Will Levy go down well down under?

'MDA' commissioned, overseen by exec; skein preems July 23

SYDNEY — After a year as head of TV for the Australian Broadcasting Corp., Sandra Levy is facing judgment day.

The pubcaster’s medical litigation series “MDA” preems July 23 — the first longform drama commissioned and overseen by the exec.

If “MDA” strikes a chord with auds, it will add to ABC’s success with hit six-part comedy “Kath and Kim” and telepic “Secret Bridesmaid’s Business” and put the web back on map as a credible entertainment producer.

It could be a welcome relief after almost two wilderness years marred by bitter exec scuffles and development malaise. It would also bode well for upcoming skeins “Bad Cop, Bad Cop” and “Grass Roots.”

“MDA” stars Australian Film Institute Awards winner Kerry Armstrong (“Lantana”) and “Neighbours” alum Jason Donovan as medically trained attorneys at competing legal practices. ABC fully funded the series that’s been co-produced with Screentime, the production company that developed the “Popstars” format.

“MDA” is skedded for 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays after ABC’s highest-rating show, Brit cop drama “The Bill.” But it faces tough competition from Nine Network’s local detective drama “Stingers.”

Divided loyalties

Auds will be particularly torn in Australia’s second city, Melbourne, where both shows are produced and where viewers have a history of supporting output from their state’s fragile production sector.

Levy, a former production exec at Southern Star, was upped to oversee ABC’s TV division June 2001. She joined the pubcaster the previous March as director of development during the tumultuous 19-month reign of former managing director Jonathan Shier, ousted this past November.

With Shier gone and new topper Russell Balding restoring stability to the corporation’s radio, TV and online divisions, Levy has been unblocking the pubcaster’s constipated commissioning system, rebuilding Australian content and reinterpreting its cultural brief.

Shier’s plan to make the fourth-ranked net more ratings driven has been toppled in favor of a return to traditional pubcaster values.

Levy says that “the major consideration (now) is making sure we provide rich and diverse content for the network” in not only news and drama but “science, religious, natural history and other kinds of factual programming.”

Nevertheless, Levy notes the ABC’s audience share has grown in 2002, off a dip in 2001, “and Australian content has increased to 61% in primetime.”

With no advertising allowed, ABC relies on annual government funding of A$800 million ($454 million) divided across a national radio network, online, TV Channel 2 and some pilot digital TV channels.

ABC Enterprises (publishing and merchandising) and, to a lesser extent, Content Sales are gold mines that are closely monitored in case their moneymaking agendas impinge on the pubcaster’s editorial independence.

Perhaps mindful of this, Levy denies she greenlights projects with an eye on offshore sales, and she refuses to disclose ABC TV’s budget, up for government review early 2003.

She concedes that industrywide drama budgets have shrunk because of scarce deficit financing and offshore sales. Repped by ABC for international, “MDA” has neither. The 22-episode series is shot multicam on video, a significant departure from the production structure of ABC’s last hit drama “SeaChange” (1998-2000), which didn’t recoup its production costs because it failed to crack a significant primetime offshore sale.

So ABC is facing up to the realities of the market — now the audiences will decide if they’re along for the ride.

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