ABC: Timing the Time Lord

whoIn 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.”


  1. Stan makes a good point regarding TV program economics. The way things are heading, no programming will be produced for males aged 25-35 before too long, and for the rest of humanity not long after that. Of course, that position won’t be reached, because less traditional methods of monetisation will have taken over.

    In November, the ABC will have four TV channels in Australian households with pay TV. The BBC will have seven and a half. The BBC advertises premiere programs on these channels in Australian newspapers.

    While pay TV penetration is currently fairly low, it is only a matter of time before it and other legal methods of direct-from-the-BBC distribution occur.

    Not to mention the soon to be launched “Kids Co” which draws from most of the few suppliers of children’s programs that don’t already own channels on the main pay TV platforms.

    The ABC clearly can’t remain as dependant on imports as it is. The plans for ABC3 and ABC4 reflect this – both include large quantities of new Australian programming. But it appears that ABC1 and ABC2 are destined to fade in importance as fewer people watch their imported programs.

    Re Compass, it is not shown in a prime timeslot. The ABC’s commitment to “religion and ethics” programming is minor at best. The axing of the Religion Report at the end of last year was but the latest sign of this.

  2. As a fan of WHO and part of the Victorian Fan Club, I have to say that I really appreciate the effort that the ABC has gone to to fast-track the recent episodes … we do understand the delays and limitations that they have to contend with … that does not stop fans from downloading the episode the day after it screens in the UK, but we still watch it again on the ABC when it screens … yes, obcessed, I know! At least they are trying!

  3. @Craig

    you know I can totally understand downloading if you are not sure if the show will even air, you don’t have any kind of time frame for it to air, or it airs on PayTV, however I dont think any of this is the case with Who.

    and yes I totally understand the frustration when a TV channels does not commit to a TV show, even 1 season at a time, it seems to happen more in Aus but its something ive experienced in the past. In that sitution I can understand downloading, but lets give the network a chance to screw things up first.

  4. @Mike TV networks, commercial ones at least, are required to screen religious programming by law. I’m sure there would be a similar requirement of the ABC which explains Compass (aside from the fact that, whether anybody watches it or not, it is obviously providing content that nothing else on TV is).

  5. Ah, the good old days when I had to wait about a week for a Doctor Who tape of new episodes (circa Sylvester McCoy) to arrive in the mail! Ah the anticipation! Now only a couple of hours has to pass et voila! new episode ready to watch! 🙂

  6. Stan you missed the point. Marena claims to want to have programmes on ABC1 that appeal to a broad audience and she bases that on ratings. Clearly then, Compass is not for a broad audience and should not be shown on ABC1 in that timeslot. Her logical is flawed not to mention that she seems to dump certain programmes that do not rate well (The Bill on tuesdays) but is quite happy for other underperforming shows to remain where they are.

    • Mike read Part One. There is a defence for other programming that isn’t as broad.

      “We have a strong commitment to science programming, religion and ethics, and like the other networks we also have a commitment to drama, documentary and entertainment programmes.”

      Also there are plenty of ABC Aussie shows hitting a mark. The whole point of her interview is that it isn’t all about ratings in the same way as commercials.

      Web Warriors is not Australian.

  7. @wamdue – thing is Doctor Who at it’s best is a month after the UK and yes fans won’t wait that long if they can help it. I will wait a couple of days or up to a week if I know a show is coming (House, NCIS) but viewers have become jaded and don’t want to wait for when the networks might air a show, then we run the risk they might take it off mid season.

  8. Mike (11:26am),

    It should just be an added bonus that ABC programmes might beat the other networks in ratings occasionally; not the rule. If you’re a taxpayer who exclusively watches Seven, Nine, TEN or Pay TV, then I might remind you that your tax dollars goes to a range of people & government programs that you don’t benefit from, but does that mean you should stop paying? Should your local council ask other people to pay for the repair of a residential road just because you don’t drive on it?

    Also, to all the geeks that download their favourite international TV programmes before it airs on a local network. Where do you think most of the revenue that goes to these programmes comes from? Answer: International TV network sales! So, if everyone did what you’re doing, what would be the point of other TV networks around the world continuing to purchase these shows? Or if they still did, do you think the pay rates would be the same?

    I think sci-fi nerds should get used to having their beloved shows filmed on HandyCams with budgets of $10 in the near future. Because I don’t see any money in serving such a selfish audience…

  9. @Craig

    your second point is part of the problem, can people not wait even 7 days for kinda of import any more? can you really not wait for a legal copy in superior quality?

    Sounds to me like ABC needs to be in touch with the BBC more about these issues, publicity can not be that hard to put out early, its a trust issue, as channel rightfully fear a show being leaked before it airs on TV.


    at one point CBC was co producer of Doctor Who, I dont believe that is the case now.

    at the end of the day we live in a global age, and whilst TV viewers are international, TV channels are not, all channels need to work these things out, even more so those ones who make programs hoping to sell.

  10. I wonder how Wallace & Gromit slipped through last December.

    It aired on the ABC on 3rd December, 3 weeks before the BBC’s Christmas Day airing.

  11. Whenever you have a show with a core audience of nerds, be it Lost or Doctor Who, downloading is going to be an issue.
    The American studios didn’t mess about coming to the party with fast-tracking.
    If the BBC and ITV haven’t caught up with modern viewing habits then perhaps it is time ABC started discussing heavy discounts for lost viewers.

  12. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation managed to show Doctor Who the next day, so I’m not sure I completely buy delivery as the main issue. A lack of publicity material I can understand. However the hype of a broadcast within a few days of the UK screening – including buzz from that new fangled thing called the internet – should offset the lack of local reviews.

  13. Wow, what a plethora of new Australian drama. It’s hardly even discussed. Has the ABC all but abandoned Australian drama for cheap imports?

    ”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.”

    Then, please check your entire schedule then, as you will see most of your shows are underperforming and no one really likes nor cares for them [East of Everything, Compass, Web Warriors, Q & A, Foreign Correspondent]. Something’s wrong Marena, something’s very wrong.

    Seems to me she’s pretty selective as to when the ratings apply.

  14. Doctor Who – So blame the BBC for the delay, but don’t they get it that fans will be wanting to watch this as quick as possible, even a few days is too much for some fans thus the downloads.

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