This week TV Tonight has spoken to key figures in Australian television: Tim Worner from Seven, Kim Dalton from the ABC and David Mott from TEN.
Today Nine Programmer Michael Healy sits down for his first interview here, sharing his thoughts on upcoming shows, programming trends, television journalism and hints of new titles.
Foremost in his mind is the recent success in acquiring the Top Gear brand, which will continue to have its local series delivered by Freehand Productions.
“We have a lot of respect for what Freehand did with Top Gear Australia,” he says. “We’ve had quite a bit of discussion about how the show will sit on Nine’s schedule. I think we’ll work with them to give it a unique Australian voice, and look at the casting to see how it will tap into our commercial audience.”
Healy didn’t give away anything specific on casting, and at this early stage was even reluctant to rule out using any of the previous cast. But being keen to ensure it doesn’t “sit in the shadow” of the UK series he is mindful of how fervent the brand’s fans are, and was conscious of concerns about whether Nine celebrities would suddenly form the bulk of the ‘Star in a Bog Standard Car.’
“We have enormous respect for the Top Gear brand and I don’t think we’ll be doing anything to toil with it. All we’ll be doing is treating it respect. We have enormous respect for what SBS has done because they worked very hard to establish the brand in Australia so it’s softly, softly at this stage,” he says.
He tipped the brand would appear on Nine early in 2010.
“As soon as we can put it into the mix we will. From a demographic point of views it will certainly sit comfortably on our schedule.”
The third series of Underbelly is currently in production with new cast members including Sigrid Thornton, Natalie Bassingthwaighte and Mark Furze.
“Underbelly: The Golden Mile is a cracking piece of drama, every bit as exciting as the previous two series,” he beamed.
“In tone it’s probably more like the first series than the second. I can’t say anything more. All I can promise is it’s every bit as good as what you’ve seen before.”
Amongst returning shows for 2010 are Domestic Blitz, Random Acts of Kindness, Secret Millionaire, Farmer Wants a Wife, Hot Seat, Sea Patrol and Rescue: Special Ops.
And then there is Hey Hey it’s Saturday…
While negotiations are proceeding with Somers Carroll, a diplomatic Healy nonetheless was genuinely thrilled with the success of the reunion shows.
“I’m genuinely delighted with the performance of Hey Hey, for Daryl more than anyone. We’d been talking for a long time and it was great to see it finally come off. I think it’s fair to say it exceeded everyone’s expectations. Probably Daryl’s and mine as well. I’m personally delighted for him because he’s an incredibly professional guy and committed to his show. The attention to detail was incredible,” he says.
“We had lunch with Daryl last week and I would love to see Hey Hey as part of Nine’s schedule in 2010 in some form.”
Tipping either a block of episodes or a series of specials, Healy leaned towards a return for the show on a weeknight.
“We had an enormous amount of success with it on a weeknight so we would probably consider that a good signal.”
Nine is also pleased with The Apprentice Australia thus far, which has seen improved numbers in a difficult 9:30 slot.
“We tend to mark things very harshly here, particularly a first series,” he notes. “The Apprentice took 4 series in the UK before it popped. The BBC was committed to it. It wasn’t like it exploded onto the scene, it actually built season on season.
“It’s an incredibly well-produced show and Mark Bouris is very strong as an Australian Master in the role. We’re very proud of it and very happy with its performance. So we’d certainly be looking at the potential of a second series.”
2009 has also seen an abundance, if not a repetition of some brands, notably 20 to 1 and Two and a Half Men. But while Healy acknowledges the achievements of both, he hints at some shifts for the US sitcom.
“I think Two and a Half Men will continue performing extremely well until it ends in the US. That doesn’t mean we want to maintain it on our schedule to the degree that it is currently. Certainly we want to give it some relief and we’re working towards that in 2010,” he says.
“And 20 to 1 has just been, and I must recognise Bert Newton for this, an incredible brand for us. It’s a show that’s often written off as a clip show, but it’s much more than that. The team that puts it together are incredibly passionate and they work very hard to deliver that amount of content. It’s beautifully produced and very cleverly put together. You invariably sit there watching the countdown thinking ‘What is #1? What is #!?” It’s a very engaging show.
“I think we’ve seen other shows perhaps try to copy it and fail.”
In its 30th year, flagship current affairs show 60 Minutes has had a tough year. But Healy notes it has survived many threats before.
“60 Minutes has had a lot of challenges over the years. Certainly MasterChef was competitive but we’re confident it’s a strong brand. Any challenges and hurdles it’s had it we’ll overcome and it will be firing on all fours again.”
Reality fans are in for good news over summer with Survivor: Samoa due to launch on the Nine, and not GO!
“Survivor torches me,” he sighs. “I’ve always been a fan of Survivor and I would love to see it working again. It’s the granddaddy of all reality shows. I’m going to have another go in December. I want to get Survivor up.”
Next year Nine opens with the Winter Olympics. Amongst other new international titles are The Forgotten, The Middle, Who Do You Think You Are? (US), the US sitcom Romantically Challenged starring Josh Lawson, action drama Human Target, a new series from Supernanny‘s Jo Frost, and Gordon’s Great Escapes in which Gordon Ramsay goes to India.
“I think viewers will see Gordon in a very different light,” he promises.
More titles will be revealed.
The new sci-fi miniseries V will now go to air in 2010, after a decision to withdraw some initial promos.
“There was a moment when we were considering our options,” he admits.
“I understand the downloading challenge but I kind of feel that rushing it to air now, when we’re at the tail end of the year, that viewing audiences are starting to taper off. Brands are important to us and we want it to have longevity, so I don’t want to just throw it away.”
Nine programming is often maligned online, and in the press, as being too quick to cancel shows before they have bedded in. As Head of Programming, Healy’s name is often included somewhere in those sentences. They come at a time when the network has had to deal with changes in ownership, a downturn in advertising, a fragmenting of audiences and diminished US product. Yet with just four full weeks remaining in the ratings year, the Nine Network leads in 18-49 and 25-54 demographics.
“We’re a network that works to very high expectations in terms of our performance. There’s times when you sit back and go ‘Ok this show is better than it’s performing and you invest and you back something. But ultimately if the audience rejects a show I think we have to react accordingly.”
He says Nine isn’t necessarily tougher now than it has been historically. What has changed is output.
“If you go back 5 years ago, 10 years ago shows sat on the schedule 40 weeks a year. You would have Hey Hey it’s Saturday for 40 weeks a year. Our House would sit 40 weeks a year. But what you see now is that shows are commissioned now in shorter blocks,” he says.
“We haven’t had a lot of money to splash around, but I think we’ve done a very good job. Certainly we’ve made mistakes, some colossal mistakes, but we’ve had some triumphs as well. The genre team here and the production team have done a very good job of ducking and weaving to get by. We’ve certainly had some financial challenges. And it is fair to say out US output has been lean.
“Nine seems to be marked harder than any of the networks and I understand why with the historical legacy and all of that. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of getting by and overcoming those hurdles.”
Excitingly, next year Nine also has two new local drama projects under wraps.
“We’re working on another Australian drama which is in pre-production at the moment and shaping up really well.
“And there’s an Australian telemovie that will go to air in the first quarter of the year. It’s got a cracking cast.”
But he was reluctant to give much more away for fear of upsetting key creative people, still puting together their wares. Television, he notes, is an emotional industry.
“The reason I keep going on about my sensitivity to Creatives around here is people put so much into what they do and things can be written or said in a manner that is very disheartening for people. So I’m sensitive to that and committed people are to what they do.
“What gets me down when journalists write pieces is a lack of understanding or a lack of respect. I’m happy to talk to somebody who comes to the table informed and with an understanding,” he says.
“What is demoralising at times is you read a piece in the paper that is written by somebody who perhaps doesn’t really have an understanding of the business and the profession. That’s hard because people listen to someone else’s spin. There’s a bigger picture and business at play. Treat the business with respect rather than putting people onto writing stories who don’t really understand it.
“You don’t need to go for the jugular just for a headline.”