Getting Dark Early These Days

In yesterday’s Green Guide Debi Enker wrote something that will come as no surprise whatsoever to long-suffering readers of this blog: “Wednesday night ratings are not giving Aunty much joy”:

In recent years, the ABC has established Wednesday as a home for crowd-pleasing light entertainment. Reliably anchored by Spicks & Specks, it offered a selection of popular local and imported comedies and chat shows – The Gruen Transfer, The Chaser, Angry Boys – before David and Margaret moved in at 10pm.

Not this year. At 8pm, the wonderful Woodley – which, in a just world, would be attracting a couple of million viewers a night and rivaling My Kitchen Rules – started with about 534,000 viewers nationally and has steadily dropped about 200,000 of them.

She goes on to point out the following:

*In the key 8.30pm slot formerly occupied by Spicks & Specks, Adam Hill’s variety chat show, In Gordon St Tonight, hasn’t cracked 600,000 and usually attracts around 500,000 in a slot that should be getting double that.

*At 9.30pm Outland was a ratings disaster, starting out at 300,000 viewers and rapidly dropping to less than 200,000 – less than Kitchen Cabinet was attracting on ABC2 at the same time.

(Agony Uncles seems to have done better than that, rating around 400,000 on its first night. It was still beaten by every commercial network.)

There’s a fair bit to digest there. Fortunately, we took a good hard chew at it back when Spicks & Specks wrapped up:

What we will miss about Spicks & Specks is the way that it delivered around a million viewers week in week out to whatever comedy show the ABC decided to screen after it. Yes, this did mean that a lot of crap got a ratings boost it didn’t deserve – hello Gruen family of programs – but it also meant a lot of other comedy shows managed to rake in respectable viewing figures too, which helped create the impression that Australian comedy was actually popular out there amongst ABC viewers.

If we’re lucky, the ABC will come up with a new series to anchor Wednesday nights. Ah, who are we kidding: there’ll be a string of also-rans and not-quite-theres and series two of Laid and eventually Wednesday will become the night for docos or UK dramas or whatever the hell crap it is the ABC shows on Tuesdays or Thursdays. The passing of Spicks & Specks is the end of an era: we only wish it’d had been a show more deserving of its’ success.

Making the real question here, if we could spot how the loss of Spicks & Specks was totally going to screw over everything else of Wednesday nights, why didn’t the ABC? So, in the spirit of steering them in the right direction because they seriously don’t seem to have a friggin’ clue, may we suggest the following:

1): Bring back Spicks & Specks. Okay, the horse has pretty much bolted here. So why the hell didn’t they keep the show going and just change the host? It was extremely obvious from the second In Gordon Street wasn’t a massive car crash that Hills was going to bail on S&S. Fair enough too, he’d clearly had enough. But let’s be honest: unless you are a relative or close personal friend of Hills, he’s not exactly irreplaceable. He’s a moderately handsome host who can come out with ABC-level quips. Two words: Will Fucking Anderson. Or pretty much anyone else, including your local postie. Yes, he was good at his job. His job was hosting a musical quiz show. IT’S NOT THAT HARD. Just look at the UK, where they have loads of this kind of long-running show and think nothing of swapping out hosts when need be.

(Alan Brough would have been equally easy to replace – comedians who are passionate about music aren’t exactly rare. Ironically, Myf, who was the least likely to walk, would have been the hardest to replace)

2): Move In Gordon Street Tonight to Monday nights 9.30pm. Despite Enker’s wild’n crazy claim, Wednesday nights on the ABC have never been the home of chat. In recent years there have been panel discussion shows on that night, true, but they’re a very different beast from a talk show. Even in today’s crazy mixed-up televisual landscape having an interview-based talk show on in the middle of the week (and at 8.30pm) just doesn’t sit right.

We’d be willing to guess that if Gordon Street had been hosted by anyone but Hills the ABC would’ve known this and given it the once massively successful and now basically disused Monday 9.30pm Enough Rope timeslot – it’s not like Q&A is doing anything useful with it. But they seem to have fallen for the idea that ABC viewers are fans of Adam Hills, not of the specific shows he hosts, and would therefore watch anything he got up to on a Wednesday night. Unfortunately, the career path of pretty much every single long-running television host makes it fairly clear that people watch television shows, not hosts. People watched Spicks & Specks, not Adam Hills.

3): Make the occasional mainstream comedy. You know us: so long as it makes us laugh we don’t give a shit about what a show’s “about”. But let’s be honest: a show like Outland* is the kind of narrowcast program a network can only make if they either have a remit to target niche markets or don’t care about ratings. Last we checked the ABC does care a heck of a lot about ratings and as for niche markets, maybe in drama: when it comes to televisualised Australian comedy, they’re the only game in town.

Again, don’t get us wrong. We’re glad Outland was made. It’s just the kind of series you make once or twice a year as a fun sidebar and currently the ABC, in their wisdom, has nothing on their current new comedy slate BUT fun sidebars. Laid 2 is for inner-city Marieke Hardy fans while the upcoming Josh Thomas sitcom Please Like Me promises new levels of quirky annoyance from the title alone – fuck, according to the press release it even stars his fucking dog:

As well as writing the series, Josh Thomas stars in PLEASE LIKE ME as Josh, alongside his cavoodle, John

And if the ABC is pinning their ratings hopes on Randling, here’s a quick reminder of its mainstream appeal: IT’S A WORD-BASED QUIZ SHOW. Yeah, that’ll set the world on fire. The Einstein Factor sounded like more fun, and that was a wank.

We get that it’s the start of the year, which is traditionally the time when the ABC burns off its’ comedy duds to clear the desks for a big ratings push mid-year. But a show like Woodley – which despite Enker’s burblings was never going to rate well because despite all the skill, care and effort put into it it’s basically a show built around mime – should have aired surrounded by shows with wider appeal.

(Not that wider appeal cures all ills: Agony Uncles is as mainstream as a Sunday tabloid and about as informative and entertaining. As for Myf Warhurst’s Nice, well, if you can’t say something nice there’s always room for you here.)

Later in the year Gruen will return in some form, along with The Chaser and Shaun Micallef’s news-based comedy Mad As Hell, and the ABC’s Wednesday ratings will mostly likely lift. But chances are they’ll never regain their Spicks & Specks figures**, and once that sinks in that’s when the weaker examples of what Enker calls “light entertainment” will start to vanish. Panel chat and cheap crap like Agony Uncles will survive much like they have on commercial television; scripted comedy? At a time when even Chris Lilley can’t deliver a ratings hit? Well, probably not.

It was fun while it lasted.


*[edit] Just to make it clear, the problem as we see it with shows like Outland is that by the very nature of their subject matter it’s going to take solid word of mouth to win people over, and when you’re talking about a six part series you don’t really have a lot of time to get that word of mouth. Whatever the quality of the comedy itself, “gay science fiction nerds” is not a topic with an automatic connection to a lot of viewers, as it’s about a very small segment of the population (and a somewhat cliched one too – both gays and nerds are well-worn comedic territory).

In contrast, and to use the two big sitcom successes of recent times, Kath & Kim was about mothers and daughters in the suburbs; Summer Heights High was about high school kids.They may be as cliched comedy-wise as gays and nerds, but at least they’re cliches a lot of Australians feel some connection to – which may at the very least translate into “let’s see how badly they screw this up” viewers out the gate.  We’ve argued for years that the big ignored factor behind Summer Heights High‘s success was the fact it tapped into the captive schoolkid /school parent audience and gave them crap stereotypes they could laugh at.

Again, we like comedy that’s funny no matter what it’s about, but considering the most popular comedy shows on television are the various Footy Shows (make that “comedy”), it’d be foolish to deny that if you’re talking about popularity (and that’s ALL we’re talking about here) there are some subjects that will initially attract more viewers than others.


**[edit] as at least one commentator has pointed out below, the ABC does pretty well viewer-wise out of iView and other non-traditional viewing methods, not to mention the cash money from selling their shows on DVD, which  muddies the waters somewhat as to whether shows are actual successes or failures. Problem there is that the traditional ratings figures are – at least for the moment – still the main way that the public are told whether a show is a hit or a miss. And for the ABC, which gains no commercial benefit from their ratings (they have no advertisers who care about actual viewing numbers and pay accordingly), public opinion is what counts. So until they can get everyone else in the media to agree that those other methods should add towards whether a show is a success or failure, the ratings figures are the ones that count, at least perception-wise. After all, no-one feels the need to bring up iView figures for shows that are rating well.

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  • SimL says:

    I think there are a number of factors – one is that people watching a chat show aren’t necessarily interested in watching scripted comedy, and the ABC would’ve been better off putting the scripted comedies together rather than separated by a talk show to make a comedy zone. Secondly, I disagree that Outland was a “niche” audience, and I think you’re mixing up the subject matter with the intended audience (mind you, so did a lot of other people, from the look of it). Thirdly, what is a “mainstream” comedy these days anyway? What should the ABC be making? Kath & Kim was by no means an obvious hit, nor was Summer Heights High. If those had rated badly people would be saying “well of course a pantomime attack on the suburbs/a mocumentary about unlikable schoolkids wasn’t going to work”. Woodley and Outland both attempted to make “funny” comedies with actual gags in them (visual in one, verbal in the other) and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t work. Or won’t STILL work, actually, which brings us to the most important issue –

    In 2012 on the ABC, why on earth are we paying attention to Oztam overnight ratings? At the very least, to judge an ABC audience we need to have the consolidated ratings and the iview numbers. The ABC has a phenomenal online viewing platform which only recently we were told gets more hits than any of the illegal downloading options for viewing: . Another poll indicated that about a third of Australians don’t watch free-to-air at all, only using iview, download and DVD. Anecdotally the number of people I know who are/were watching Woodley and Outland seem much higher than the ratings would suggest, and they’re all watching on iview.

    A recent article shows that scripted drama and comedy does much better in the consolidated viewing figures ( TV viewing has massively changed in the last year alone, so why do sources like Mumbarella and TVTonight continue to report the overnights like it’s still 1975?

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    You make a number of good points. You’re right that we weren’t clear re: Outland / mainstream comedy – we’ll clarify that above.