In the US the fourth season of Prison Break kicked off today, Bones begins later in the week and Fringe premieres next week. The ‘Fall Season’ has begun, when the American networks launch their big series.
In Australia it was just on a year ago that our networks jointly embarked on the new trend of premiering US series simultaneously, or thereabouts. “Fasttracked,” “Direct from the US,” “Hot off the satellite” they all boasted. It was a bold, somewhat tenuous, turning point in Aussie programming –and then the Writer’s Strike hit. Suddenly, it left our networks rather rudderless, as they tried to navigate through the fog.
Now a year on, Seven’s Head of Programming, Tim Worner, spoke to TV Tonight about the experience of “Fasttracking” and what lessons have been learned.
Worner says ‘fasttracking’ is simply another weapon available to programmers, but acknowledges it is a strategy that that has now gained momentum.
“Obviously it doesn’t hurt getting the shows here and getting them on as quickly as possible before they can be accessed elsewhere,” he said. “But as to how much it is as an assistance to a show, I think the jury’s out on that.”
In the US network television runs around September – May, but when the Writer’s Strike interrupted the supply of episodes last year, Seven, Nine and TEN found they could not have embarked on ‘fasttracking’ at a worse time.
“We were caught between a rock and a hard place in some ways,” Worner acknowledges. “But I think that we’re going to see more fasttracking, which is actually the Seven term, before the end of November. I think part of that is because this is an anomalous year with shortened seasons because of the writer’s strike.
“Even when things return to normal supply you’ll probably still see it. You’re going to have networks who want to make some sort of instant statement and if they’ve got the show there to do it they’re going to have a crack at it.”
But not all shows lend themselves to the fasttracking experience.
“It’s serialised shows that obviously are going to be better suited to this sort of treatment,” he said, “because the audience is hanging on the resolution of each storyline from week to week. And also the shows that skew towards the audience that may try and access the shows elsewhere.”
By ‘elsewhere’, of course, Worner is referring to the illegal practice of downloading TV via peer to peer. Australia is the second highest consumer of downloaded television behind the UK, which was a key factor in networks moving to the fasttracking experience. Worner is blunt about the effect downloaders have had.
“Some people are like that, but what do you do about it? I think the effect of it has been widely overstated.”
Heroes is one such show popular with downloaders. After it premieres in the US on September 22 Worner promises it will be hitting our screens “fairly quickly.” But so far he hasn’t announced a date for Prison Break.
“I don’t know yet about that show, he said. “I think we’re still waiting on what the opposition’s doing on certain nights.”
Both Heroes and Prison Break were fasttracked by Seven last year but finished short of their run, affected by the end of the Australian ratings season and the writer’s strike. Other new 2008 shows were damaged by their short supply.
“A show like Lipstick Jungle is a classic example,” explains Worner. “It’s a fantastic series and gets very good from the last few scenes in episode three. To be honest the first two episodes were what I would describe as ‘highly challenged.’ They didn’t set up characters very well and the ratings showed that. But from the end of episode three onwards Lipstick Jungle is a fantastic show.
“And only having seven episodes it makes it very difficult to successfully launch that series. Such a shame because that show is classic soap. I personally loved it, I’m a sucker for that sort of stuff. The storylines are great, characters are great, the writing’s great, some of the performances are fantastic, it’s a very, very well-made show. But it was challenged and held back by not enough episodes to give it a proper take off, and two pretty ordinary-starting eps. Which you just can’t afford to have nowadays, the audience makes up its mind in an awful hurry.”
From a programmer’s point of view, there are also downsides to fasttracking. Worner says he can sometimes see shows ahead of their US airing via close contacts at NBC and ABC, but it isn’t a perfect science.
“You’re certainly curtailing the amount of time that you’ve got to promote something too. You’re making more of a challenge for your creative team because they don’t have as long to come up with a ‘sell’ as they normally would. And you’re not able to look at the pattern of ratings in the United States which sometimes can give you a guide, not all the time, but sometimes give you a guide as to the (likely) performance in Australia. That can give you a clue as to how you might be going to sell something.”
When it comes to fasttracking over Summer, Worner was keeping his options open. Networks have traditionally used the off-season to launch new shows.
“There are a number of shows that we’ve seen pilots of and you think to yourself, ‘well the best chance for that show is summer and to try and launch it in a bit of clear air.’
“It’s an option that’s available to us but I don’t think you’re going to see a stage when we’re launching all our shows within five or six weeks of the ratings season. It makes sense to launch some shows, and other shows it actually doesn’t make sense at all.
“Some shows you sit on for two years until you’ve got the right number of episodes and then you go ‘bang, now’s the time we can give this a proper launch.’”
And so with only 3 months remaining in the 2008 ratings season, Worner has his eye set on the newly-launched Australian series, several key fasttracked dramas and a handful of US dramas he has up his sleeve.
“We’ve still got quite a few American series that we haven’t played yet. Reaper, Eli Stone is another, so yeah we’ve still got weapons in the arsenal that we haven’t deployed yet. We still have arrows in the quiver that we haven’t fired and that is obviously a nice position to be in.”