Transcript

What's Rating with Sue Turnbull

Matt Smith:

This is the La Trobe University podcast. I'd be your host, Matt Smith. Good morning, good afternoon and good evening; it does all depend on where you're standing. Joining me today is Dr. Susan Turnbull from the School of Media Studies. Thank you for joining us, Sue.

Susan Turnbull:

It's a pleasure. Let's talk about what's rating really, really highly on Australian television because you've got ‘Underbelly' on one side and you've got ‘Packed to the Rafters'.

Matt Smith:

Right, right.

Susan Turnbull:

So you've got Seven and Nine, kind of, with their totally successful dramas from the previous year. Packed to the Rafters in fact won the ratings for the best show of the year simply because Underbelly, of course, did not screen at the time in Victoria. And that must have been galling for channel nine because otherwise they would have had the most popular show on television as judged by the ratings.

And as we're often very careful to point out to students, the rating is a system of estimating audiences. In fact, what it involves is about 2000 families in Australia, or at least I should put more thoughtfully than that, 2000 households. In Sydney, there's about 500, in Melbourne, there's about 480, and then the rest are kind of scattered around the country. And what they do is they try and map the households on to the demographics of the country as a whole, so what they are trying to get is something that might be a representative sample.

Susan Turnbull:

Given that you've only got 450 households in Melbourne, what happens then is the ratings are extrapolated via statistical methods to blow it up to be the portion of the audience that would be switched on to television on that night, et cetera, et cetera.

Matt Smith:

So it's probably not entirely realistic - the rating system, but that's the best they have.

Susan Turnbull:

Well, the argument that's been made about the writings is that it is the best estimate, that is possible, and that all you actually need is for the television stations, the advertisers, the clients of the advertisers to agree on using then, then it won't work at all.

So it's like they just say, "Okay, we'll use those figures as our trading figures, but if there's any doubt about them…" The ratings are a sort of mythical figure that we kind of accept as being the reality, but what is actually going on on households, you don't know, because the other thing is the ratings simply measure which station your television is tuned to. They don't actually tell you anything about how people are watching, and because it operates via system with a people meter and an electronic handset device, if you've got one of these ratings, it asks you every fifteen minutes who is in the room and who is watching the television. So you could imagine that after a couple of weeks of doing that, you might get a little bit sick of constantly entering in the data.

Matt Smith:

They do get paid for that right, don't they?

Susan Turnbull:

They get token payments, right? You'll end up with an electric alarm clock or you don't get a huge amount of money. And they have to change their households fairly often because it's well-recognized within their statistical measures that people get bored and get sick of the system and stop entering stuff so they go in and pull out all the equipment.

And it's a lot of equipment because most households now might have three televisions plugged to Free to Air plus DVD recorders. And what they have to try and do is monitor every set and every DVD recorder in the house. So it's becoming an infinitely more complex game particularly with Pay Television. And Pay Television has not been included in the ratings. It's coming in now a little bit but they're only just beginning to take account of that.

So they're now trying to think of different and new ways to gather ratings which might even involve, at one point, they were looking at people being obliged to wear electronic devices on their wrists which picked up the signals of whatever was being broadcast or whatever they were watching or listening to in a room, right, and doing it via digital markers. So then instead of having to kind of actively engage, all you have to do is wear this electronic tag that recorded everything that you listen to.

Matt Smith:

That's a really bad way to do it. It's very imposing; very imposing in your life.

Susan Turnbull:

Yes, absolutely. But anyway… What the ratings apparently reveal is that two top shows in Australia at the moment are Underbelly at number one, and Packed to the Rafters at number two. And they are so different. It is quite remarkable.

Matt Smith:

And they are beating international imported shows as well.

Susan Turnbull:

Absolutely.

Matt Smith:

That's great for Australia.

Susan Turnbull:

The interesting thing is that, in fact, Australians have always been very, very loyal and very interested in shows made in Australia. Shows made in Australia usually do really well, always at the first episode, and then people may tail away.

Matt Smith:

Yes.

Susan Turnbull:

But we're now in a moment where locally-produced drama is getting big again and the CSI moment which was there for a little while where channel nine was kind of ruling the airways with CSI which was rating number one. That's past. It was a phase. So certainly in Australia, ever since Homicide which was Crawford's Production which is regarded as the first drama series and, in fact, I think when we got Underbelly, it was shot in the streets of Melbourne and the irony was that the people in Melbourne and Victoria couldn't see the first series because Judge Betty King, as you would remember, ruled that it should not be shown in Victoria because it might prejudice what was then a current court case going on.

Matt Smith:

Well, as it is, I think there were a couple of characters where they weren't allowed to say their names at all.

Susan Turnbull:

That bit I don't remember but…

Matt Smith:

Towards the end… for that reason, yes.

Susan Turnbull:

Yes, it became a sort of sensitive matter which, of course, only served to increase viewer interest. I mean, the minute you say you ban a show or you say something risky…

Matt Smith:

And the amount of people that saw pirated versions in Victoria were amazing.

Susan Turnbull:

It was extraordinary.

Matt Smith:

I'd say that would appear to the ratings.

Susan Turnbull:

Well, actually I'm a member of a group called Sisters in Crime which is a crime leadership network of women and we did an event with Judge Betty King for Law Week in the magistrate's court in Melbourne. And I was chairing the event and I actually asked for a show of hands. This is at the moment when Underbelly was banned. And I said, "Okay, Judge Betty, just sit still and think quiet thoughts." I said, "How many people in this room have actually seen it?" And there was about a third of the room at that point of law-abiding citizens who sheepishly put up their hands and said, "Well, actually, they had managed to get a copy one way or another." And Judge Betty just kind of rolled her eyes and said, "Yes, I knew that would happen but as a representative of the crown, I could not accede to this going forward."

And as you know, channel nine sent executives to talk to her, to try to persuade her to back down and John Sylvester, one of the authors of the book is with them, Andrew Rule immediately pointed out in the edge that in this era of digitization and copies et cetera, that it would be downloaded, it would be circulating virally instantly and, of course, he was right. He was right.

Matt Smith:

There's no issues like with the new Underbelly which is set back in the 80s and that probably influenced their decision to set it back then as well. That's had a great effect on the ratings as a result because we're watching it at the same time as the rest of Australia down here at Victoria.

Susan Turnbull:

Yes, look, it's set through that 70s kind of drug period and the rise of this character called Terry Clark. And I think it's actually very interesting to compare it with another show which just started on channel 10 which is the American version of Life on Mars. Also set on the 70s because you're getting these two retro versions of the 70s. And I do have to say that in looking at Underbelly's version of the Australian 70s, you might not think this but I actually think it looks quite glamorous.

Matt Smith:

I've had other people say the exact same thing to me that it looks very--the 70s were never that pastel.

Susan Turnbull:

And never quite that stylish. Everybody looks as though they were dressed in perfect 70s style and as you know fashion is just not like that. You don't see it quite as consistent or coherent on the streets. So in achieving the look of the 70s, they've actually achieved something that's very, very idealized in many ways.

And the way in which you can set that up against some sort of measure is to switch over to the other show on channel seven called Gangs of Oz, which in the second week of Underbelly screening, actually showed an episode which revealed the real people; showed you the real Terry Clark, showed you the real Trimbole, showed you the real people involved. And also had a young undercover policeman talking about his experience with these gangs and was trying to manage his involvement in this drug trade.

And while channel Seven actually used some little reconstructions with hookers, et cetera, clearly trying to emulate channel Nine's breast and bosoms and sex and violence kind of approach to the story. What was intriguing was to look at the real faces, the photographs of the real crooks, the real criminals and the real people, and the real venues and to realize how very unlovely these people were; not good looking. You couldn't find them glamorous in a moment. The real Terry Clark did not look like Matthew Newton; and this seedy, seedy environment, the real environments. So it was a remarkable contrast to go between those two and to see how the television series, Underbelly, has in fact glamorized the era, glamorized the people and in a way, made the crime world much more seductive and look much more exciting and make the 70s look more stylish than they ever were.

If we went to the reality itself, it just wouldn't be television that we would want to watch. So I'm excusing that in that regard but at the same time, I do think it is really salutary to remember that these were not very nice people doing really rotten things and that they were not as seductive as they are portrayed.

Matt Smith:

I do have to wonder about that sometimes with the show like Underbelly and definitely with the first series not being allowed to be shown in Victoria. It kind of seems that the audience isn't smart enough to know that this isn't the entire truth that we're seeing. It kind of takes you there. I mean, I watched Underbelly and I go, "There's no way it could have been like this." It seems to me that the writers read the footnotes of the story, got the general gist of it, and then watched quite a lot of The Sopranos and went on their merry way.

Susan Turnbull:

I think there's very few audiences, very few audiences in Australia who are not actually quite cynical about the truth claims that it put forward in the media. I think in that, it's quite possible to see that people go along with media fictions, with media representations to a certain extent. But these days, I don't think there are very many naive viewers of television if we ever were.

Matt Smith:

So one thing that I do want to ask you is how do this show like Underbelly get on the 8:30 time slot?

Susan Turnbull:

That intrigues me too. These days, the system is such that the stations, the television stations are supposed to be self-regulating. Every television network has their own--I'm not quite sure what the exact title is--but their own person who is responsible for monitoring the standards, for observing what are the standards of decency and what are the kind of codes that should be followed.

Now, the station that cupped the most flak in that regard for over the last eight or nine years was channel 10 in relation to ‘Big Brother'. The whole idea of why Underbelly isn't on at 9:30, that notion of a 9:30 watershed came about during Paul Keating's tenure as Premier which would be in '92, '96, somewhere like that.

Susan Turnbull:

And Keating apparently was appalled by something that he saw on television in an 8:30, 9:30 time slot and brought in this idea that they should be watershed and that material that was deemed more explicit, though it didn't breach any necessary guidelines, would go on after 9:30.

Matt Smith:

Well, that's fair enough. That's me, that's, it's coming from, yes.

Susan Turnbull:

Well, if you switch on Underbelly every fifteen minutes, there'll be a scene of fairly explicit sex.

Matt Smith:

Yes.

Susan Turnbull:

Quite a lot of confronting kind of images and confronting kind of moments in Underbelly. And I have no idea how they are getting away with that 8:30 time slot.

Matt Smith:

They're maybe being pulled up on the violence slightly with being in that time slot as well because if you really look at how the bashing scenes or whatever goes on, there's minimal blood when they're actually being hit or when there's a shooting going on; there's lots of blood afterwards, of course, but there's minimal going on.

And they do the editing kind of shots which I hate to relate to this movie but it's like something from the Bourne Identity or from the new James Bond movie which I stayed awake through part of. And it's like taking far shots so you don't actually a punch connect but you know that a punch connected. And it's kind of a sneaky way to get the violence scene before your brain catches up and realize there's no way there's no actually connecting punch there. I get the feeling that that comes from being in an 8:30 time slot, that sort of thing. Whereas if this was a show on cable or over in America like on HBO, you'd cop all of that, that sort of stuff.

Susan Turnbull:

Actually, American network television would never show Underbelly. There is too much nudity, there is too much violence. And network television is usually much more careful and anodyne. You are absolutely right to suggest a show like Underbelly would go straight to HBO; more likely HBO than another pay-tv station. But certainly HBO, because of its profile and because of the way it signs people up, does take more chances. I mean Sex and the City, of course, was an HBO series which when it was shown here in Australia, I think, went to a 9:30 time slot. And they got it on. But I'm pretty sure that it was cut.

Matt Smith:

Packed to the Rafters is a show that I'm not really familiar with. It's kind of a high-rating show. It's up there with Underbelly but it's usually second at the moment.

Susan Turnbull:

Yes.

Matt Smith:

And it's approaching television from a completely different angle, though. So there's no way those shows can be compared at all other than they've both very high rating.

Susan Turnbull:

Well, you could argue that they're both family dramas.

Matt Smith:

You wouldn't argue very successfully that, I think.

Susan Turnbull:

They're both dramas which actually have brought us the importance of family, certainly.

Matt Smith:

Oh, I thought you meant that your family down to watch.

Susan Turnbull:

No. I think they're dramas in which the role of the family is central; certainly, the first season of Underbelly. It was all about this family's kind of feuding, very much The Sopranos kind of life.

Matt Smith:

They're very different families.

Susan Turnbull:

Very different kind. I think Packed to the Rafters was obviously a complete surprise. I think channel Seven probably hoped it would do well but I don't think they realized--how could they--that it would be such a hit with audiences.

The timing must have just been perfect. The closest in terms of popularity and in terms of having the right kind of atmosphere for family audience that we've had since Sea Change. It's that kind of a show that the whole family can sit down and watch.

There was also a way in which it was a show which dealt with life in the suburbs, with people doing it a little bit hard, not incredibly wealthy, just in many ways a kind of an epitome of the Howard era, if you like, of a family kind of battling and the kids not being quite moved up, the kids coming back. It very much touched a nerve, I think, in terms of where we are now. And what people were trying to do. And it was such an affectionate portrayal of these different characters and these different people and their lives and, I think, it connected because they were all so beautifully performed. Rebecca Gibney is totally and utterly believable as this mother, of course, too glamorous and too beautiful to really be a suburban mom. She'd be locked up and become an actress somewhere.

Matt Smith:

I thought that in altogether now as well when she was back in that in the 80s.

Susan Turnbull:

Yes, absolutely, and Eric Thomason as her partner. As a couple, they were completely and utterly convincing. And I think that's what grip people. You had this portrayal of a marriage that you believed in. And this family of quirky people in this house that looked like a real house.

Quite clearly, it speaks to many, many people. And it's an affectionate show. You can watch it. And at the end of it, even if it might have been quite dramatic and the sad things have happened, it's also quite a feel-good show.

Matt Smith:

The next step of television, the future of television, would be those two genres together somehow.

Susan Turnbull:

I think it's sort of almost being done, hasn't it, really?

Matt Smith:

We need ‘Neighbours versus Predator' or something like that.

Susan Turnbull:

Yes, well, now you're moving into a kind of horror, more than anything else. Oh well, of course, ‘Munsters' or ‘The Addam's Family', really. It's already being done.

Matt Smith:

Everything on television is already being done, hasn't it?

Susan Turnbull:

Well, it has. And as the wonderful John Clark once said, "The first rule of television is that in order to get half a success, everything you do must be exactly the same as what went before, and at the same time completely different."

Matt Smith:

Dr. Sue Turnbull, thank you for your time today.

Susan Turnbull:

Thank you.

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