How to escape Network TV schedules
Sanity has arrived at our house again with the return of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. The 24-day break that they took lowered the quality quotient of TV programming by many points. Having them back again somehow makes one feel that there are at least some generous, well-informed and intelligent minds in charge of a part of the media circus.
Both these US-made programs have no equal in Australian TV, unless John Clarke and Brian Dawe’s little vignettes at the end of The 7.30 Report can be counted. Australia has had great satirists but they are mainly from our past. Roy and HG (John Doyle and Greg Pickhaver) are sadly missed by those who remember their unique blend of sports and social commentary. Occasionally we see HG doing a short spot on Channel Ten’s The Project, but such tantalising glimpses only underscore for me how much the man deserves to helm his own project. Sean Micallef also does some extraordinarily insightful commentary dressed up as mischief and fun. But where is he now?
The Project does have some good moments and occasionally its commentary verges on the perceptive. But it is very careful not to offend corporate interests that run the station. I yearn for Australian TV to return to its fearless glory days of political satire and give us something that might recall the confident élan and intellectual heft of The Gillies Report or even Ben Elton’s shortlived (sadly underrated and unjustly neglected) Live From Planet Earth, which performed all the duties of the satirist (to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted). The Murdoch press predictably savaged it; it was from a rival channel after all, and there is nothing that a powerful media organisation hates more than a message it can’t massage.
Planet’s teething problems, those of a new and courageous endeavour in immediacy and live action, were magnified into heinousness by those whose reasons to hate the program went beyond aesthetics. Indeed, seeing a tabloid empire pontificating about questions of taste could well have formed a subject for a skit, had the show had a chance to develop and had Channel Nine not lost its nerve. For, given a decent chance to grow and develop, Live From Planet Earth could have taken its place in the pantheon of brave and incorruptible political and social commentary. Indeed, the most insightful and hard-hitting commentary nowadays is often to be found far from the TV screen in our country. Rod Quantock, whose hilarious Australia: You’re Standing In It! was bafflingly axed by the ABC in the early 80s, went on to create unforgettable stage presentations that analysed the power and corruption in our society in ways that educated and stimulated everyone who went to them. It was a great shame that he didn’t have a TV show any more: we need people with that fearless, humane, compassionate humour.
The Brits have Have I Got News For You: sometimes the ABC shows an old episode of it that whets the appetite for more. Watching it along with Stewart and Colbert’s offerings only underscores the big gap in Australian network programming.
So, how does the Australian viewer find the good programs that are being enjoyed in the US and the UK? There are perfectly legal ways to do so; the more shadowy options are not for this site’s consideration.
First, if you have a cable subscription then you will find Colbert and Stewart on the Comedy Channel. For the majority of us who don’t want to give more than a grand a year to media tycoons there is another option: streaming. You will need a broadband connectionto stream. It costs some money but definitely not as muchas buying a cable subscription. In our house it’s called an Apple TV and Itunes, as we are Apple computer owners. The Apple TV is a set-top box that you can buy for not much over a hundred dollars. It links to your computer. Then you pay show by show on your Itunes subscription, pretty much as one used to hire out dvds from the local video store, except that it’s all done online. If you are of the PC persuasion, there are myriad options for you to ask about at the local Dick Smith, Good Guys or indeed your friendly computer store. The set-up is relatively simple, even if you have no handy adolescent techno-whizzes in your household; these days they write instructions that tend to be in plain language for the non-nerd.
Once you are equipped with set-top box and Itunes account, you can subscribe to a vast range of single episodes or complete series of a wide range of shows. New US shows tend to come into your Itunes a week after they air in the States. You can of course also subscribe to Australian shows too: these tend to be such dramas as Packed To The Rafters and Underbelly franchise stuff and if you like those then you’ll have lots to watch.
Another method is to use an Ipad. You can screen the ABC’s Iview catch-up directly from it to your TV once you have configured it. I believe there are similar options for PC tablet apps to do the same. So in the end you will mostly be able to select what you want to watch and when you want to watch it: the network programmers’ nightmare.
Some say that it’s no wonder that the commercial networks are struggling, for they have treated their viewers with something less than respect in the past. For so long they had the viewers at their mercy: remember the fate of such programs as The Sopranos? Screened at midnight, shown with episodes out of order, slashed to fit ad breaks so that story was lost, viewers often gave up and downloaded them because there was no other way to see them properly.
The networks are learning their lesson a little, and have begun showing popular shows such as Two Broke Girls(for those who, unlike me, like that sort of thing) the day after they screen in the US. But it may be too little, too late. Australians are not the kind of people meekly to accept being dictated to as mere cash-cows for advertisers.
One solution of course would be to screen shows that Australians felt were honest, authentic, hard-hitting and skilful. And one certain sure way that the networks would gather viewers in real time again would be to offer programs that were real. Even live. By incorruptible, compassionate, humane presenters. That would be something to see. Here’s hoping.
There are many lists around already, totting up the wins and fails of the 2012 TV year. Here are the contenders, as far as this reviewer is concerned:
These I thought, were good:
The Daily Show with John Stewart (ITunes subscription or cable)
The Colbert Report (ITunes subscription or cable)
Would I Lie To You (ABC2)
Redfern Now (ABC)
Game of Thrones(ITunes subscription or cable)
Call The Midwife (ABC)
Letters and Numbers (SBS)
News and Current Affairs
ABC News (ABC)
Four Corners (ABC)
Juliette Hughes is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.