Commercial television sure does love talking up the wonders of fast-tracking. That’s the process whereby instead of sitting on a television show until an airdate that suits their programming department, they put it to air within a day or two of it showing in its country of origin–usually the US. It seems fair: if networks have a show people want to watch, it’s only right they get it out to those viewers as quickly as possible. And if you believe that, I’ve got a warehouse full of missing Doctor Who episodes you might like to buy.
The only reason television networks are “fast-tracking” television shows is because they realise that in the age of illegal downloading, their audience will simply watch them elsewhere if they don’t rush these shows to air fast. Let’s not forget that back in the nineties, when The Simpsons was the hottest show on television, Ten decided they couldn’t be bothered showing any new episodes and Australia had to wait well over a year between the end of season four (which ended with ‘Krusty Gets Kancelled’) and season five (which began with ‘Homer’s Barbershop Quartet’) as Ten went repeats-only for all of 1994. Two decades later, supposedly audiences won’t wait a single day for the latest episode of Under the Dome.
The problem networks face in trying to get ahead of illegal downloading is that it doesn’t leave them much time to figure out if the show is going to be a hit or not. When the government networks do it, it’s generally not an issue: the ABC has Doctor Who with its massive fanbase, and SBS is currently trying it with Masters of Sex, which as a US pay TV series is guaranteed to run a full season no matter how it rates (pay TV series are never axed mid-season).
On the flip side, last year Seven spent a lot of air time talking up their next big show, The Last Resort. Only problem was, the show tanked in the US and was cancelled after a handful of episodes, leaving Seven with a dud. No doubt there were more than a few sighs of relief at Seven HQ when it was announced that its latest fast-tracked sensation, The Blacklist, would be getting a full season in the US.
The networks’ problems don’t end there. In theory the idea behind fast-tracking in Australia is that it gets a show to audiences so they can be part of the global social media discussion taking place online. If you had any interest at all in Breaking Bad and you weren’t able to watch the final episode within a few hours of it airing in the US, you basically had to either abandon social media or abandon the idea of not having it spoilt for you.
Fast-tracking has also put the local networks’ scheduling in the hands of the overseas networks. A few years ago October was when Australian networks started winding down for the year. Now they’re forced to start airing many of their top drama imports as they air in the US, lest no-one care come February. They can take a bit of a break over the December holidays, as most US series taper off around then, but come the new year’s ratings period, their hot new series is now a few episodes behind the US and whatever momentum it may have built up with viewers is long gone.
So, with the internet such a threat to their very existence, what other choice do the commercial networks have? Well, if you’re Channel Nine, you largely don’t worry about fast-tracking; Nine’s schedule is largely built around local programming and imported comedy so they don’t really need to rush dramas to air. In fact, if your favourite overseas drama is on Nine, you’re out of luck. Nine often shifts dramas around or drops them entirely depending on how they fit into the schedule around higher-rating reality or sports programs–Person of Interest they ended up dropping entirely from this year’s schedules with only a handful of first-run episodes left to air.
But the real problem with fast-tracking here is that none of the shows being fast-tracked on free-to-air television are the ones people desperately want to see. Was anyone really excited when Nine fast-tracked terrible serial killer mess The Following? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is starting to lose its buzz; The Blacklist never had much to start with. Hostages is already a flop, Under the Dome was a mess, and while Sleepy Hollow looks like fun, it’s the kind of show that would hold up even if it wasn’t rushed over here. The shows that Australians want to see and talk about as quickly as possible—your Game of Thrones and Breaking Bads—are all on pay TV where viewers are asked to pay hefty fees for packages that contain a lot of programming they don’t want. This might explain why Australia is amongst the biggest illegal downloaders of some shows in the world – and why fast-tracking isn’t going to make much of a dent in that particular problem any time soon.
Anthony Morris is a Killings columnist and has been reviewing films for almost 20 years for a variety of publications, many of which have closed down through no fault of his own. Though his insistence on reviewing every single Adam Sandler movie may have played a part.