The advent and conversion to digital television has opened the market right up to new opportunities and niche markets as broadcasters can now cram more digital channels in the same space that in the past used to only accommodate one analogue channel.
In the United States, the conversion to digital television has opened up a whole industry of classic-themed channels. There are now several major such channels available in the US market — including MeTV, This TV, Antenna, Cozi and the soon-to-launch Decades — all tapping into their own pools of syndicated material and classic movies dating back to the 1950s.
Just as an example, MeTV, which covers 91% of the US, has been revisiting classic shows such as The Carol Burnett Show, Roller Derby, Perry Mason, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Thriller, Gilligan’s Island, HR Puf ‘n’ Stuf, That Girl, Petticoat Junction, The Adventures Of Superman, Batman, The Land Of The Lost, Mod Squad, The Streets Of San Francisco, Route 66 and Naked City.
Australia’s free-to-air networks have never really properly embraced the concept, although they promised it when launching channels like Eleven, GO and GEM. While these have had a certain emphasis on classic content during daytime or off-peak periods, they are barely scratching the surface of the volume of classic TV titles. In many cases they are only re-running programs that have already been re-run here constantly for years. Eleven has been rotating much the same library of classic titles for four years now with little variation, despite apparently having access to thousands of hours from the back catalogue of the huge CBS studio in the States.
There are mountains of programs that are clearly available but networks here are sticking to the same tired playlist of titles. Eleven’s HD counterpart One gives us two episodes of MASH each weeknight. As if we haven’t been exposed to that series enough over 40 years. Likewise, Nine‘s GEM is giving us two episodes of Friends each weeknight. A popular show, by all means, but at least use the second half hour for something different. It becomes lazy and shallow programming.
Just the sample of MeTV’s playlist alone indicates that there is so much greater depth of classic programming that networks could tap into instead of giving us MASH or Friends twice a night.
There must be enough content out there for at least one of the free-to-air channels here in Australia to embrace a truly retro or classic format. And not just to dig up stuff from the US or even the UK but actually invest in reviving some Australian content. The Crawfords library alone (owned by WIN) contains a vastly impressive list of titles, some of which is available on DVD.
Australian TV has a tremendous track record in mini-series over the decades, with productions including Against The Wind (pictured), For The Term Of His Natural Life, Anzacs, Bodyline, The Dismissal, Bangkok Hilton, Sword Of Honour, Vietnam, Winners, The Dirtwater Dynasty, Women Of The Sun and Harp In The South. At a time when so many Australians don’t have a grasp on their own nation’s history, these shows could be a real eye opener and production-wise, apart from not being in widescreen, would still hold up extremely well if broadcast today.
Classic soaps like Sons And Daughters (pictured), Prisoner and A Country Practice have all had various re-runs but there are so many others that haven’t seen the light of day since they were originally broadcast and could be embraced by a new generation of viewers. The DVD releases of Number 96 have shown that there is a market for watching classic Australian soaps.
Even duds like Arcade, Holiday Island, Punishment, Starting Out or Above The Law could be fodder for a binge night of TV shockers.
Fast Forward has been repeated on One, but how many other classic comedies could be getting exposed to a new generation? The Seven Network has seemingly put The Mavis Bramston Show, the show that really put Australian comedy on the map, into the too hard basket — yet it still exists in the archives.
These shows might not be the highest brow of entertainment, but neither is much of what the networks push onto us every night now, anyway. (Because in 40 years time, are we going to be reminiscing about reality pap like My Kitchen Rules or The Block? I don’t think so.)
Sure, there is a vast market of DVD titles of classic shows available and the advent of streaming video platforms such as Stan, Presto, Apple TV and Netflix might one day expose 21st century viewers to some of the shows that defined TV culture in the last century, but watching these shows on the platform that they were designed for — free-to-air broadcast TV — serves as a nostalgic nod not just to the shows themselves but the medium that created them. And there is still something attractive about the common experience of watching a program with thousands of others, something that is even enhanced these days by being able to share the experience over social media in real time.
Of course, and in particular with regards to Australian content, there is a hidden cost to the networks as actors, performers, composers and so on may (and should) be entitled to some token payment for their work to be paraded once again — but, guess what, that’s what commercial breaks are for.
Instead of filling up bandwidth with shopping channels that might be good for revenue (though the demise of Seven’s Fresh Ideas TV indicates that the revenue stream may not be as abundant as first thought) but do nothing to actively encourage people to watch, perhaps the networks could be proactive and invest in a programming niche that might actively bring some people back to traditional TV as an alternative to them being tortured with multiple repeats of Nutri Bullet commercials.