love is a four letter word: articles

Has Aunty #@%!$ It Up Again?

Love is not just a four-letter word, it's a complete turkey, writes Robert Fidgeon

THE ABC's greatest drama disgrace in recent years was Wildside—not because it was a ratings dud, which it was, but because cash-strapped Aunty spent more than $22 million on 60 episodes.

Thirteen episodes would have been enough. That's all it was worth, at best. It could have been written off as a worthy experiment.

Aunty then salvaged a good deal of pride and credibility with the super- successful SeaChange.

For three years the series reigned supreme, but with its demise, the ABC decided Love is a Four Letter Word would be its Aussie drama flagship.

It was a crazy decision. SeaChange had all-age appeal. Love is a Four Letter Word is aimed at 15-to-35-year-olds.

History shows there are too few in this age group to support a network's flagship drama—a fact borne out in the ratings for Love is a Four Letter Word.

In Melbourne the show is rating 9 against SeaChange's mid-20 average—about 300,000 viewers down.

Also, it screens at 9.30pm, when many viewers are turning off for the night. SeaChange screened during peak viewing at 7.30pm.

The ABC expresses satisfaction in Love is a Four Letter Word because it's reaching its target audience.

Who cares? A rating of 9 says the show is a failure.

And it fails because not only are there not enough viewers in its target audience, it's hopelessly flawed in the two basic elements of television drama : script and character.

The December issue of Encore magazine ran an excellent two-page feature on those involved with the production of the series.

The introduction to the Encore story posed the million-dollar question: "Can a film producer adapting to the ways of television, a DOP (director of photography) experimenting with video styles, a group of highly committed writers and a small crew of directors combine to create the ABC's next hit drama?"

The answer is a resounding NO.

What was more depressing, however, was that on reading the Encore feature—two months before the show had its premiere—you knew it was going to struggle.

Where the Four Letter Word production people got it wrong was to assume that the way to create a successful drama series for the younger market is to swamp the product with technical gimmickry.

The show's commissioning editor and executive producer, Tim Pye, told Encore : "It's the ABC's duty to take risks. "

But Pye and his Four Letter colleagues fell for the TV trap of not knowing the difference between taking risks and being too clever by half.

Despite never having produced television drama, Rosemary Blight was signed as producer because, Pye said, of the "filmic qualities" he hoped she would instil in the production.

"Rosemary has incorporated stylistic devices—taken ideas and run with them—to create a new production methodology," he told Encore.

Stylistic devices and new production methods are worth zip if the scripts and characters aren't right.

Blight said the writers were constantly reworking and refining the scripts.

It's a pity that rewriting and refining didn't include having the characters exchange dialogue that rings true, rather than awkward and artificial mini- speeches at each other.

Blight, DOP Toby Oliver and director Tony Tilse lauded the technical wizardy they were bringing to the show—intercutting film with digital video images , playing around with a different "cut-and-paste look", using "field interlacing" at the final-cut stage, and Oliver's use of Tiffin Softcon filters and Kino Flo fluorescent lighting.

Maybe if everybody hadn't been so blinded by all the techno wizardry they would have seen they had a handful of dumb scripts and colourless characters.

Good luck to Pye, Blight, Tilse, Oliver and Co for all future endeavours but , thanks to them, Love is a Four Letter Word is best summed up by a six-letter one: turkey.

Whether a series is pitched at 15-year-olds, 25-year-olds or geriatrics, it demands at least one character whom the audience can embrace and grow to care for, not to mention scripts that are half-way decent.

Love is a Four Letter Word has neither.

Such elementary flaws as lousy scripts and unappealing characters can't be concealed by Tiffin Softcon filters and Kino Flo fluorescents.

Without advertising revenue, the ABC needs government support to ensure its survival.

An unfortunate byproduct of this is that when it creates a flagship drama, that program must be designed—as SeaChange was—to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

To make one just for the 15-35ers, who have a lot of things in their life other than television, defies comprehension.

By Robert Fidgeon
March 14, 2001