Programmer’s Wrap 2014: Nine

JOAN MILLAR2“Our strategy for the year is very similar to last year,” says Nine’s Head of Programming and Production, Andrew Backwell.

“Last year we won 25-54, 18-49 and 16-39 year olds and our objective this year is not to win all people, but to grow our share in 25-54.

“We run a business and our business is to try and get as much advertising share as possible and our sales team want us to deliver 25-54s to our network.”

For Nine 2014 represents a year of returning brands, added with new content.

There are three immediate priorities on Nine’s drama slate. Love Child, Schapelle and Fat Tony & Co. will all play first in the first quarter.

Set in King’s Cross in 1969 at a hospital and home for unwed pregnant young women, Love Child stars Jessica Marais, Jonathan LaPaglia and Mandy McElhinney.

“There are twists and turns in it and I think it’s very engaging. It’s a strong female-based drama,” says Backwell.

“I think Playmaker Media have done a fantastic job on this show. It’s a favourite of mine.”

If it succeeds, the show could also give rise to a second season.

Fat Tony is linked to the first series of Underbelly, but at the time it was made we couldn’t tell the full story of Tony Mokbel because there were legal issues. Since he has been convicted we’re now able to tell the story,” he explains.

“People will know a little bit of the story from the first Underbelly, but this fills in all the gaps and really concentrates on Mokbel’s story. In the middle of all these gang wars there was this guy running a big drug empire, as a multi-millionaire. Then he disappeared and went to Greece and they caught up with him. I think it’s going to be the second-highest rating Underbelly that we’ve seen after the first series, because it’s the characters that people know and a really engaging story.”

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FremantleMedia has produced the telemovie Schapelle. Directed by Khoa Do (Better Man) it will surely be a talking point when it airs.

“I think Schapelle is a very broadly-appealing story, and the execution is fantastic. It’s a great telemovie and the casting is fantastic,” says Backwell.

“It’s a story that people will really engage with. Fremantle have done a really good job with the production.”

Promos for the telemovie suggest audiences will finally hear ‘the truth.’ Does this suggest the production has new evidence?

“As a viewer you will come away from the telemovie with an idea of what’s happened. The fact is Schapelle is a convicted drug trafficker –that’s fact. But I think people are split about ‘did she / didn’t she do it’ and by watching the show there will be a result at the end, you will have an opinion on who was involved and how it all happened.

“We haven’t done a police investigation but since the court case a lot of other things have turned up.

“By the end of the telemovie you will say ‘This is what happened.’ It’s not just left up in the air. You will get a result.”

Also new in 2014 are the Gina miniseries -there is no word yet on the casting of Gina Rinehart-  and the telemovie Mayday Mayday – The Story of QF32 due in the last quarter of the year.

House Husbands will return later in the year, but as has been reported, without Tim Campbell.

“It’s really important to add fresh elements. I think production is just starting now and there will be a few new casting names to be announced shortly that will pique interest. I think it’s good to adapt and keep new elements entering,” says Backwell.

Should viewers be worried that Campbell’s exit as Tom, partner of Kane (Gyton Grantley) might mean Kane becomes a straight character?

“I can’t see that happening.”

In one of the biggest primetime shake-ups in years, Nine has boldly extended Nine News to one hour. Why the change?

“It’s been a significant move to one hour News and A Current Affair to 7:00. But the numbers so far are pretty strong and we’re happy with the result,” he explains.

“Financially it makes sense because you have your whole news bureaus across the country, but to do an extra half hour you have to put some more resources into it. But it’s not significant because you have the infrastructure there.

“In terms of ratings we’re up in the slots, so the impact across the 90 minutes is huge.”

It may still be summer but Year on Year Nine has lifted 17% at 6:30 and 42% in the 7pm half hour.

“News and Current Affairs have gone up, US content has gone down and it’s something you don’t timeshift. So it brings in viewers and having those extra viewers from 7 to 7:30 pushes the schedule.

“So you get bigger shares through the night.

“But if anybody out there tells you they know how this is going to work, they’re kidding themselves. I’m surprised everyday, as you are, looking at the ratings at how some things work and others don’t,” he concedes.

In extending to an hour, Nine has coded its News into 2×30 minute titles with OzTAM. Backwell indicates this is so everyone, including media buyers, can see how the numbers stack up directly against the competition.

“It’s something I don’t think we’ll stick with straight through, but everyone can clearly see exactly how it’s tracking. If you add them together the number will be lower you usually drop some viewers in the second half hour,” he says.

“Having said that I do not disagree with you that it would be good to have a standard on how numbers are reported. I look at ratings every single day of the year -Christmas Day, New Year’s Day- and sometimes I get confused by the Press Releases. I think ‘I don’t know that number, are they reporting a regional peak?’”

The shake-up also means no more “7 O’Block” promos, with The Block: Fans v Favourites at 7:30pm.

“What we’ve always tried to do with The Block is deliver the same premise every single series and scale it all up,” says Backwell.

“With Skyhigh it was more decorating because the main structure existed. It wasn’t breaking down walls, it was more the refurbishing and layout of the apartments to the decorating. But with Fan vs Favourites they start out with a big, open area and they have to plan where their rooms are going to go.

“It’s a whole different ball game.”

A second season this year “will be based in Melbourne but it’s a bit too early to give away the premise.”

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The Voice has already been filming audition episodes with new coaches Kylie Minogue and Will.i.am.

“Can I say Will.i.am I think is a genius. He’s fantastic in the studio but you can see his head ticking over. He’s really smart, but I suppose that’s not unexpected if you look at his track record with his career. It’s added a whole new dimension,” he insists.

“Then you take Kylie, Australia’s favourite sweetheart, and we saw her impact in the UK (Voice) where the ratings were up by 2 million viewers. I think that’s due a lot to the Kylie factor. So to add these two new elements into the show, I could not be more delighted.

“The material that’s in the can now has some incredible moments. When you put these high-profile, international stars together you never know how the chemistry will work. So you’re always a bit nervous. But after the first few sessions you just go ‘Wow.’”

What’s more important in casting? Singing ability or a great back story?

“In the end you have to deliver great performers. That’s the most important thing. Someone has to step on that stage and blow everyone away. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that they have cast the show for great singers. They haven’t cast for back stories.”

The Voice Kids is due later in the year with coaches Delta Goodrem and Joel Madden already confirmed, with more to be announced.

“I’ve been very careful to explain to everyone that we’re not making a kid’s show. It’s a show for 25-54 year olds. The coaches will be on the same level as the main series. The difference is the singers are kids. But it’s not a Young Talent Time. It will still have the same production standards and the same critique as The Voice,” he observes.

Nine is yet to clarify the future for Australia’s Got Talent but Backwell is keeping his cards close to his chest.

“We haven’t yet had the discussion with Fremantle so it’s still on the agenda. We still have it under option with the ability to trigger it. We’re not going to let it go quite yet. We’ll see how The Voice launches and I think it will be big.”

Big Brother is another juggernaut coming later in the year after a strong showing in 2013.

“One thing we’ve done is change the perception. I don’t think it’s grubby or seen as mindless. We’ve tried to cast it with smarter housemates and to lift the standard,” he says.

“I think it now fits the Nine brand.”

I ask if the show should incorporate more intelligent conversations with housemates, to show us character, rather than resorting to stunts and party games.

“I completely agree. We had a debrief with Southern Star about the previous series, and said we want to lift it up another level. From S1 to S2 we took a jump and I think we can again,” Backwell says.

Rural dating show When Love Comes to Town is currently in post-production but likely to be upstaged by another newcomer, Married at First Sight in which eight Australian singles meet each other for the very first time – at a legally-binding wedding.

“I think it’s going to create some noise and controversy and it’s a good thing for us to have people talking about the show. I think we’ll be criticised that we’re playing with the sanctity of marriage and people will have an opinion one way or the other. But I’m hoping people will come and see the reaction of each couple as they see each other at the altar for the first time. That moment is priceless,” says Backwell.

Based on a Danish format, this is yet to commence casting but Backwell insists it will cast with its heart on its sleeve.

“The professionals, the psychologist and matchmakers who will be involved will have the final say on casting because we want this thing to work. It’s not just being made for TV,” he insists.

“For this show to work it has to be absolutely real and you can’t put people together who are not going to be compatible. I think we have a duty of care too.  We have to be very careful about who is selected and the way everyone is screened and they will be put together to make these relationships work, as best they can.”

If such attention is expected, do networks welcome controversy? Is it bad for a network to have shows under media scrutiny or does this create buzz?

“I think it’s good to have a show on your schedule that is controversial, that people talk about and it gives your network some edge. I don’t think you want every show like that, and you have to be careful what you do it with,” he explains.

“I must admit I don’t like a lot of negative publicity. There’s that phrase that ‘All publicity is good publicity’ but anything that affects our brand is not great. But I’m sure there are occasions where there’s something more controversial that will help your ratings. As long as it doesn’t affect your brand or your clients’ brands.

“You also want to protect the participants in your shows. We take the duty of care of our contestants very seriously. You can’t just play with people’s lives.”

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Leila McKinnon hosts new current affair show Inside Story featuring episodes focussing on a single theme such as Female murderers or  Killers who lived within a family.

“Episode One will be called Crocodile Tears and we look at a number of cases with people who are crying that someone has abducted their partner or the kids have gone missing. But meanwhile they were the perpetrator,” he says.

“There are psychologists who explain why people do this, body language experts telling us how to read the signs that someone is doing it, so it’s quite fascinating.

“It starts with a studio chat and then goes to the tape and later in the show back to the studio to have a chat about it. The following week will have the same host but a different reporter and theme.

“We’ll launch with a short run and if it performs ok we’ll come back later in the year.”

The Embassy Bangkok looks at Aussies in crisis abroad. Filmed in conjunction with DFAT, I ask who has editorial control of the stories?

“It’s a similar situation that most ob-docs have like RBT or The Force. The police, or in this case the embassy, has the right to veto some material if it falls out of their procedure. But they can’t control the story or have the ability to say ‘You’re not allowed to show this story because we don’t like it,'” he explains.

“So they don’t really control the editorial content. They make sure all the correct procedures are followed.”

Hamish & Andy’s Gap Year South America is the duo’s last season in their current network contract.

“We’re happy with the investment we made in Hamish & Andy. They’ve produced fantastic shows and the ratings have been good. I love them and I think they’re great for their brand,” Backwell says.

While Cricket has been strong over summer, NRL season is not far away. Now that digital switchover is complete, how soon can viewers expect to see games broadcast in HD, as promised by David Gyngell?

“There is an HD plan for the whole network which is being worked through with the technical guys which is too early to announce. There will be a transition to HD at some time,” says Backwell.

“At this stage NRL will start on Nine as it does at the moment. But there’s a plan in place.”

So Nine will shift to HD?

“In the future, and I can’t tell you when, there is a plan for Nine to become an HD channel, yes.”

Also returning are Today, Mornings, The Footy Show, 60 Minutes and Hot Seat.

Hot Seat had some stiff competition with a new game show but it seems to have held up very well. And it’s obviously very important for the performance of our News. So I’m happy with Hot Seat.”

Returning international dramas include Arrow, Person of Interest, CSI, The Mentalist and The Following.

Top Gear, trumpeted as a coup some years ago, is no longer a network powerhouse. It is tipped for Thursdays.

“And it also plays on a multichannel where it does quite well. But it’s not a big blockbuster for us,” says Backwell.

The Big Bang Theory and 2 Broke Girls returned last night with more Two and a Half Men, Anger Management and Mike and Molly due. New sitcom Mom (yes with that spelling) begins in the first quarter.

New dramas Almost Human and The Tomorrow People will air later in the year, although there is no decision about whether they will be Nine or GO! properties.

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Sherlock premieres next week on Wednesdays, although the network premiered the 3 telemovies in Perth as part of Nine’s strategy to win back new viewers, after acquiring STW9 from WIN Television.

“(Managing Director) David Mott in Perth so far has done a sensational job. I haven’t worked with someone as engaged in running a local channel as he has. He’s looking for every single opportunity and working very hard. Turning around the performance in Perth is not going to be easy. It will be like turning the Titanic around. It will be slow but it’s about gaining viewers’ trust and changing perception and I think he’s working hard on all of these and concentrating on getting the numbers up,” Backwell notes.

“It’s vital that people understand that we haven’t just bought the channel and it isn’t just Sydney running the station. We’re engaged with the local community. There’s no doubt Seven have done a sensational job in that market. They own Perth, the ratings reflect that. They’ve really engaged with the local audience and we need to get in and do the same. But there’s no-one on our side of the business saying we’re going to beat Channel Seven in Perth. What we need to do is close the gap and give viewers an alternative.”

More split-scheduling is tipped for the Perth market this year.

In the lead-up to the official start of the ratings year, Backwell also commented on some of the competition over the past few weeks.

“I think the Big Bash for TEN has done a reasonable job but their shares overall are still very flat. If you look at their summer performance Year on Year, we’re leading in Total People and every demographic. Seven is down but TEN is at such a low base that you haven’t seen a huge amount of growth even with the big investment in Big Bash. So it hasn’t impacted their performance that much,” he says.

Tipping a heated battle with Seven’s My Kitchen Rules, he conceded, “I think it will go gangbusters again this year, so credit where credit is due. They’ve done a fantastic job on it.”

And of Biggest Loser‘s outlook, he agreed it was “kind of suicidal” for TEN to compete against MKR and The Block when 7pm is now a Reality-free timezone.

The Project has been moved (before) and I think it will be hard for it to be moved again but if I was there I would be looking at that opportunity.”

Backwell knows too well how hard it is to build a schedule from the ground up when a network is at base level. Only a few years ago, Nine was doing it tough. But television is cyclical and Nine’s return to a competitive position is evidence that local product resonates with audiences.

“There are a lot of people behind the scenes but there are 2 people who can take the credit for that: David Gyngell who came back as CEO and put stability back into this place, and Michael Healy who in no doubt is the best Programmer in the country. Those two guys can take a lot of credit for rebuilding Nine to this position.”

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