A Decade of Paying Attention

In a semi-recent interview to promote the return of Have You Been Paying Attention? – in the real estate supplement Domain, of all places – Tom Gleisner pointed out it was now a full decade since HYBPA? first aired on Ten, and that the first few seasons had been teetering on the edge of cancellation:

“I love HYBPA more because it almost didn’t happen,” Gleisner says.

“We had two seasons run and didn’t have many people watching. We came close to being axed, but Channel 10 stuck with us, and we slowly found an audience. We weren’t an overnight success.”

Considering that seems like the exact opposite of the approach taken these days with new shows, how exactly did Ten pull off this miracle?

For starters, going by our original review, it seems like at least some of the basics of today’s HYBPA? were in place from the get-go:

Host Tom Gleisner asks a question, one of the panel makes a smart-arse answer, someone else gives a proper answer, we move on.

And then there’s the elements that weren’t quite the same. For one, it was initially a half hour show that aired early on Sunday nights (at one stage at 6pm). Which explains why we were initially a bit skeptical about its long-term prospects:

This kind of show is too light and fluffy to survive in prime time, but these days local product costs too much to show anywhere outside the big ratings periods. Ideally it’d be on 5.30pm weeknights (which is when Ten runs its news, so no go) or somewhere early Saturday night (which is now a ratings graveyard, so no go there either). Sundays at 7pm is a decent enough compromise, but ideally this would be on in a slightly out-of-the-way timeslot (not too late though, as it’s firmly family-friendly) where it could slowly build a fanbase. You know, like television shows used to do back in the 1980s.

Did they listen to us? Of course not. But they did try something a little different when the series returned in 2014: an up late edition:

they went to air at the usual time (6pm) with the usual episode, then at 10.30pm they ran an extended “after dark” version that was around ten minutes longer. Has society gone mad?

We figured this could be a couple of things. Maybe a trial for a later timeslot? Maybe an attempt to boost ratings by showing basically the same show twice? The ABC had recently tried that with Randling, showing it multiple times each week.

And once again, we had no clue. A month or so later the show moved from 6pm Sundays to 9.30pm Mondays, expanded to an hour, and pretty much took off from there.

What’s perhaps more interesting than this tale of the little TV series that could (and our complete inability to run a television network) is the background against which all this took place.

These days Working Dog basically just makes HYBPA? (and now, The Cheap Seats). A decade ago they’d just come off the talk show Pictures of You, the cooking show parody Audrey’s Kitchen, strangely pointless movie Any Questions For Ben?, and were still peddling Santo, Sam & Ed’s various sports shows – plus they had a political play (The Speechmaker) ready to hit the stage.

HYBPA? put paid to all that. Since it took off, all they’ve done is the ABC sitcom Utopia and the largely derided animated series Pacific Heat. Narrowing their focus to a single series made sense then and it still does now: HYBPA? looks like a lot of work and runs half the year. But as they’ve cut back on their output, so has Australian comedy across the board.

Looking back a decade ago reveals a lot of still-familiar titles. Gruen, Mad as Hell, even Spicks & Specks (the crap 2014 version). It also reveals a lot of other now forgotten series and formats (remember sketch comedy?) that were replaced by absolutely nothing.

At first it wasn’t all bad. HYBPA? made panel shows like the ABC’s Tractor Monkeys and Dirty Laundry Live look somewhat second rate; when they fell under the axe (due to budget cuts as much as anything), they weren’t replaced or missed. But after a while, you start to wonder: maybe a new comedy panel show might not be so bad*?

If you’d told us that 2013 was going to be the last year Australian comedy made any long lasting hits, and that every year that followed would see the number of comedy series shrink, we’d… well, we were pretty cynical even back then, so we probably wouldn’t have been too shocked. And hey, the best shows back then are still the best shows now!

There’s just not a lot else left to choose from.


*and then you get Win the Week

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