The final shoot for the team at All Saints nears, bringing to a close 12 seasons over 11 years for the Seven medical soap.
In that time it has brought us many memorable actors including Georgie Parker, John Howard, Libby Tanner, Erik Thomson, Christopher Gabardi, Wil Traval, Joelene Anderson, Conrad Coleby, Chris Vance and the late Mark Priestley.
Judith McGrath remains the only cast member to have worked on the show from beginning to end.
Despite still delivering good ratings, the show is a victim of increased production costs, and being one of four in-house dramas at Seven that seemingly had to budge.
But with the end of its run, does it also signal the “death” of the long-running drama in Australian television? Notwithstanding our two surviving serials, is the one-hour prime-time drama now a casualty of shifting audience trends and network costs? Australian television, which has seen many long-running TV dramas is now left with one-hour dramas all less than 4 years old.
TV Tonight turned to critics and commentators to ask whether we will ever see another drama series that reaches such double figures? Should we now re-define the term “long-running drama” in the TV history books?
Richard Clune, from the Sunday Telegraph agrees that drama runs of the past are just that. He says viewers are embracing subscription TV and the net for entertainment and are becoming more ‘commitment-phobic.’
“Currently many dramas – whether they are local or imported – seem to wane after 4 or so seasons, a dramatic reduction when you look at the runs of the past – 12 seasons for All Saints, 13 for Heelers, 8 for McLeod’s.
“That said you may well see dramas hitting the 6 year mark – they just need to evolve with their audience. But I imagine six years would be the highest end for a dramatic run these days.”
Melinda Houston from The Sunday Age, concurs, saying, “We’re unlikely to see those long-running series again. I think a portion of the audience will always like the familiar, but its the nature of anything that we become habituated and I think its television execs as much as anything who are unwilling to tolerate steady performers or slow slides.”
The Australian‘s Amanda Meade says the end of All Saints feels like the end of an era.
“It’s a little sad if we do lose the long running drama because the characters become so embedded in our minds and hearts and become part of our popular culture,” she says. “The longer they’re around the more familiar they are, but we also tire of them.
“Just as we need new genres and formats to excite audiences, perhaps we need new stories too, and shorter run series can offer this.”
James Manning of Media Week is reticent to write off long-running dramas just yet.
“I’m always reluctant to say we might have seen the end of anything because all series are different and their longevity is based on different factors you can’t measure, which is why so many things fail. Nobody knows how to produce the perfect show,” he says.
The Herald Sun’s Colin Vickery says no-one should underestimate the success story that All Saints has been.
“Police and medical dramas seem to have the best chance of being stayers – look at Law and Order (18 years and counting) and The Bill (25 years plus) and the just-finished ER (15 years).
“Most of the successful shows have been re-tooled at some stage. Sometimes that gives a show a new lease of life and sometimes it doesn’t.”
But not everyone was happy with the revamp of All Saints this year, which added a Medical Response Unit headed up by Mike Vlasek (John Waters).
TV Week columnist and author of the comprehensive Super Aussie Soaps, Andrew Mercado says the All Saints revamp ‘shortsold’ its audience.
“You can’t add a helicopter in the opening credits then downgrade it to a 4WD ambulance within a few weeks,” he says.
Others associate the death of the soap to cast changes.
“Blue Heelers wasn’t the same after Lisa McCune left,” says Vickery. “McLeod’s Daughters was another one hit by multiple cast leaving. ER was weakened when George Clooney left, CSI has been weakened by William Petersen moving on.
“Packed to the Rafters couldn’t survive Rebecca Gibney leaving and the loss of Jessica Marais, who has ambitions to work in the US, would be a big blow.”
Richard Clune agrees Rafters‘ life is tied to its central characters.
“It’s hard to predict its length but given the strong returns at the moment Seven will look to drain every last drop from it. It’s run, I feel, is also dependent on just how long Jessica Marais sticks around before heading for The States?”
Dianne Butler of The Courier Mail likens our commitment to TV drama to marriage.
“Time was, they lasted forever, on and on, years past their prime, long after everybody involved had lost interest in the outcome. The modern television show / relationship is shorter now, much shorter. Not necessarily any more satisfying though,” she says.
“There is no compulsion anymore to stick with something just because we should. Husband or TV show. Blame our seen-it-all ennui. As life has become more interesting, with more options, more money, more drama, television has become less enticing. We’ve either done it ourselves or watched other people do it – online and in real time.”
Green Guide (The Age) editor Nicole Brady says axing All Saints is a surprising move.
“I think it is fascinating that Seven is axing a drama that still comfortably pulls over a million viewers a week in a climate in which other local shows, indeed other networks, would walk over hot coals for such consistent figures,” she says.
“The decision to euthanise All Saints says a lot about the economic environment the networks are operating in at the moment and the fact drama is expensive to make. As such, time is not on your side if you are a weekly drama. The days of shows running for many years seem to be over.”
Even at the ABC the days of long-running, internal drama production are long gone.
“Long form drama ended on the ABC years ago when the broadcaster simply could no longer afford to keep a drama on air 40 weeks a year,” says Amanda Meade. “We will never see another GP. Now all the ABC does are short bursts of series, maybe renewing them a second time.”
Sunday Age‘s Melinda Houston is a fan of short-run drama. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. One of the reasons Oz drama is flourishing is thanks to a focus on quality rather than churning out hours and hours of the stuff purely to fulfill quota obligations. I have no problem with mini series and short runs for ongoing series – it provides time to develop ideas and scripts properly, among other things.”
Few commentators believed any of our newer dramas including such hits as Packed to the Rafters, Underbelly or City Homicide would come close to the run of All Saints.
“Packed to the Rafters might be around in 10 years, but many of the audience will be watching on their laptops, tablets or mobile phones,” says Media Week‘s James Manning.
Concurrent with the end of the Seven soap is another network decision to cut the 40-week production runs of one-hour dramas to about 26 episodes a week. It signals another major shift in Australian drama.
Richard Clune observes, “Yes, the 40 episodes of drama per year is to become extinct. Budgets just can’t stretch to that length anymore and departments, eager to get as much out of the few dollars there are, are looking at shorter season runs. We’re competing with The States and ultimately we need to produce slick products that can stand-up to them – as such, the available money will be driven into fewer episodes to try and achieve this.”
Andrew Mercado says, “The future of the 40 hour drama does look rather bleak for now in favor of shorter run series. However, if Neighbours or perish the thought Home & Away ever got the axe, the network might have to return to the 40 hour drama model to make up their drama points.”
Colin Vickery says the producers of Rafters are clever to keep the quality up by having fewer episodes and to leave the public wanting more.
As All Saints ends its 12 seasons he remains respectful of its achievements.
“In this environment, any Australian drama that makes it to air – let alone lasts for years – is a massive achievement.”