a phone call has been made and he is performing at the gala.

    10. There are strange music choices. i.e original music with lyrics by the boring one from the Gadflys playing in the background that make it hard to concentrate on the dialogue.

    11. No actual comedy performing shown. So it’s a ‘comedy’ about characters who are comedians who talk about comedy but you don’t get to see the characters perform. This is fine if it was a traditional narrative show but it’s cut up like a sketch show where the same boring characters are drinking together in a different location in each scene. You have very little idea about what they are like either as people or comedians. You could swap their lines around for the most part and there would be little difference.

    12. The insider machinations of the comedy industry appears much more interesting in theory than in practice.

    I like most of the people involved as performers, some of them I’ve been watching for over 10 years as a live comedy fan. I also don’t mind GNW’s shows. They introduced me to a lot of live comedy. This is looks like something made by someone who has never directed or written anything before. It’s that bad. Really it’s an absolute car crash. The only thing I don’t understand is how they didn’t realise it and put it in a draw forever.

    Compared to Laid and Please Like Me? Two shows I really didn’t think much of. This is bafflingly bad and ill conceived. It’s looks and sounds awful.

    If it is ever released on DVD I would buy it in an absolute second, it has the potential to become like The Room. There’s a scene where Adam Hills picks up a cricket bat and throws it across the room. That’s the whole scene! Also for some reason they seem to shoot a lot of scenes in the dark. i.e people watching tv in the dark, playing video games in the dark.
    Like we wouldn’t know it was night unless the lights were all off.

  • Bradley says:

    BBC make a – to use the standard measurement – buttload of money selling programmes to the ABC. Why would they jeopardise that in favour of a dedicated BBC pay TV channel, which as you point out is never going to make much money for them while Foxtel’s audience is so small?

    I’d be very surprised if BBC shows which normally get banner timeslots on ABC1 (and premiere promotion) show up on this future BBC pay TV channel at all, least of all before they’ve aired on the ABC.

    If these programmes do air on this BBC channel as first-run premieres, all the BBC will achieve is to drive down the price ABC has to eventually pay for the right to air these shows on free-to-air. And the BBC *will* still want the ABC to show these programmes on free-to-air because the audience is much larger, and there’s much more money to be made there… but the ABC isn’t going to pay top dollar for a programme which has already had its audience shrunk by airing first on Foxtel.

    It just doesn’t make sense.

    What does make sense is that this BBC channel will show what doesn’t normally make it to free-to-air here: the crap shows that no one – not even the ABC – is interested in.

  • Jimbo says:

    One thing we can do to strengthen our comedy is to stop stealing ideas from sketch shows from other countries. What do we expect when we reward plagiarism at Tropfest?

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    It’s about US comedy from the 80s, but this article here: http://www2.macleans.ca/2008/11/28/the-20th-anniversary-of-the-most-awesomest-tv-contract-dispute-ever/

    had one bit that seems relevant today:

    “The producers of the new show were Tom Miller and Bob Boyett, which seemed like an odd mix with Valerie Harper and NBC. Nearly all their previous productions had been for ABC, and they specialized in broad, sophomoric shows, whereas NBC was trying to sell itself as the home of more high-class comedy. But Miller-Boyett benefited from the same fortuitous circumstances as Chuck Lorre and a few other comedy producers benefit from today: they were among the only comedy producers available at a time when the demand for comedy unexpectedly shot up. The sitcom was “dead” in the early-to-mid ’80s, and most of the leading sitcom producers had already disbanded or gone into something else. Miller-Boyett, who had left Paramount and signed with Lorimar TV (which was later bought by Warner Brothers and no longer exists), were just about to give up on sitcoms and do hour-long family dramedies when The Cosby Show exploded, and the networks went begging and pleading for new sitcoms. And Miller-Boyett were among the few experienced people who could respond to all that begging and pleading.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    They’ll just get shows from Channel 4 etc, no?

    From what you’ve hinted Australian comedy is a cabal. Nothing is going to happen unless old wood and weeds are cleared out and a hundred flowers are allowed to contend.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    It’s not such much a cabal as more that things ran down so badly in the early 00s that there’s simply no depth at the required level available now. There’s plenty of talent at the lower levels, but today there’s no way for them to move up the ladder through ability alone – back in the days of the various sketch shows, writers and performers would stand out if they were good enough.

  • BIlly C says:

    Spot on but also the ABC and the Networks are not putting any time or money into developing talent. The ABC should be giving young stands-ups and writers radio sitcoms and panel shows where they pay them a small amount of money to record a series. If it’s good they get a new show. If it’s not that great then no big deal. As opposed to throwing money at Randling and hoping it works.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    You know how comedy agents in the UK are heavily involved in TV production in order to get their acts on TV? That.- Bean is a Carrot.

    Also without an ABC in-house production team it seems you’ll have to lie with the devil to get something made now. Any way.

    We have the Internet surely that is a way to scout and nurture talent. It amazes me somebody has not driven a dump truck full of money to communitychannel’s house and asked her to make a show. Not to my tastes (comically) but you can’t deny she’s popular.

    Also if *guh* Thomas ‘worked’ I would be all for ‘the youth are the future’. He is after all the most successful Australian stand-up under 30 (probably) who had such a long lead in to refine his show and it was still SHIT.

  • Evilcommiedictator says:

    So the ABC can continue to not show good BBC content, and not show all the crap BBC content? Win/Win to me.
    They’ve finally figured out Alan Partridge, and I’m sure they can still cough up for QI repeats

  • Hmm says:

    That Boxcutters episode is also noteworthy for its discussion on the gender inequality of comedy writers, i.e. that they’re all men.

    Obviously the lack of women in comedy is a wider discussion, and I’ve got no interest in the “are women funny?” part of it. They are. QED.

    I don’t think Courtney Hocking comes across too well. She spends a long time talking about wanting more women writers to get hired, but eventually it literally becomes, “Hire me!”

    Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think that people are deliberately not hiring women writers in some sort of boy’s club scenario. I’ve never personally noticed a “jobs for the boys” vibe whilst working for a TV production company.

    Women are fairly well represented, I would argue, in positions of producing and commissioning. (Certainly a lot closer to parity than with writing.)

    Obviously we’re not look for a quota system to replace meritocracy, right?

    It’s a problem that needs to be fixed, and there would certainly be some examples of sexism at play, but I think it might be a bigger question of why more women aren’t becoming writers in the first place.

  • Hmm says:

    Oh and on Elegant Gentleman. Here’s my understanding of the writing process. So they put out an open call for writing submissions. Then they go, no actually we don’t want scripts we want one-paragraph sketch ideas. They collect those and write them out themselves.

    Do you remember that Martin Molloy segment where they would get callers to phone in with jokes? “DO OUR JOB!!!”

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    To be fair to Boxcutters, they talk about the Bechdel Test A LOT, so for a show mostly hosted by men they’re doing a pretty good job on tackling issues of gender balance in TV.

  • Bean Is A Carrot says:

    …which would sort of explain why a lot of the premises are OK, but the dialogue’s shithouse. And it’s shot in a way that’s full of endless pauses that kills the whole thing. I didn’t think that sketch about the feather which had been pulled out of the cushion would ever end!

  • Richard Features says:

    Maybe somebody with more insider knowledge could help me out on this, but my understanding is that the old auntie head of comedy, Debbie Lee, is now at Matchbox, and Carole Sklan, who’s head of fiction, now does both jobs.
    In that pre-Rudd comedic dead zone, did a similar thing happen? Was the lack of activity caused by shuffling chairs on the board, or were they just strapped for cash?

  • Richard Features says:

    Replying to myself to add this: Kath and Kim started in 2002, which seems wrong for some reason.

  • Billy c says:

    There is a ABC sketch shows being developed now where they’ve put out calls for submissions but gave comics two weeks notice during peak festival season to submit work for free for consideration. Performers quite unimpressed that a) they can’t just send scripts and need to shoot work to be considered b) the only people who have time to do it are those who aren’t working much as performers. As a result most people aren’t bothering. There’s just been four hundred shows in Melbourne. Finding talent is not difficult.

  • James says:

    Are you referring to the Hirewire (Lowdown, Agony) show?

  • James says:

    Sorry Highwire I mean.

  • Jimbo says:

    Was it as bad as the Adam Zwar movie ‘Rats and Cats’, which set the standard for bad Australian modern comedy?

    The following Youtube clip shows the ‘funny’ bits:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QU7odrKGm0

  • Jumperpants says:

    Good question. I actually saw Rats and Cats at the cinema. I believe it only played in one or two. I made a special trip to Yarraville. It was a good film for the first 15-20 minutes when it was setting up the story. Then the story went away. Nothing really happened. As a premise it was fine but it was like some overly long character study. I remember thinking it was odd that someone bothered to make that script but at least it had a script. To answer your question Rats and Cats is unfunny and boring but there’s so little going on that it doesn’t really elicit much of any emotion. Die on Your feet is baffling . You watch it with wide eyes thinking “how did this get made!” , why are all the shots in front of Melbourne land marks?” Is that 35 extras in the background? How much did this cost! It really is extraordinary. I really hope it gets put on itunes or DVD.

  • Jimbo says:

    Hmmm – Baffling plot, noting really happening, Melbourne land marks, unnecessary extras, ridiculous cost. Sounds like ‘Any Questions For Ben’, which is a movie of which I constanty ask myself ‘how did this get made?’

    I hope no taxpayer money was wasted on ‘Die On Your Feet’.

  • UnSubject says:

    I’d assume that Foxtel offered the BBC a buttload+ of money. And if the ABC gets it later, they are still paying for it.

  • James says:

    Working Dog had their mid-life crisis.

  • Richard Features says:

    There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s talent available, but this just seems like an idiotic strategy. Did nobody point out the flaw in their plan?

  • Jumperpants says:

    I assume they got a delivery date from the abc and had to work backwards from there. It’s not ideal and they will miss out on a lot of the young comics doing Melbourne and Sydney festivals. Unless they are able to do shows at night, shoot footage and write something in a short period of time. For the sake of a few weeks they would get a better result but while people don’t mind auditioning or submitting scripts filming stuff is a bit too much work for free

  • Pete Hill says:

    “One thing we can do to strengthen our comedy is to stop stealing ideas from sketch shows from other countries. What do we expect when we reward plagiarism at Tropfest?”

    Agree! As I said on the previous post, at least one of the sketches on last week’s episode of TEGGTKF was a blatant rip-off of a sketch from the British late 1990s sketch show ‘Big Train’.

  • Anna says:

    hmmm different strokes etc.
    I was at the screening of Die on your Feet too. I did stay to the end.
    The first few minutes of the first episode did feel like it was shot for a cheap soap, but that disappeared quickly, and I have to say that I really liked it.
    I just wish I could see the last episode. I found the episodes and story line funny, very real, beautiful, sometimes surprisingly subtle and sometimes, quite hilarious. For a change, I felt like it was not written for the lowest common denominator, which is so often the case. Some people want instant gratification be in comedy, TV, technology, etc. They want colour, punch, bang, NOW. I don’t. Subtlety is underutilised and underappreciated. It won’t be one for everyone (clearly, after reading the review above), but if you hold on for the ride, you’re in for a lovely journey. ABC management need to stop trying to be commercial television, and show this. The place it should be shown is on the ABC. And it really deserves to be seen.

  • Anna says:

    edited:

    hmmm different strokes etc.
    I was at the screening of Die on your Feet too. I did stay to the end.
    The first few minutes of the first episode did feel like it was shot for a cheap soap, but that disappeared quickly, and I have to say that I really liked it.
    I just wish I could see the last episode. I found the episodes and story line funny, very real, beautiful, sometimes surprisingly subtle and also, hilarious. For a change, I felt like it was not written for the lowest common denominator, which is so often the case. Some people want instant gratification, be it comedy, TV, technology, etc. They want colour, punch, bang, NOW. I don’t. Subtlety is underutilised and underappreciated. It won’t be one for everyone (clearly, after reading the review above), but if you hold on for the ride, you’re in for a lovely journey. ABC management need to stop trying to be commercial television and they need to show this. The place it should be shown is on the ABC, and it really deserves to be seen.