Risk-taking may not be the quality which first comes to mind when the ABC is mentioned. However, controversy has never been far from the ABC's programming. Even Playschool has had its share (remember “the two mothers” issue?); but that was mild compared with complaints of bias in the coverage of topical issues like the Iraq War (Radio National's AM) or climate change ("The Great Global Warming Swindle" on Lateline); or in drama productions like Bastard Boys. JJJ's feisty presenters often incur the wrath of the public figures they don’t take seriously enough.
Taking risks is what the ABC does - or should do. As a public broadcaster, the ABC has the huge advantage of not being constrained by having to deliver audiences to advertisers. It is constrained, of course, by its various audiences; but that is a very different thing from the requirement to conform to the standard of acceptability of one mass audience. The ABC can be more edgy than that.
And nowhere is that more evident than in comedy. It is indeed a boast of the ABC that it can and does take risks with comedy. Unlike the commercial networks which take a show off air after a couple of weeks if its ratings are low, the ABC can allow the program time to develop and to attract its own audience. And what a triumph when the risk pays off!
The ABC had a comedy-ratings boom in 2007 with Summer Heights High and with The Chaser's War on Everything (not hurt by the APEC stunt - which we must remember, however, teetered on precarious popularity for a while back then). Both these shows, like The Glasshouse before them, were run late on a Friday night while the ABC took its risk until audiences had grown, and then they were given prime time in the middle of the week. And what an excellent risk The Chaser proved to be: in 2007 an average audience, nationally, of 1.4 million people.
And the boom continued. As recently as May this year the ABC proudly proclaimed the return of The Chaser's War on Everything - with an audience of 1.5 million people on its premier showing.
However risks, by definition, don't always pay off. Two weeks ago, two weeks after The Chaser's triumphant return, its sketch, “Making a Realistic Wish Foundation”, met with outrage and upset from a large slice of its audience. The Chaser apologised, saying they hadn't intended to hurt anyone who had been affected by the terminal illness of a child. They also mentioned that it was "a satirical sketch and black comedy".
Black comedy is surely the riskiest form of comedy; it mentions the unmentionable and brings taboo subjects into the open. In making fun of the unfunny it can bring into the light of day subjects which are usually shaded by the conventions of polite society. Think back to Aunty Jack, The Norman Gunston Show, Mother and Son or to the British productions Little Britain and The Office.
Who would dare to criticise the playing on our emotions or the exploitation of our guilt by an organisation which brings a little happiness to the life of a terminally ill child? No one much; with the result that very few will say - what Suresh Viswanathan wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald (June 5) - that what a dying child wants is two things: to get better and to go home; it would be much better for people to donate to the research which has found cures for many formerly terminal illnesses.
This is not to justify everything about black comedy in general or about this skit in particular; errors of taste can be made; the unfunny may remain unfunny; but its place in the scheme of satire is a daring one, and that makes demands on the broadcaster.
In Media Watch this week Jonathan Holmes itemised those demands: that if content looks as if it might be controversial, the producer should either notify someone higher up the chain of command or ask their approval for it to go to air. In this case Amanda Duthie, Head of Arts, Entertainment and Comedy at ABC Television, did neither of those things.
As Jonathan Holmes summed up, the problem was "a single manager who made a bad decision. And that will always be a risk, whatever the system".
Risk again - but risk-free comedy production is horribly likely to be comedy-free production. Surely one error of judgment, from the ABC's former Commissioning Editor and Executive Producer, responsible for At the Movies, The New Inventors, First Tuesday Book Club, Painting Australia, Spy Shop, must be allowed for in a particularly creative and idiosyncratic position?
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