Networks mine crime-themed TV

Documentaries, police dramas flood Australia

Television Down Under is in the grip of a crime wave. It started in 2006 with the launch of Seven Network’s “City Homicide,” the first locally made police procedural in years, but it was Nine Network’s “Underbelly” that sent crime skeins gunning for the big time.

Launched last year with stellar ratings and much controversy (it was banned in Victoria due to fears it would prejudice an ongoing trial), “Underbelly” portrayed a decade of gangland crime in Victoria and captured 2 million-plus viewers each episode despite the ban in a key state. Nine wasted no time in pushing out a second series in March. “Underbelly 2: A Tale of Two Cities” bowed with 2.6 million viewers, the biggest preem ever for a homegrown drama.

Des Monaghan, topper of series production company Screentime, says it generated a lot of interest at the recent Mip TV market, and reckons its success is based on the fact that it breaks with normal dramatic structures.

“We kill off characters — very successful characters — quite unexpectedly, dictated by what actually happened,” Monaghan says. “This brings a freshness.”

Screentime is already in pre-production of “Underbelly 3.”

But Screentime and many others are also seeing this renewed interest spill over into factual in general. Seven Network in particular has been quick to respond to its rival’s success and rolled out serial-killer skein “Beyond the Darklands” and “Gangs of Oz.”

Seven’s head of scheduling and acquisitions, Angus Ross says that “Gangs” skewed a lot younger than expected, expanding on the usual 25-54 demo to pick up a large chunk of the 16-39 aud as well.

He thinks the popularity of crime on the telly is linked to television being swamped with serialized dramas that became too complicated and had too many barriers to entry for new and casual viewers.

“Also, the trust in the relationship between broadcasters and authorities is at an all-time high, driven by the success of programs like (customs docu series) ‘Border Security’ and (police docu series) ‘The Force,’ which is the major reason for this increased access,” he says.

But that was not always the way.

Jim Buchan, topper of paybox Foxtel’s Crime and Investigation Network, remembers facing skepticism when he presented the idea of a crime-only channel in 2005; carriers even wanted “crime” taken out of the name because it was seen as a negative.

“I don’t think it has been a very Australian thing to talk about crime,” Buchan says. “Now it’s all happening — it’s everywhere.”

Crime and Investigation Network’s flagship local skein, “Crime Investigation: Australia,” has even been purchased by the Nine Network, one of the few paybox shows to make the crossover from feevee to free to air.

Another big change for Buchan is that he previously had to shop overseas for docus about local crimes, but now local production companies are beating a path to his door. He also notes his surprise that the channel skewed more female than expected: “Women analyze more, and they want to know how people think and what makes men and women do these things.”

Ross additionally notes a knock-on effect to imported crime dramas, with best-ever ratings for “Criminal Minds” and “Bones.”

“We need to get more heavily into crime factual and will continue to do so,” he says. “It works quite well at 9:30 coming out the back of the U.S. dramas.”

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