Has Australian free-to-air TV given up?

How many times can you shuffle the same deck of cards before they fall apart completely? We'll find out soon enough.

Australian commercial television’s ‘upfronts’ – the launch of their programming for the coming year – are increasingly little more than the shuffling around of a handful of reality show formats. Cooking shows, talent shows, renovation shows: the names change, but not by much.

First to announce their line-up for 2023 has been Paramount, owners of Network Ten; the closest thing to a new series they could manage was a local version of Taskmaster (a UK series already screening on SBS), hosted by Tom Gleeson (who already hosts the weekly quiz show Hard Quiz on the ABC).

Presumably if you take an old format from one network and an old host from another and put them together, the result is exciting new content. It’ll also feature fresh new talent like Julia Morris and Luke McGregor. Julia Morris has been everywhere for years, including hosting the local version of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here on Ten; since starring in five seasons of the ABC’s Rosehave, McGregor is a regular on comedy panel shows, including Nine’s The Hundred with Andy Lee and SBS’s Celebrity Letters and Numbers.

This is not the first time Ten has tried this. It’s not even the only time they tried it in 2022. Earlier this year we had Would I Lie to You? Australia, which brought the popular UK quiz show format (airing on the ABC) to local screens with Chrissie Swan as host. The response was lukewarm at best; it’ll be back next year.

More recently we had Shaun Micallef’s Brain Eisteddfod, which brought the popular UK quiz show format (think It’s Academic or University Challenge, which aired on the ABC) to local screens with Micallef as host. The response was lukewarm at best; its future remains unclear.

Pointless

At least lukewarm was a step up from how audiences reacted to Ten’s version of Pointless, which bought the popular UK quiz show format (airing on the ABC) to local screens with Mark Humphries as host. The response was… well, it was swiftly axed

Despite the crushing weight of history, maybe this version of Taskmaster will hit on the right combination of ingredients to work. The New Zealand version does well over there; Tom Gleeson is still popular, though possibly not with the Logies organisers.

A local version of Taskmaster is the kind of announcement that would seem perfectly fine in a line-up packed with promising projects and interesting debuts. Unfortunately, it’s 2022: commercial television doesn’t do “interesting” any more – or much of anything that requires a script.

Last year Seven was in the firing line when their upfronts for 2022 featured just four hours of new drama for the year with the serial killer mini-series Claremont. Then they pushed Claremont back until 2023, leaving the network with zero new drama airing in 2022. Will they even announce a new drama for next year, or just keep pushing the single solitary one that they have announced back again and again?

ABC

Over at the ABC, they have their own version of this problem, with a controversy over the networks lack of fresh faces, especially when it comes to comedy. At least they have Tom Gleeson; he’s clearly Ten’s idea of a fresh new face.

It’s easy to say the ABC is currently something of an old folks home; the few comedy hosts remaining have been making jokes about it for years. And it’s both true and obvious that the ABC isn’t all that interested in fostering new comedy. New shows come and quickly go while the ones that keep on coming back – Spicks & Specks, Gruen, The Weekly – are all well into their dotage.

Mad as Hell, which had the advantage of still being good, wrapped this year after a decade on air. As I wrote back in July:

It’s a show made by people who know what they’re doing and have been left alone to get on with the job. As a result they’re taking risks (or just making jokes) we rarely see in Australia’s increasingly safe television landscape.>ScreenHub

Host Shaun Micallef repeatedly said he felt it was time to let a younger generation step up. Good luck with that: the only new comedy announced by the ABC for 2023 is a sitcom from Aunty Donna, who’ve been around for over a decade and who first made a pilot for the ABC (as part of their now discontinued Fresh Blood program) in 2015.

Read: Aunty Donna score their first narrative comedy series for ABC

The ABC does also have the musical comedy series Stories From Oz, which they announced in 2022 but are yet to air. Based on the overseas series Stories From Norway, it’s from The Chaser’s Chris Taylor and Andrew Hansen, and… we’re back to another overseas format featuring the same old faces.

It’s no secret that free-to-air television is in decline as viewers are lured away by pretty much anything else. Saying that local networks need fresh faces and new ideas is all well and good, but when there are no new viewers out there the only people left watching are people who want more of the same.

On the production side, when you stop bringing in new talent, you create the idea that the current people involved are the only people who can do the job. When they leave, their replacements are doomed to fail; when they fail, they’re not replaced.

To use a niche example, when Margaret & David left SBS, they were replaced as hosts of The Movie Show by a new team that struggled, were axed, and never replaced. When Margaret & David left the ABC, the exact same thing happened. There are no movie review shows on Australian television now; there’s next to no arts coverage at all.

Australian television still has strengths. Streaming services are putting out promising drama; both the ABC and SBS seem committed to keeping some elements of their free-to-air programming alive. There’s obviously good shows out there; you don’t even need an antenna to find them.

And if you’re a fan of mix-and-match programming where the same old faces are shuffled around a collection of formats you can already watch on other channels, Ten is also bringing back The Bachelors, Survivor, The Dog House Australia, Gogglebox Australia, and I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here for 2023.

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.