From PopStars to Underbelly, the Screentime legacy.

Veteran producer reflects on Screentime's glory days, with smash hits, court injunctions, and the phenomenon that got away.

Bob Campbell is well aware that he could have been the owner of mansions and yachts around the world by now, but he bears no grudges.

When Screentime license a little-known reality format, PopStars from NZ producer Johnny Dowling, it would become the production company’s first big hit. It pre-dated Simon Cowell’s global Idol franchise.

The first of four seasons spawned Bardot, and the career of Sophie Monk, but it became a breakout hit for the relatively new production company he founded with Des Monaghan, a fellow former network executive.

“We sold it to the Seven Network. The New Zealand show was very modestly budgeted but very well made,” Campbell tells TV Tonight.

“It was a great calling card for sales internationally”

“We added some more resources and money to it and it was a great commercial success. It was a great calling card for sales internationally.”

The format was sold to 44 territories with 50 different versions.

“We gave it enough time, and breathed enough oxygen into it to see the process through. The cattle calls had queues from George Street to Pitt Street, there were drag queens, people who could sing, people who couldn’t sing a note, men and women old & young.

“It was the first of its type, I think, and as luck would have it, I think we executed it pretty well. There were some things that were important to the format that we subsequently discovered, probably as a result of Bardot. Girl groups were, by definition, the most popular form because the girls wanted to see the girls and the boys wanted to see the girls. So it wasn’t rocket science. And we had a very good record label behind it in Warner Music.”

But there were business lessons to be learned too -it wasn’t long before similar shows began to emerge around the world.

“We didn’t quite know how to protect it well enough”

“Whilst we sold it for 44 markets around the world, we didn’t quite know how to protect it well enough, I think,” he acknowledges.

“So you had Pop Idol and American Idol and all the other derivatives that were just that were just PopStars branded differently. Had we had more experience, and perhaps had a format distributor who was plugged into the music industry…. we might have protected it better and had a longer life.

“Having said that, in France there were eight series. In Germany, there were seven series. In the Philippines, there were a number… so there wasn’t too much to complain about. It did well for us. There were 4 series in Australia.

“We made a couple of mistakes. You live and learn.”

Screentime was founded by Campbell and Monaghan in 1996, he recalls.

“Kennedy Miller had vacated television and were concentrating on features. Crawfords were a shadow of their former self. Southern Star weren’t doing much. So we thought there was a gap in the market.

“(We) swore on a fairly large stack of Bibles to our new shareholders, that we’d be Drama-only house.”

“So we raised the money in London and Sydney, and swore on a fairly large stack of Bibles to our new shareholders, that we’d be Drama-only house.

“Well, that lasted until we got our first commission in Auckland, which was a long running factual show…. and then PopStars came along.”

It would go on to produce some of the country’s biggest TV shows: MDA, ANZAC Girls, Jessica, The Secret Daughter, Anh’s Brush with Fame, Wolf Creek, SAS Australia and none more infamous than the Underbelly franchise -a defining work for the company.

It hit screens in 2008 after a deal with then-Eddie McGuire, whom Campbell had known earlier through Network 10. Both Nine and Screentime had been separately exploring a series around the Melbourne gangland wars.

“He rang me one day and said ‘What are you doing on the gangland wars?’ So we agreed that we wouldn’t do 2, but we’d come together and do it as Underbelly for the Nine network,” Campbell continues.


“We brought John Sylvester & Andrew Rule’s book Leadbelly, and that was the genesis of the first of Underbelly. We thought of it in terms of 8×1 hours, as 9:30 in the evening, on the shoulder of prime time because it was pretty violent, pretty sexy.”

But Nine, under Nine CEO David Gyngell by the time it would premiere, positioned it for an 8:30 slot and invited Screentime to the Nine board room for the premiere.

“We said ‘My God, you’ll lose the license’…. they said ‘Don’t worry!’ And they produced a very interesting and for those days different, online campaign.

“It was all sex and and violence and at the end of it, they said, ‘Bang bang your f***ed!’

“We sat in the boardroom at 8:30, fearing for our lives and their license”

“So we thought if there’s ever provocation for the regulator to get involved, it’s now. So we sat in the boardroom at 8:30, fearing for our lives and their license, and we thought the switchboard would melt down.

“There were just 4 complaints from around Australia, all about the placement of commercials.

“I suppose the lesson in all of that was it was based on a true story. So you probably had more license than if you were just writing as a pure fiction piece.”

But Underbelly was also famously banned in Victoria, due to an ongoing legal case, which sent the series underground and into television folklore.

“It felt dreadful at the time, to be honest,” Campbell admits. “It did 600,000 in Sydney from a standing start and never deviated so God only knows what it would have done in Melbourne -probably that plus GST.

“We were worried about litigation, worried about the Carlton crew”

“It gave us a fair bit of indigestion. Having said that we were very careful legally about what we did, because we were worried about litigation, worried about the Carlton crew…

“Locked in our safe were all 13 episodes to avoid it being knocked off, and to avoid it being pirated.

“That Monday after it was on air in Sydney, all 13 episodes were available at building sites for about $30 bucks!”

While Campbell acknowledges the era as “an interesting, somewhat traumatic, period” there were other Screentime successes, including the critically-acclaimed Cloudstreet, produced for Foxtel.

“We had the great good fortune of getting a lot of support from the WA Government in terms of a particular facility where we could shoot on the river,” he recalls.

“A reticent Tim Winton and Greg Haddrick wrote a fantastic script together. So disappointments are balanced by the unexpected pleasures.”

Factual series RBT is now in its 17th season, with Campbell nodding to its secret sauce.

“The waiting for the result of the breathalyse, bridging a commercial break was the genius of the show. It’s a very simple show but it’s been used by the Nine Network in all sorts of timeslots and invariably done alright.”

But Campbell nominates Janet King, a drama spinoff to ABC’s Crownies, as one that ended too soon.

Crownies was a big order, 22 episodes for a Thursday… almost a high wire act, at best. It was moderately successful,” he explains.

“Then they saw the potential of Janet King and Marta (Dusseldorp) in particular and commissioned a number of seasons. We had a fifth season that we thought was well structured and different. I suppose we were disappointed it didn’t get renewed. But that’s swings and roundabouts in producing.”

Last week Campbell was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Screen Producers Awards, introduced by his mate Des Monaghan. Screentime’s parent company Banijay recently acquired Endemol Shine Australia, ending an era of Screentime, with CEO Rory Callaghan retiring in 2021. Campbell expects its name will live on in drama titles produced by the super-indie (ESA indicates it is working on Screentime’s “next evolution”).

As he reflects pragmatically at some 25 years of independent production, Campbell has loved the ride with Des Monaghan, warts, court injunctions, pop singers and all.

“I look back with a degree of satisfaction… a couple of superannuated television executives who surprised themselves.”

4 Responses

  1. I am surprised that in the era of the revival, Popstars has not been resurrected. I would have thought a stripped format, about a nationwide search for a girl group and behind the scenes look at the final 12 contenders living together in a house as they battle it out to make the final cut and then adjust to life in the limelight after they’ve won, would make for great TV and really take on MAFS.

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