Aussie nets playing for laughs

Comedy, variety p'gramming sees 200% rise

SYDNEY — Australia’s TV networks are not known for being innovative but lately their copycattery has scaled new heights.

Last year four of the five nets launched new local drama skeins — two survived, Screentime’s “MDA” on the ABC and Knapman Wyld’s “White Collar Blue” on Ten.

This year schedulers are falling over for laffers and variety.

Five new hours of light entertainment a week have gone on air since sweeps began in February, that’s a whopping 200% increase on last year. And so far, there’s only been one turkey — Seven’s “The Chat Room,” which lasted less than a month.

Entertainment topper at CanWest’s Ten, Stephen Tate, says the genre is flourishing because times are tough so “people are looking for escapism and laughter.”

Top-ranked Nine and fourth-placed pubcaster the ABC launched variety show “Micallef Tonight” and gabfest “Enough Rope With Andrew Denton,” respectively, after eyeing Ten’s increasingly successful “Rove Live” for three years.

“Denton” has been on air at 9:30 p.m. Mondays since the start of the year. Nine launched “Micallef” three weeks ago in the same slot and swiped a chunk of “Denton’s” audience. Now both are attracting about a million viewers, half the available audience.

But weekly fluctuations indicate auds are switching between the two. “You have to give these things time to settle and find their feet,” warns Nine’s Hilary Innes.

A month ago Seven launched its multi-host chat show “Greeks on the Roof” on Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. — the slot occupied by the ABC’s Brit import “The Kumar’s at Number 42.” The irony that “Greeks” was developed by Granada Australia from the “Kumars” format was not lost on industry observers.

Both shows are holding around 800,000 viewers but Seven will expect “Greeks” to collect the “Kumars” eyeballs when it wraps.

All three commercial networks have launched a skit show and all are attracting a healthy 1.3 million viewers. Ten’s half-hour “Skithouse” survived the switch from Sundays to Wednesdays and re-inked for another term.

Seven’s in-house production “Big Bite” was chopped from an hour to a half-hour before it preemed early May to fair numbers.

Nine’s hour-long “Comedy Inc,” on air since February, is the strongest, which must comfort producers Crackerjack Productions in light of Innes’ prediction, who says, “I don’t think all three will survive into another series.”