SeaChange: articles

Killing the oyster that created the pearl

Pity the television programmers who have to field the commercial competition for tonight's final episode of SeaChange. Hard to know what to pitch against a player that covers the ground so comprehensively. If Laura doesn't lure you, then Bob Jelly will.

Remember all the fuss when Seinfeld finished? It would be interesting to see a breakdown in the demographics. How broad was the appeal of Seinfeld? Were they watching in the backwoods of Louisiana as avidly as they were in New York City? And does SeaChange have as much pulling power in Ceduna as it does in the metropolitan centres of the eastern seaboard? My suspicion (bolstered by the too-often-brandished ratings) is that it does. SeaChange travels well. You don't get that kind of audience just from high stress- level city execs desperately seeking the annual bolt to somewhere like Barwon Heads. So it's interesting to speculate what constituted SeaChange's broad appeal.

My speculations were prompted by listening this week to the man they call the father of television studies, the University of Wisconsin's John Fisk (on the ABC Media Report — and what a welcome change from interviews with either Paul Barry or Jonathan Shier).

Among the many astute things Fisk had to say about why and what we watch, there was one particularly alarming bit of TV data: there has not been, for the past eight years, a single program overlap between the 10 most popular programs watched by white America and the 10 most popular programs watched by black America. Now that's not simply a reflection of the richness and variety of offerings in the land of the free; that's a recipe for social trouble. What's the difference between a niche and a ghetto? A matter of time?

You can see the logic of niche programming if you think of television essentially as an entertainment product designed to best deliver an audience to advertisers. In those terms, it makes good commercial sense to target groups and tailor programs as bait for those most likely to buy. Let social cohesion go hang. Hence, The Simpsons. Hence Seinfeld. They became advertising bonanzas certainly, but after the event.

But public broadcasting is differently conceived. It has a different purpose, one not unrelated to social cohesion. Why did SeaChange work? Because it caught the mood of the whole country. Because it marked a shift in national aspiration. It turned up every Sunday night as predictable as a Dickens' serialisation, but with so much flair in the writing that it drew in an audience that would normally run a mile from anything with a "thee" in the script or a character over 35.

It ran to no writing formula except the oldest and best: a mix of love, family, community and conflict. Tolstoy used that one. So did Jane Austen. It did what all great circuses do: kept you smiling and kept you guessing. The bit players (some bits!) were clowns one week and ringmasters the next. It had moments of cross-over into real life that made a national audience feel in on the joke: John Howard/Bob Jelly saying sorry. It had its meta-reality comedy: Shaun Micallef as Mr Right. It made the absurd almost credible (Kevin trialling the Kama Sutra with Prani). It was filmed down at the beach and it used young actors you didn't want to shoot. Not once.

All up, it has been television not custom-tailored to any niche. Its writers paid the finest compliment a scriptwriter can pay to an audience, treating us as intelligent human beings who have a lot to say to one another, across fences, boundaries and chasms. No patronising, no pandering.

A miracle, really, that it came out of the current climate. But the Great Depression produced some class movies and some great music. Think about that as you contemplate the demise of the ABC. In adversity …

By Morag Fraser
December 10, 2000
The Age