Get real: Australian TV swells with reality franchises as 2018 kicks off

NEws/AGE. Andrew Denton has a new podcast called Better Off Dead. Photo by Edwina Pickles. Taken on 18th Feb 2015.
NEws/AGE. Andrew Denton has a new podcast called Better Off Dead. Photo by Edwina Pickles. Taken on 18th Feb 2015.

Australia's television industry is digesting the long-term consequences of changes in media ownership laws and the arrival of the US giant CBS as parent company to our youngest commercial network, Ten.

The net effect is that a schedule already heavy with unscripted franchises seems bloated to bursting point in 2018. There are some interesting and risky scripted series in the cable, streaming and public television spheres, but new commercial drama looks thin on the ground.

TV in 2018 is a strange crossroads of numbers: the 60th Logies and Grammys and 90th Oscars (following the 75th Golden Globes), the 200th episode of Modern Family, the 300th episode of Family Guy and the 30th anniversary of Home and Away. The numerologists will be busy, even if the TV critics are not.

Glancing at the primetime schedule, it is a sea of franchises. The Bachelor is heading to the tropics for The Bachelor in Paradise and Nine is importing the UK's Love Island brand.

Ten is piling it on with MasterChef Australia, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, Australian Survivor and I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Seven has My Kitchen Rules, House Rules, The Chase Australia and The Wall. And Nine has Australian Ninja Warrior, Married at First Sight, The Block and The Voice.

Compared with the US and UK markets, where scripted content tends to dominate the primetime schedules of main channels, Australia looks oddly like an alternate reality where the three free-to-air networks could be Fox, Bravo and ITV2.

In real commercial terms, there doesn't look to be much investment in the long term, particularly as most of the existing franchises - MasterChef, The Block, My Kitchen Rules and the like - are now well into the middle age of their television shelf life.

Spakfilling the cracks are a stack of shows with names like Buying Blind, Eat Well for Less, Driving Test, The Rich House, Dance Boss, Date Night, Back with the Ex and First Wives Club that look good in internal marketing presentations but offer very little in terms of long-term value. By 2019 most won't be back.

Perhaps the most interesting trend in scripted content is the signing of internationally recognisable talent, a program sales jigsaw piece intended to help local content get firmer traction at key foreign sales markets such as April's MIPTV and October's MIPCOM.

Playmaker has Dominic Monaghan (The Lord of the Rings) in Bite Club, Hoodlum has Ioan Gruffudd (Hornblower, Liar) in Harrow and Fremantle has Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) in Picnic at Hanging Rock. You could even argue the ABC is in on the act with Guy Pearce (Iron Man 3, Alien: Covenant) in Jack Irish.

Hoodlum - the Australian production company behind Secrets & Lies and The Strange Calls - has secured Netflix's first Australian scripted commission, a supernatural crime drama titled Tidelands, about a small town, an unexplained murder and a group of half-Sirens known as Tidelanders.

Behind the scenes, 2018's main game is yet to unfold.

CBS's ownership of Ten is now confirmed but the $US40 billion network and studio is yet to unfurl its plans for Ten in the longer term. Common sense - and a need to bring some stability in the wake of a decade of turbulently poor management - suggests no major changes until at least the middle of this year.

There is also intense lobbying behind the scenes around questions of content, commercial TV's obligations to children's TV being one, and the market's broader obligation to scripted content another.

Commercial TV abides by heavily prescriptive - and arguably very necessary - minimum obligations around scripted comedy and drama. The rules governing pay TV are thinner, and streaming TV next to non-existent.

That's why, for example, Netflix announced its first Australian drama commission in May 2017, more than two years after launching in the market.

It's only major rival Stan, in contrast, came more quickly to local content, commissioning series such as Wolf Creek, No Activity (being remade in the US by CBS All Access) and Romper Stomper.

The least visible - yet greatest - shift this year is that with the dismantling of the 20th Television-Ten Network output agreement, Australia's major broadcasters (including Foxtel) are mostly freed from cumbersome output agreements.

The side effect is that a number of the most interesting titles, such as Warner Bros' Krypton (from former Home and Away producer Cam Welsh) and ABC's Roseanne - despite enormous buzz in the US - are yet to sell locally. Another title, Fox's The Orville, remains unsold despite a strong reception in the US.

While the dismantling of those deals has opened the local market up significantly - not to mention unlocked spending capital which was otherwise tied up in dense library agreements - it has also slowed down what was a fast-flowing content pipe from the bigger, busier US market to Australian screens.

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The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (unsold, but likely Foxtel): Drama about Versace's death starring Edgar Ramirez and Ricky Martin.

Australian Gangster (Seven): "A wild tale of gangster ambition" from producer/director Gregor Jordan.

Australian Spartan (Seven): The stepchild of It's a Knockout, Gladiator and Ninja Warrior.

Bachelor in Paradise (Ten): Ten's most heavily worked format heads to the tropics.

Back in Time for Dinner (ABC): Annabel Crabb dials back the clock and explores meals (and palates) of the past.

Bite Club (Nine): Offbeat police procedural with Dominic Monaghan and Todd Lasance.

Blind Date (Ten): The one-single, three-prospective-dates format hosted by Julia Morris.

Brittania (Foxtel): Huge-scale drama about Rome's invasion of Britain in 43AD.

Fighting Season (Foxtel): Jay Ryan and Ewen Leslie in a drama about Australian soldiers returning from Afghanistan.

Harrow (ABC): Ioan Gruffudd as a forensic pathologist with a criminally poor bedside manner.

Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader (ABC): Political documentary about "the times and the leadership" of the former PM.

How to Stay Married (Ten): Pete Helliar and Lisa McCune juggle redundancy and relatives.

Instinct (Ten): US crime drama starring Alan Cumming and Australian actress Bojana Novakovic.

Interview with Andrew Denton (Seven): Denton's armchair interrogation of "fascinating people".

Jack Irish (ABC): Series follow-up to the telemovies starring Guy Pearce as a private investigator.

Krypton (unsold): Superman origin story about the man of steel's grandfather Seg-El.

Lost in Space (Netflix): Highly anticipated reboot of the iconic 1960s era science fiction adventure series.

Love Island Australia (9Go): Local version of the UK hit which parachutes singles into a tropical resort.

The Mentor (Seven): Mark Bouris does The Apprentice without the burdensome boardroom schtick.

Mosaic (Foxtel): Limited series crime drama from producer and director Steven Soderbergh.

Muslims Like Us (SBS): Ten Muslims with different viewpoints share a house for eight days of discussion.

Olivia Newton-John: Hopelessly Devoted to You (Seven): Delta Goodrem stars as the iconic Aussie singer.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (Foxtel): Highly anticipated remake based on the iconic Australian novel by Joan Lindsay.

Playing for Keeps (Ten): Drama about "the women behind the men we barrack for on the footy field" from Screentime.

Roseanne (unsold): Continuation of the iconic 1990s sitcom about a working class American family.

Russell Coight's All Aussie Adventures (Ten): Glenn Robbins returns as the would-be wilderness adventurer.

Safe Harbour (SBS): Psychological thriller starring Rachel Griffiths.

Street Smart (Ten): Tahir Bilgic and Rob Shehadie in a comedy about the world of "disorganised crime".

Strike Back (Foxtel): Reboot of the Cinemax action thriller series starring Australian actor Daniel MacPherson.

Tidelands (Netflix): Supernatural crime drama from Secrets & Lies writer Stephen M. Irwin.

Underbelly Files: Chopper (Nine): Biography of gangster Mark "Chopper" Read starring Aaron Jeffrey.

Undercurrent (Seven): True crime series about a murder case from 2009.

Uncharted with Sam Neill (Foxtel): Factual series about Captain James Cook's three voyages to the Pacific.

This story Get real: Australian TV swells with reality franchises as 2018 kicks off first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.