After copping a hiding in 2011 Nine managed to topple Seven in the all-important demographics thanks to hits like The Voice, House Husbands, The Block, Howzat, Big Brother and a resurgent Nine News.
Nine’s 2013 launches will be staggered due to continuing cricket commitments but as Head of Programming Andrew Backwell tells TV Tonight, renewing so many titles demonstrates a position of strength. Central to it all is Reality shows at 7pm.
“Going into this year with returning brands reduces risk and will let us be more consistent across the year,” he explains. “That’s what we’re trying to achieve: to spread the brands that are working right across the year so we deliver a consistent audience.
“Our strategy is to strip Reality at 7:00 and that gives us an advantage because we get our Reality away half an hour before everyone else. There’s Home and Away on Seven and The Project on TEN so to get in there with audience at 7:00 as we’ve had with The Block and Big Brother we get them early. It will be fascinating to see how it all plays out in the next few weeks because there are three big Reality shows against one another.
“The two cooking shows may cannibalise each other. They’re both fantastic shows, there’s nothing wrong with them, but The Block provides a good alternative. It’s a very strong series so we feel very good about it.
“It will be fascinating to see what happens at the 7:30 junction now.”
The Block: All Stars is a short-run series set in Bondi, where the show first began, with familiar faces back for bigger challenges.
“The thing about All Stars is it fires pretty quickly for the simple fact that you know the characters. From episode one the viewers will know the characters. They may not know every couple but the crossover is quite big,” he says.
“So that gets it off to a flying start rather than a show where you try to meet people and explain them to the audience. There’s action right from the top of the series.”
A full series of The Block will air later in the year, returning to Melbourne.
Next week also sees the return of the perennial Big Bang Theory, still the most popular sitcom on TV right now. Leading with such a hit is a strategic move to help promote newer content.
“The Big Bang Theory is still growing in the US, the last episode was over 20 million. We’re running double new Big Bangs on Monday and Tuesday,” Backwell insists.
“In this early period it will be a very competitive market and people are front-loading. There’s a lot of new product coming on and first-run Big Bangs are a sure-fire for us. It’s also an alternative to Drama, so if you have Drama on the other channels at 8:30 it’s a strong alternative.”
Coming soon is new US crime series The Following starring Kevin Bacon as an FBI agent who specialises in serial killers.
“The Following launched to over 10 million people on FOX. It performed above expectations. It’s a great drama and Kevin Bacon is fantastic, it looks like a feature movie,” he says. “It’s quite dark.
“We’ve been debating whether to play it at 8:30 or 9:30 but I think we will probably run it at 8:30.”
Superhero series Arrow is Nine’s other big US title and The Mentalist, Person of Interest and CSI all return.
BBC Drama Parade’s End sees Nine enter the period costume genre this year based on the novel by Ford Maddox Ford and with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard. It sees Benedict Cumberbatch caught in a love triangle during the First World War. Many have branded the show as the BBC’s response to ITV’s Downton Abbey.
“Parade’s End will be coming to our schedule pretty soon we haven’t locked down a slot for it yet,” says Backwell.
“Downton will be strong again, but we don’t know yet where Seven will play it. I presume it’s Sunday night but I don’t know.”
Local media reports had suggested Nine sought to offload the series to the ABC or Foxtel and may play it during the Easter non-ratings.
“I asked our Head of Acquisitions Les Sampson and he hasn’t had any conversations about selling it, so I don’t know where that came from. We have sold product before with our ouput deal with Foxtel, but I really don’t know where that came from.”
Also returning is Underbelly, this time pitching a young Squizzy Taylor as Australia’s first ‘superstar gangster.’ Jared Daperis (Smalltime Gangster, Holly’s Heroes, The Cup) stars in the title role, ruling the underworld in rollicking Melbourne from 1915-1927.
“Jared Daperis is amazing in Squizzy, he pops off the screen and he’s a fantastic talent,” says Backwell.
“Underbelly will be coming soon. You’ll see we’re promoting it quite strongly over this period. I’m not just being vague, we strategically release our schedule as you can imagine. I don’t just want to blurt out what all our plans are right now.”
Nine’s biggest hit is undoubtedly The Voice, tipped to return after Easter once more. Even Nine execs were surprised by how strongly it performed.
“The Voice performed above our expectations. We were waiting for the ratings the morning after the Logies and we thought it would do 1.8m and it did 2.2m and built from there. So I see no reason why this season it would be softer,” he says.
“We have expanded and there will be extra hours of The Voice. But the secret is not to go overboard and we’ve got some more blind edition episodes because that’s what really engaged the audience.
“I understand the level of talent, because obviously there has been auditions, is very high. The show is credible and genuine and there’s no laughing at people in The Voice like auditions on other shows. Every person that performs can sing on that show, whether they get through or not.”
Losing Keith Urban as a judge was surely a blow, but Ricky Martin will bring new star power to the judging table. And he’s not the only change viewers can expect to see.
“There are a few new elements that will be introduced. If you’ve seen any of the US episodes there will be a new twist in the middle. You can’t just deliver the same thing again. Ricky Martin will add another element and then there are some tweaks which will add another level of interest.
“There are some format changes in the US for the contestants which we’ve borrowed and we’ll do our version.”
Also returning is Celebrity Apprentice, which began shooting in Sydney this week plus Nine’s successful new drama, House Husbands.
“Mark Bouris returns with a new bunch of celebrities and judges, but it’s pretty much the format as you’ve seen it,” he says.
“House Husbands did a really good job for us and we’re hoping to build on it this year. You know how hard it is to get a good Drama and so to get a returning one is fantastic.
“We’re so pleased to have such a strong cast and it will come up later in the year.”
There are three new dramas, of varying length, set to screen later in 2013. Power Games: The Packer-Murdoch Story builds on the success of Howzat! but looks at Sir Frank Packer and Rupert Murdoch from 1960 – 1975.
“Power Games will be similar to Howzat in that it’s a miniseries across two nights, and I think it will have as much interest.
“Howzat was beautifully produced by John Edwards and did fantastic business so we hope it will do the same again with this one.”
FremantleMedia will produce the anticipated telemovie Schapelle. This one is sure to draw a big audience.
“I think there is a lot of interest in Schapelle in the market. When we announced it at the Upfronts the reaction was very strong. I think as a telemovie it will become Event TV and people will come and have a look,” he says.
“There’s still a fascination about what went on and how it will all play out.”
The title role is not yet cast but as Backwell explains, “Mercedes Corby will be a bigger casting challenge because Schapelle has spent so much time behind bars and been contained. There has been talk about casting but nothing has been done yet.”
A revival of miniseries Return to Eden is also coming from McElroy All Media. I ask whether it will be as much fun, or even as much camp fun, as the original?
“I think there will be a sense of that. It won’t be taken too seriously,” he assures.
“The team is looking at casting at the moment and some names have been mentioned, but we’re not quite there yet.”
I also ask if any of the new projects won’t make it to air this year?
“We plan to have them all on screen this year,” Backwell insists.
“That’s the plan and I’m pretty confident we’ll have them all on this year.”
The Great Australian Bake-Off hopes to follow on from the huge success of The Great British Bake-Off. CBS has also commissioned a series in the US.
Backwell tips judge Kerry Vincent as one to watch.
“I think she will be very polarising but she works well in the show and she gives it a bit of edge,” he says.
Nine is holding the series until later, to screen when MKR and MasterChef aren’t soaking up the cuisine audience.
“I’d be nervous trying to launch a new cooking format against two established formats.
“We’ve hopefully got that scheduled when these two move on and there’s some more clear air there.”
Nine is also monitoring new US cooking show The Taste and has the option to make a local version if it chooses.
Also due later in the year is former Seven title Australia’s Got Talent. Nine was quick to swoop on the show after Seven ditched it due to low ratings. But Backwell says there is life in the brand yet.
“1.1m was not bad when you consider it had The Voice against it. Our feeling is if you take it out of the environment against The Voice and you put it in another slot with some good flow into it, then it’s got potential to do some good numbers. It’s one of those shows that has really broad appeal,” he remarks.
“We need to scale the show up, give it some production values that The Voice had so it feels bigger and glossier. What’s very important is having the right judges in place.
“We haven’t decided on the judges yet. We’ve got a list of names we’re discussing in various combinations, but it’s early days. I think we will look at 1 or 2 international people because we want to scale it up.
“I think we’ll be able to give it a whole new feel.”
Nine plans to schedule the show away from both The Voice and The X Factor.
Big Brother returns with Sonia Kruger. A juggernaut of this size invariably attracts plenty of comment, but overall it was deemed a success despite some questions about whether it delivered a diverse cast.
“There was always a risk for us in bringing Big Brother back. ‘Was the brand damaged?’” he explains. “We went into it conservatively and we had to make it feel like a Nine show and make it relevant for our audience.
“But I would like to cast it a little bit older and a bit broader this year. It’s very easy to say “let’s go older” but you have to be careful you don’t lose the base that watch the show.
“I think we learned some more, we know the audience profile and parents know they can trust their kids to watch the show as family viewing, and I think now we have the ability to cast it a bit broader.
“In the end I do think we went a bit conservative so that we didn’t alienate the base audience, and we probably ended up casting it a bit younger than we had hoped.
“But we do want to have a little bit more intellectual debate rather than just ‘hooking up.’”
Hamish and Andy will also return but the format hasn’t been finalised.
“We haven’t locked down exactly what the new premise of the show is but you can be pretty confident they will deliver. They’re clever boys, they produce the show themselves and they do a fantastic job.”
Industry observers note that the resurgence of Nine News, especially in Sydney and Melbourne, has been crucial to Nine’s success, with A Current Affair and Hot Seat on either side.
“To get News back and turn it around is just a lot of hard work, so I have a lot of admiration for the team. Darren Wick has done a fantastic job and got a lot of our News firing,” says Backwell.
“It’s all about getting them early and pushing them through your schedule.”
60 Minutes had a strong year and Today and Mornings continue to deliver dependable audiences at the top of the day.
Events include the Oscars Live in February, Logies and State of Origin but one big move is in shifting The Footy Show to 8:30pm.
“I don’t believe we will miss a beat in Melbourne, because the AFL Footy Show is very strong,” he says.
“For the first 4 Thursdays of the NRL Footy Show we’ve got the NRL leading into it.
“After that it will move to 8:30. There’s no doubt it’s risky and we’ll have to see how it all plays out.”