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Public broadcaster maintains edge

Comedy keeps Australia's ABC strong at 75

SYDNEY — Oz pubcaster the ABC turned 75 this year but shows none of the hallmarks of old age, with water-cooler shows and particular strength in laffers.

Despite losing ratings winner “Kath & Kim” to the Seven Network this year, the pubcaster’s other comedies have picked up the baton and are drawing commercial-sized auds.

Biggest hit is “The Chaser’s War on Everything,” which regularly captures auds of 1.5 million. It soared as high as 2.3 million after a well-publicized arrest during a stunt at Sydney’s Asia Pacific Co-operation (APEC) summit, where a cast member breached security dressed as Osama Bin Laden.

ABC topper Kim Dalton says, “We knew that when we shifted them to the midweek spot that would bring a new audience, but it was fantastic to see how broadly that spread.”

Wednesday is now the pubcaster’s strongest night, causing some angst among the commercial webs. Music quizzer “Spicks & Specks” has quietly built a regular aud in excess of a million and laffer “Summer Heights High,” from Chris Lilley (“The Nominees”), holds “The Chaser’s War” lead-in aud.

This has given ABC the biggest full-year aud increase among the free webs, up 8%. Seven Network is up 3% and multi-cultural pubcaster SBS is up 2.5% while both Nine and Ten have lost ground.

With the big numbers has come some media backlash.

“The Chaser’s War” APEC stunt caused a media storm and more recently Prime Minister John Howard and opposition leader Kevin Rudd took time out of a busy election to condemn a satirical song on “The Chaser’s War” that lampooned dead celebrities including Princess Diana and Steve Irwin.

In addition, “Summer Heights High’s” dark view of school life has drawn complaints while new laffer “The Librarians” caused a stir even before it aired for its alleged racist characters.

” ‘Librarians’ sits on the edge,” agrees Dalton. “I think it will upset some people. If you have got something to say or some observations that resonate, there are people along the way that won’t like it.”

The ABC topper also outlines the pubcaster’s renewed commitment to Aussie drama, a genre that was nearly untouchable just 18 months ago, about the time Dalton took the top job after seven years at the Australian Film Commission.

“The overriding priority that I came here with was that, within our limited resource base, we would expand our local content and then as far as possible prioritize that content within our schedule,” he says.

Dalton credits the government’s increased budget last year with upping the drama ante. ABC negotiated an extra A$10 million ($9 million) in its May 2006 funding submission.

“The ABC should have a very strong commitment to Australian drama and there is no doubt that that commitment was not particularly strong in the last period and our levels of drama reduced substantially,” he adds. “The federal government money has allowed us to look at around 25-30 hours of Australian drama.”

Recent hits include six-part rural series “Rainshadow” and “Curtin,” a mini about a former Oz leader.

One of the key execs in this success has been Courtney Gibson, who has been upped from head of arts, entertainment and comedy to the newly created role of executive head of content creation. Gibson joined the ABC in 2003 and has produced some of the network’s biggest hits including “Spicks & Specks,” “The Chaser’s War” and “The Nominees.”

Gibson starts work this month and Dalton says she will take a broader look at content across all media.

New media is a key area for the pubcaster, which has led the free webs in video on demand with more than 12 million programs downloaded so far.

“You have to take risks and you have to keep taking them,” Dalton says. “But you won’t be able to deliver a ‘Chaser’ every year; it is about nurturing new talent.”

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