Sunday, September 28, 2008

Underwhelming Underbelly, by Debi Enker - The Age - 25th September 2008

The gripping dramatised account of Melbourne's gangland wars made a delayed debut on its home turf last week, following a seven-month legal ban on its screening. The Nine Network's crime series Underbelly launched with a double episode on Sunday, followed by a Tuesday night screening against Seven's thriving local drama, Packed to the Rafters.

Underbelly's Victorian launch was halted at the last minute in February when Supreme Court Justice Betty King ruled that its airing could affect cases still before the courts. It screened in the other mainland capitals, drawing solid audiences of about 1.25 million viewers.

At the time, it was estimated that Melbourne, arguably the 13-part drama's major market, would have added about 800,000 viewers to that tally. If the series had screened then and those estimates had proved accurate, Underbelly would be vying with Packed to the Rafters for the title of Australia's most popular drama series in 2008.

Earlier this month, Supreme Court judge Peter Vickery ruled that Nine could screen edited versions of the first five episodes in Melbourne. Some dialogue was altered, a few scenes trimmed and one actor's face pixelated.

It's fair to assume that at least some of those who would've been sitting eagerly in front of their tellys in February might have managed to see the drama before it made its debut here. Although not for sale in Victoria, 265,000 copies of the DVD set of the series have sold elsewhere since May and it's reasonable to assume that some of them have made their away over the border. It's also impossible to estimate how many people had already seen pirated episodes or those downloaded from the internet, although anecdotal evidence suggests it might be a fair few.

Those factors affected the numbers that Nine did achieve. Averaging a healthy 593,000 viewers for its second hour and 578,000 for the first, it was the top-rating show in Melbourne on Sunday night and a drawcard for Nine. But the figures were much lower than those anticipated earlier in the year and Tuesday night's episode (429,000) was soundly beaten by Packed to the Rafters (589,000).

There's been no word yet on when, or if, the remaining episodes will screen here. However, Nine has commissioned Underbelly2, to be shot in Sydney and Melbourne later this year and expected on air early in 2009.

In addition to Underbelly, Sunday night was interesting for a number of reasons.

Nine's new home show, Battlefronts, hosted by Gian Rooney, made a solid debut, attracting 1.28 million viewers, although it wasn't quite as strong in that slot as its predecessor, Domestic Blitz.

60 Minutes presented its much-touted interview between former federal treasurer and recent author, Peter Costello, and Ray Martin, who was inducted back into the show for the occasion. With 1.68 million viewers, it was the top-rating program of the night nationally, trouncing the ailing Dancing with the Stars.

Attracting 1.16 million viewers (No.31 nationally), the dance contest is a pale shadow of its once-robust self in ratings terms. Yes, it's continuing to perform for Seven by drawing more than a million people to a key timeslot. But in its heyday, Dancing was a Top5 performer and could be counted on to attract around 1.8 million viewers.

Seven did, though, have the top six programs nationally, a tally headed for the third consecutive week by Packed to the Rafters. In Melbourne, Seven won the week with a 29.2% audience share, ahead of Nine (26.7%), Ten(22.7%), ABC1 (16.6%) and SBS (4.8%).

Media Man Australia Profiles