Mcleod's Daughters: articles

Dramatic rise in fortunes of local series

Australian TV drama might be set for a new golden age. That's if all or even most of the new series in production or on the drawing boards reach our screens. It's a big gamble, but with the supply of quality American series—and to some extent, long-running British series, too—drying up, and Australian viewers continuing to exhibit a preference for local drama, it's a risk that must be taken.

The Nine Network is talking of three new local dramas over the next 18 months—the first will premiere on Sunday week. Seven has two in the pipeline. Ten recently launched The Secret Life of Us and has more on the way. And even the ABC is looking at two new series, in addition to a second series of Grass Roots, for screening next year.

It seems that one of the most important factors in this rush to produce is the potential for overseas sales, which reduces the cost of new shows for our networks by up to 50 per cent. Foreign sales have been flat in recent years. Even Nine's Water Rats, which a few years ago was claimed to be up there with Baywatch as one of the biggest selling series in the world, struggled to find buyers and, we learnt this week, will not return next year.

But network insiders say the worst might be over. A renewed enthusiasm for Australian product is illustrated by the story of McLeod's Daughters, Nine's new 22-part series premiering in a movie-length episode at 8.30pm on Sunday week and then moving to a regular weekly timeslot at 7.30pm on Wednesdays. It is a contemporary family drama about two young sisters who inherit their family's cattle property and is a spin-off of a successful 1996 Nine telemovie starring Jack Thompson, Tammy Macintosh and Kym Wilson.

When Nine decided to proceed with a series, it bought Kingsford, the 55-hectare South Australian property—including the run-down 145-year-old sandstone homestead at its heart—where the telemovie was made. It has been renamed Drovers Run. Filming has been under way for a few months, and although editing of the first two-hour episode was completed only two weeks ago, there already is talk of a second series next year.

McLeod's Daughters is unusual in several ways. Its five main characters are women. Sonia Todd (Police Rescue) and Jessica Napier (Wildside) are well-known faces, but some of the others—particularly Lisa Chappell and Bridie Carter, who play sisters Claire and Tess McLeod—are not. It's also the first Australian series produced in a wide-screen, high-definition digital TV format, which is said to have caused headaches for a production crew unfamiliar with it.

But crucially, it already has been guaranteed an audience in 100 countries. The highly respected US-based Hallmark pay TV network, with 68 million subscribers around the world including the critical North American market, recently bought the show. Nine's head of drama and the series' executive producer, Kris Noble, says Nine was committed to it before Hallmark showed an interest. But he admits that having Hallmark on board has been a fillip.

Nine has high hopes for McLeod's Daughters. And its success is crucial to the network's drama division. Water Rats ends its 2001 run shortly and will not be back next year. The Sydney-made police series had a lean year in the ratings.

The Melbourne-made undercover cop series Stingers will replace Water Rats in Nine's schedules, and early indications are that it is better than ever. On the horizon at Nine, however, is yet another police series, about rookie cops. Consideration is being given to turning the occasional telemovie series Halifax, f.p. into a weekly drama. Another, so-far-secret project is on Nine's drama slate for mid-2002.

At Seven, Blue Heelers, enjoying a resurgence in the ratings, and All Saints, which is having its best year so far, will return next year. Two other Australian dramas are in development—Leather and Silk, starring Lisa McCune as a lawyer, and Always Greener, featuring John Howard (SeaChange's Bob Jelly). If both proceed, Seven will have an unprecedented level of Australian drama.

Ten's The Secret Life of Us made its debut last week to much critical acclaim. Although Ten's drama plans for 2002 remain under wraps, it is believed they entail shows with broader appeal as the network chases the over-40s.

At the ABC, Grass Roots is returning in 2002. But despite rumors to the contrary, SeaChange is not coming back. Development of other weekly dramas is said to be under way—one is a medical drama, likely to be made in Melbourne.

If all or most of the new projects proceed, Australian TV will be richer with local content than ever before. In many cases, however, overseas pre-sales will dictate whether they go ahead.

By Ross Warneke
July 26, 2001
The Age