In television programming, as in comedy, timing is everything. Marena Manzoufas is fully aware of fervent Doctor Who fans who are never satisfied with anything less than a same day & date screening of a sci-fi darling.
In the second of a two-part interview with TV Tonight, ABC’s programmer explains how equally frustrating it is to wait for the supply to deliver it to her audience.
This year, in a breakout move, the 2008 Christmas special aired in January. Whilst it still wasn’t enough to please fans, it wasn’t an ideal outcome for the ABC either.
“I showed the Christmas Special in January, about 2-3 weeks after the British transmission. I got no publicity and no press because the materials didn’t arrive in time to get them out to journos,” she says.
BBC doesn’t release publicity materials to the ABC until it’s aired in Britain, which puts the network on the backfoot when it wants to promote the show. Both the BBC, and more recently ITV, rule that content airs first to their home audience.
Distribution of Who is yet another factor.
“Doctor Who is sold by BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm, which is quite separate from the broadcaster,” Manzoufas explains. “So there’s a delay in that commercial arm getting the programme in the first place. There’s often been secrecy about when they were going to put it out. Therefore it was a bit hard for us to plan when we could get it to air.”
With its shift from series to specials, Manzoufas says she hopes to have turnaround closer to their UK screening than has been possible in the past. But it is still tied to the flow of publicity material.
“This time around with the specials they’ll be going much closer to air to the British transmissions. And the series will go to air closer to the British transmission,” she says.
“For the special this year we would be showing it within 4 weeks or so and I would hope the Christmas and New Year special we would show in a 4-6 week period.”
Who is a big rater for the ABC. Yet the broadcaster often claims it doesn’t really care about ratings. At the same time it can be quick off the mark to send out a Press Release when it has a big win. It’s a bit of a paradox that has caused many to question the broadcaster’s position.
Manzoufas says whilst ratings are important to her, they don’t impact in the same way that they do for a commercial channel.
“I think people are sometimes a bit glib about saying ‘I don’t care about ratings,'” she says. “I do care because ratings are a measure of audience. As a public broadcaster I think we have quite a complex role. If you’re being funded by the public purse to provide broad entertainment to people and nobody’s watching you then there’s something wrong.
“What’s wrong with wanting a million people to watch your show? In fact 1.5m would be wonderful! But we don’t need to outrate the other networks.”
On Sunday night ABC showed its muscle when Midsomer Murders outrated the commercial competition. Nine days earlier George Gently had premiered to an impressive 1.2m on a Friday night -a show Seven had originally bought. It was a figure that surprised everyone.
“I was delighted because I wasn’t tipping quite that good a result. One forgets how fond people are of Martin Shaw. If it had been someone we’d never heard of it probably would have struggled a bit more.”
It was a reminder of the might of the ABC audience that loves its detectives and loves British drama. But Manzoufas says there is more than one ‘typical’ ABC viewer.
“There is a 40+ or even 55+ who are ABC viewers for News and Current Affairs. It is probably true that consumers of ABC News and Current Affairs consume across the choices from News bulletin to Four Corners to Australian Story to The 7:30 Report. Those viewers probably cross-over into more serious documentaries.”
There is also a pool of Wednesday night viewers who never watch anything else on the network but its comedy and light entertainment line-up. Yet another group samples the same shows on Thursday nights on ABC2.
“When you look at the size of those audiences you’ve got to say for yourself they’re probably premiere audiences. In other words they’re watching for the first time. I think it would be pretty rare for someone to watch at 8:30 on ABC1 on Wednesday and then watch the very next night.”
That demographic tends to be an under 55 demographic whom she considers are likely to be a different viewer than maybe classic Saturday night ABC1 viewers.
When it comes to Australian drama, ABC has shifted subtly from automatically slotting local productions into its traditional 8:30pm Sunday slot. Whilst Dirt Game aired there, The Cut screened at 9:30 Mondays and East of Everything is currently playing at 7:30 Saturdays. Manzoufas says the options even include 8:30 Tuesday.
“It’s not that there is a night or slot for Australian drama, but where does the drama best fit? What was it commissioned for?” she says.
“Bed of Roses and East of Everything were developed way back when, to be a 7:30 Saturday night drama where Monarch of the Glen and Doc Martin sat. Broad, feel-good PG viewing.”
In addition to local dramas, coming up this year are Denton’s new Hungry Beast series followed by the return of John Safran.
And, despite speculation in the press today, what about the next instalment from chameleon Chris Lilley?
“I think it’s a while off yet.”