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Producers upbeat despite flops

Industryites blame logjam, competish from U.S. imports

SYDNEY — There’s been more action off-screen than onscreen for Aussie terrestrial TV dramas this year, with “Always Greener” and “White Collar Blue” axed, “Crashburn” proving to be a prophetic title for the Ten network, and sagging ratings for “Blue Heelers,” “All Saints,” “The Secret Life of Us” and “MDA.”

However programmers and producers aren’t alarmed. They say the unusually high number of Oz dramas launched this year was bound to result in casualties, and some established shows have faced brutal competition from U.S. imports.

It’s no surprise, they note, that Seven’s rural cop skein “Blue Heelers” lost viewers in its 11th season after Nine threw “CSI: Miami” against it. Or that Ten’s “Secret Life of Us” audience was dented by Seven’s “24.”

“Australian dramas may appear to be waning, but I bet that won’t be the case in 12 month,” says Tim Worner, Seven’s director of programming and production. “Australians will always watch good Australian stories that are well told — that will never change.”

Nonetheless, Worner concedes he’s not happy with the ratings for “Blue Heelers” and hospital drama “All Saints” and says the content of both is being “vigorously reviewed” before they return next year.

Seven and producers Southern Star have spent the past few months discussing ways of refreshing “Heelers.” Neither will telegraph any changes, but Worner says they’re addressing the storylines and the “packaging and feel” of the show.

With relationships saga “Secret Life of Us,” the exit of several key cast members including Claudia Karvan and Abi Tucker will mean a fresh look for next year’s fourth season. “That gives us a great opportunity for new faces and new relationships,” says Southern Star Entertainment CEO Hugh Marks.

There’s little doubt that viewers’ apparently boundless appetites for reality and lifestyle programming, typified this year by Ten’s “Australian Idol” and Nine’s “The Block,” has drawn some public and media attention away from scripted dramas.

But Marks believes the failure rate among reality and lifestyle shows is much higher than for Oz dramas. “Our research shows there is a real demand among viewers for quality Australian drama,” he adds.

Marks is confident “The Alice,” a series pilot Southern Star is shooting in January for Nine, dealing with an odd assortment of characters whose paths intersect in the outback town of Alice Springs, will be picked up as a midseason replacement or for 2005.

Des Monaghan, co-principle of Screentime, producers of “MDA,” acknowledges Oz dramas aren’t regularly achieving the high ratings of prior years but says few shows of any genre are doing so, due to fragmentation of audiences.

“MDA,” a medical-legal drama, is fully funded by pubcaster ABC-TV. Monaghan says its ratings have been consistent at about 1 million per episode (down from the 1.2 million who caught the preem), and he’s hopeful the ABC will greenlight a third season for 2004.

Screentime is developing three one-hour dramas for local nets as well as a half-dozen telepics, including two pilots. The series fall under the categories of action/crime and family entertainment, as Monaghan opines, “The essentials of drama never change; it’s the style that changes.”

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