A plea to Australian TV networks – it’s time to face the (live) music

Michael Gudinski, the chairman of the largest independent entertainment company in Australia, was asked last week about the importance of an event that his company, the Mushroom Group, had staged on ANZAC Day 2020. He stated: “We’ve got so many great artists in Australia and New Zealand. It was time they saw the centre stage and some prime time TV that we never get”. That last thing he said caused me to raise an eyebrow. It’s true – we HARDLY EVER get Australian music on Australian TV these days. And I’d very much like to know why.

PART 37 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE

Music From The Home Front, that Gudinski put together, was live-streamed on social media and broadcast on Aussie and Kiwi TVs on 25 April – the day commemorating everyone who has served in conflicts and peacekeeping missions. But the concert’s objective was also to recognise the frontline workers battling COVID-19 and thank them the best possible way – with virtual music performances.

THE ONE-OFF TV MUSIC EVENT THAT EVERYBODY NEEDED

The celebration was staged in record time (9 days) and Gudinski, apparently, hadn’t slept for days to ensure the crew would pull it off. Music From The Home Front was a showcase of some 50 artists from both Australia & New Zealand in a 3-hour plus concert. It was exceptionally well-staged; nostalgic and serious in parts but beautiful and uplifting, nevertheless. Some of the appearances were particularly touching and thought-through. Like this one from the DMA’s.

The mix of artists and genres was quite diverse, too. Pop, rock, hip hop, electronic and traditional Aboriginal music were all blended together. We heard legends, like Men At Work, Vika & Linda Bull or INXS. There were beloved acts, too, i.e. Dean Lewis, Delta Goodrem or Guy Sebastian (the last two serving as hosts as well).

Additionally, the organisers made plenty of room for young musicians stirring things up in the music business today, amongst them G Flip, Vera Blue or Ruel. Many awesome collaborations happened. Some of the younger artists teamed up with the legends to deliver memorable performances, transcending different styles and decades in music. For instance, Bliss N Esso invited Kate Ceberano and Vince Harder to feature on their track, “Moments”.

Kiwi artists were also well represented by Dave Dobbyn or Marlon Williams. Even The Wiggles, an Australian children’s music group, contributed to the event. 

All in all, no music fan had any reason to complain, regardless of their age or music taste. Especially given the circumstances – all performances were recorded remotely, often by duets being in different places (Missy Higgins and Tim Minchin), featuring special guests from around the world (Vance Joy) or with an entire orchestra (Birds of Tokyo). 

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE RATINGS

The event was very well received, especially amongst TV viewers. It was primarily due to the top-notch production and thoughtful arrangement of the show. But also because it came at a time when the live event industry’s future looks rather grim and uncertain. And there’s a desperate and quite obvious need for uplifting experiences.

In fact, the concert was so well received that it won Channel 9, where it was broadcast, the highest ratings for that Saturday night. It was also praised by the music industry and journalists, with headlines like “Who didn’t cry during Music From The Home Front?” (STACK), “Music From The Home Front Proves Australian Music Wins Ratings” (NOISE11) or “Music from the Home Front: Old favourites lift spirits” (The Sydney Morning Herald).

Having said all that, the question becomes even more urgent: apart from Music From The Home Front, why is there almost no Australian music on commercial TV Down Under today? 

AUSSIE TV BREAKDOWN

Before diving deeper into this abyss, let’s make a few things clear. 

There are several TV broadcasters in Australia but many of them are regional and/or only servicing remote areas. So when I say “commercial Australian TV”, I’m referring to:

  • the government-funded channels, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) and SBS (Special Broadcasting Services),
  • and the major metropolitan broadcasters, 7/Seven (Seven West Media), 9/Nine (Nine Entertainment Co.) and 10/Ten (Ten Network Holdings)
  • or their subsidiaries.

MTV is NOT a national TV network, available to the general public. Neither is Foxtel that – by the way – just axed its music channels after 25 years on the air but is teaming up with ViacomCBS to bring you MTV (confusing, isn’t it?). Both of those broadcasters are special-purpose/pay-TV channels.

(On a side note: a shout-out to MTV Australia for their Unplugged shows they started producing back in 2018. With stellar performances by Gang of Youths, Amy Shark or The Rubens, the segment was a definite highlight for every Aussie music fan out there. Good news is that MTV has just brought the show back in its At Home format. Cody Simpson kicked things off again on 1 May and G Flip is set to follow on 8 May.)

SO WHERE’S THE MUSIC ON AUSSIE TV?

Corey Tonkin wrote a comprehensive piece for Tone Deaf on that topic in 2012 (!!!) already. He argued that “TV executives are so focused on the easy success of mind-numbing reality TV that they’ve become completely ignorant to the achievements of our local music industry”. And, to finish his article, he added, “Because just in case you didn’t know, Australians really fucking love live music.” Well, I can’t argue with that. Sadly, it seems that little has changed since 2012. 

Historically speaking, though, music had played quite a big part in the TV programming Down Under. Until it didn’t. Since the mid-’50s there were approximately 150 shows somehow related to music, until 2019. Today there are virtually none. 

Music talent shows don’t qualify under the concept of live music on TV, either. But it should be noted that there have been some good ones in the last 2 decades and they’ve helped uncover artists now successful Down Under and overseas (i.e. Matt Corby – the runner-up of Australian Idol‘s season 5). 

A step in the right direction is also The Voice Australia‘s decision, dictated by the current overseas travel ban in Australia, to replace Boy George and Kelly Rowland with local musician coaches: Jessica Mauboy and Conrad Sewell. But we’re yet to see whether that’s going to help promote the local music on national TV at all.

Examples of decent TV music shows that were discontinued for unknown circumstances are Channel 9’s Hey Hey It’s Saturday and ABC’s Spicks & Specks. Both were music-themed comedy programs. The first one ran from the early ’70s until the end of the ’90s and had a 20-show reboot in 2010. The second one was initially aired between 2005-2011 but has already seen three reunions since its official last episode. So, fingers crossed Spicks & Specks will be brought back for good very soon.

The same happened to SBS’s RocKwiz whose final episode was screened in February 2019. As the name suggests, it was a combination of a quiz and live rock music performances that proved hugely popular with audiences. It even received an AACTA [Australian Film & TV Body] Award for Best Light Entertainment Television Series. Luckily for RocKwiz, though, it has survived as a touring show and – once live performances and mass gatherings are back on the menu – you might be able to catch it at one of the festivals.

As expected, the most youth-oriented radio station in Australia has its own TV channel as well, triple j tv. But it is in close conjunction with the radio broadcast, so it doesn’t really count as a separate TV segment.

Very few other music programs have survived in recent years. And if they have, it’s been mostly playing music videos and delivering some industry news. Like in the case of The Loop which we bid farewell to in February 2020 as well. Or it’s sometimes a segment broadcast at stupid o’clock, like rage, aired on Friday night/Saturday morning. And just to be clear, live music is a rare occurrence on those type of shows, either way.

Non-music-related segments like Network 10’s The Project (lifestyle and news delivered lightly) or ABC’s Q&A (a panel discussion on anything, really) sometimes invite musician guests to talk about pressing issues or current developments in the country. But live music and Australian artists are a secondary thing for them, really. 

Channel 9 is currently the chosen network broadcasting the annual ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) Music Awards. The November event is one of the very few chances when you can catch your favourite contemporary Aussie acts perform live. But it’s once a year for 2/3 hours, so not even close to what the norm should be.

THE HIT-AND-MISS MUSIC SHOWS ON AUSSIE TV

Other attempts at promoting Australian acts on commercial TV were short-lived and controversial, to say the least. Andrew Denton’s Interview series with prominent (not only) Australians, included musicians, e.g. Daniel Johns, Troye Sivan or Keith Urban. But it only ran on Channel 7 for a year (August 2018-August 2019) and two seasons. And the Micheal Hutchence – The Last Rockstar documentary from 2017, produced by the same network, proved conflictive in the end. Allegedly, INXS got properly pissed off about not having been asked to participate in it at all.

In February 2020 The Chats appeared on Channel 9’s morning TV show, Today, and gave a hilarious interview, plus their usual rowdy performance. With all my affection for the Sunshine Coast lads, I have serious doubts that it was the best option for “the real housewives of Melbourne” type of audience. And I don’t think it was The Chats’ first choice of a TV show to be on, either. 

ABC has also recently made an effort to get Aussie kids hooked on Australian music. Literally this week (on 4 May) they introduced a new segment on their ABC ME channel called ME@Home which is meant to be a “10-minute program (…), hosted by Grace Koh from Monday to Thursday in an attempt to entertain youngsters locked down in isolation”. G Flip and Tones And I have been announced as the first guests but it’s not entirely clear yet how they’ll be encouraging children to listen to Aussie music. Despite that noble cause, my gut tells me that ME@Home is not going to do the trick.

WELCOME TO THE SET

The Set is the only show currently fitting the definition of live Australian music on commercial Australian TV. And it is a fresh format Down Under as well. 

Filmed with a (lucky) live audience in a purpose-built setting, it feels more like a house party with friends than an actual gig. It’s also thanks to its hosts, Dylan Alcott and Linda Marigliano who make it casual and relatable. Chats with homegrown musos are followed by live sets, often with fellow performers representing a completely different genre (think Cosmo’s Midnight, Genesis Owusu and Press Club, all in one episode). 

With two seasons, 11 episodes and lit line-ups over the two seasons in 2018-2019 so far (i.e. Wafia, The Presets, Ball Park Music or Didirri), I’m really hoping it’ll come back in the second half of 2020 for more cool guests and performances. But guess what? ABC’s Entertainment Director admitted in January 2020 already that the network is “struggling to get the budget” for a third run of the shows. And the current pandemic is surely not helping. 

Funnily enough and despite its popularity, even The Set didn’t deserve prime time. It was aired on ABC on Wednesdays at 9.30pm. 

WHAT’S WRONG WITH LIVE MUSIC ON TV THEN? 

If you haven’t got my point yet, let me spell it out for you. As of today, 6 May 2020, there’s virtually NO permanent, well-established segment on commercial Australian TV featuring live Australian music. 

And it is, quite frankly, shocking to me. Because not only does Oz have one of the most vibrant and active music scenes, but Melbourne, where a lot of it happens, is the live music capital of the world. (This claim is based on legitimate studies and research. I wrote about it here). Plus, Aussies don’t mind spending their hard-earned money on live music at all. Which they can’t do now, so why not engage that audience in the meantime?

Quoting Corey Tonkin from 2012 again: “This makes it all the more surprising and disappointing that networks won’t invest in live music programming, because as examples from around the world show us, there is a market there that can be filled.” Exactly. The supply is there. And so is the demand. How about helping them come together?

Oh, and didn’t the Australian music industry stand up for its country big time, collectively waiving artist fees, during the bushfire crisis at the beginning of the year? All those benefit concerts (Fire Fight Australia was even screened on Channel 7) and donating proceeds from merch sales to the bushfire relief surely didn’t go unnoticed. Is it not enough for the networks to do the same for Aussie music when it’s experiencing its potentially biggest crisis in history?

Australian broadcasters are clearly not very interested in elaborating on why they don’t program live music. And whilst there might not be a “one size fits all” explanation, the following are plausible reasons:

  • Homegrown music is not profitable enough for broadcasters Down Under. This is true compared to other programs that reign on Aussie TV today. Reality shows, blockbuster movies (even if screened for the umpteenth time) and heated debates on controversial topics have better ratings and generally attract bigger audiences than cultural and artistic programs. 
  • Local acts are too expensive for Aussie networks. Sounds ridiculous, right? After all, Channel 7, 9 and 10 are privately owned broadcasters with some famous names (the Murdoch family sort of famous) and big bucks behind them. And they always seem to have enough budget for formats that, frankly, are losing to streaming platforms anyways. So diversifying those spendings might not be such a bad idea after all. And I very much doubt that paying an Aussie band for a live 90-min gig is going to be a big blow to the networks’ often lavish budgets. Even if it’s Tame Impala performing live.
  • Australian TV broadcasters don’t care about Australian music. Before you start patriotically protesting, hear me out. When Ariana Grande organised the One Love concert with friends like Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber, following the bombing at her previous show in Manchester in 2017, Channel 9 didn’t have any problems showing the entire thing. When Ed Sheeran was touring Oz and NZ in 2017, he was on every goddam show on every single network almost every day (sorry, Ed -’twas really TOO much). Just a month ago, mid-April 2020, Lady Gaga curated a virtual #TogetherAtHome festival for Global Citizen with world-class artists (Billie Eilish, Shawn Mendes or the Rolling Stones, amongst others) which was screened on Channel 7 and Network 10. When was the last time you saw Australian artists get the same sort of treatment and attention? 
  • Live Australian music is not “entertaining” enough for commercial networks. Just think about it for a while. There is no “scandal” element in live music (unless playback is employed or a drunk singer starts taking their clothes off at an all-ages show). And not all artists are gossip and party-loving celebrities. So no, no live gig can compete with the MAFS (Married At First Sight) drama. But it could actually be a nice, drama-free thing for a change. 
  • Australian TV is not used to having live music in the programming anymore. Yep, this is a valid point. When live streaming started getting a lot of traction, TV networks quickly withdrew their troops instead of putting on a fight in the struggle for music audiences. As if they’d had absolutely no interest in getting to know their enemy and no ideas on how to win people back. So, in the end, they lost the entire war. That’s why there’s no pressure to create another music show for prime time TV because networks treat it as a lost cause. Everyone simply takes lack of it for granted these days.
  • There are some strange implications of having live music on commercial TV. Okay, just gently probing here. But if there are any tough players in the entertainment industry, apart from TV broadcasters, it’s definitely the record labels. They’re big money machines with powerful friends and blood-thirsty lawyers. What do we really know about their “terms & conditions” for artists’ performances and fees on any TV?
  • The competition is too stiff to invest in live music. Moreover, that competition is not exactly legal. Shady downloading, torrents and pirating are apparently a thing again, thanks to the pandemic. So I can see why commercial TV might be reluctant to compete in this field. But hey, if broadcasters put on the right entertainment for the right audiences at the right time, the trend would surely quickly go back to “legal” again.

You tell me if I missed anything.

IT’S TIME TO FACE THE MUSIC

Last time I checked TV’s mission all over the world was to educate, inform and entertain. When it comes to music, Australian networks are failing miserably on all three fronts. At the same time, local acts are struggling to reach new audiences and make end’s meet with live shows being banned. And not that Aussies are against music shows on TV, either. Gudinski and the Mushroom Group just proved it with Music From The Home Front

So I have something to say to the Australian commercial TV reps: The live performance sector is now on the brink of extinction and many people from the music business are living on the dole. Wouldn’t it just be nice and humane to help out a mate by programming quality live music during prime time?


If you have 3 hours to spare, watch the whole Music From The Home Front event below. You’ll learn heaps about Aussie music.


Feature image: Nine Network’s website

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