Nine is going to try for a third season of The Block, but can they revive the flagging formula enough to ignite the interest of jaded fans?
The low points for many viewers for the Nine Network’s The Block was
when the product placement became, well sickeningly obvious. So for
Terry Television, the low point was reached in Sunday evening’s final
episode when one of the Blockettes opened a fridge to reveal shelves
filled with blocks of Cadbury chocolate, some with their fronts
pointing towards the camera. For others it was the appearance of the
ACP magazine, Belle (this after knuckles were rapped earlier in the
series when a rogue Vogue was allowed into a room).

Still other people didn’t like the endless trips to Freedom Furniture
in the Toyota Ravs, or the mention the Black and Decker power tools
which “we didn’t know how to use”. Still other people objected to some
of the couples, while others just thought the unrelenting slickness and
commercialism was too much.

Nevertheless, Nine is bringing The Block back for a third round, revealed the network in a gush-filled announcement late on Monday. Yet another Block
being searched for and we can hear whole coastal suburbs of Sydney
down on their knees and praying, “no, not us”!

But this is going to require some judgement and decision-making that so
far this year hasn’t been evident in any great abundance at Nine.

The final audience of just over 2.25 million for the auction (1.95
million for the open house bit, according to Nine’s arbitrary split of
the program) was good. The second biggest audience of the year so far
after the boring Logies.

Network gossip is that the Nine folk panicked at the last minute and
instead of breaking up the program this week into two hour-long
episodes on Sunday and Tuesday nights, opted to go for the 90 minute
finale and failed to tell the weekly programs guides who need at least
a week to 10 days notice of the change. It certainly wasn’t in the last
minute program guides in Sydney’s Sunday
papers.

Nine’s director of Lifestyle and Reality, Stuie Clark gushed about the
success in his statement announcing series three, but of course he
failed to mention 2003 and the success of The Block that year.

Still it did do good numbers, but oh how long it took to get
there. An eternity. Showing it twice a week didn’t help the
audience, merely helped a weakness at 7.30 on Tuesday evenings.
Nine usually won Tuesday’s thanks to CSI, and the 6pm news, not The
Block
.

It was over-exposed and over-produced and over-commercial. That
contributed to the underwhelming nature of viewer reaction. The final
viewer number of 2.2 million equal to the average audience in 2003, and
it was down a third from the figure for the final program last year. Of
course no mention of that by Mr Clark.

The Block was least watched in Sydney
where it constantly underperformed, especially the Tuesday evening
episode. But the numbers were still in a range where it will be seen as
successful, but not the screaming, outright ratings puller last year.
Nine were banking on a small 10 to 15 per cent drop in viewers this year, but
not something that at times was half the number of last year, and will
end up around 35 to 40 per cent down. That will mean for a long, and
at times pretty vicious, post-mortem at Nine.

It won’t be pretty, but it will be needed. Already there’s been something of a casualty over The Block‘s underperformance. Network PR head, Wendy Squires departing after
being caught up in the in-house angst about the poor viewer numbers (by
2003 standards).

Will more go or be switched? Well the originators and EPs, David
Barbour and Julian Cress, along with Stuart Clark, the network
executive in charge, and Michael Healy, the Nine Network’s head
programmer, are directly in line.

There might be a feeling that “fresh” eyes are needed to give it more
relevance. This could be the producers and the network executives
being switched, or even more people added! If they do the latter
then an even bigger failure will be on the cards. Insiders at Nine
already tell of more people involved in the program this year with
endless recuts, reshootings and other technical fiddlings ordered up by
Mr Clark to try and give it “zing”. Greater care will have to be taken
with the selection of couples. Rather than the unknown quantity
of last year, this year’s five couples were chosen in what was a rather
cynical approach to conflict and contest.

It didn’t work. There certainly weren’t warm appealing
characters. No one had the zest for life that Gav and Woz had
last year, straight or gay. More women should be used as
couples. There are lesbian couples who are interested in
property. What is wrong with them? A point Terry made a
long time ago (more than 100 days ago) when the whole thing started.

The series started off on the wrong foot when one of the couples was
revealed in The Daily Telegraph as having “history” with the male
member having a conviction for a drug-related offence. That caused
headlines and forced him and his partner out. Their replacements ended
up as the winners.

Some critics on radio and in the papers have said it’s too Sydney and for Nine to take it out of the City.

Logically Melbourne is the only other place because of the closeness of
the technical facilities. But the Melbourne couple in this year’s
program failed to beat their reserve, designing a dark, cosy apartment
that didn’t take advantage of Manly, the beach and Sydney’s different
light.

Then there are the added costs of moving away from Sydney, for editing,
for shooting, for moving the various crew and Nine people there, for
getting Jamie Durie there and back each week, for accommodation. And
added managerial costs with having a major shoot in one part of
Australia, and the head office and decision makers in Sydney, and then
trying to manage a turnaround on a weekly basis. It can be done,
has been done, but it’s added costs at a time next year when cost
control on the program will be more important.

Nine lost more than a million dollars. It got caught by the
slowdown in property, the investor exit tax in NSW and the difficulty
of selling apartments in Manly with not much location for close to a
million dollars.

Only two of the couples made any money on thier sales ($77,000 and $78,000), so its
not the way to short term financial success that the first Block was.

Nor will it be the pathway to rent-a-crowd stardom as it has been for
Gav and Waz, Amity, Fiona and Adam, who won last year when their Bondi
unit topped the sales and they received $256,000. Nine got the cross
promotion right with the Millionaire special, staying at Crown Casino
in Melbourne and mentions of ACP magazines. But the product placement
was far too aggressive and it became a commercial vehicle rather than a
piece of programming. Sometimes the producers went to absurd
lengths to protect their advertisers and product placers, pixelating
one of the inmates T-shirts to cover up a rival furniture
product. That was crass in the extreme, but a sign that the
commercial imperative had taken over from the entertainment idea.

And that sums up the decision Nine will have to make. Is The Block, a
rare homegrown idea in television, a programming concept first, with
commercial possibilities second (as with most programs), or is it a
commercial opportunity that takes advantage of a popular programming
concept?

If it’s the latter, it deserves to be with the other infomercials after
midnight or on the Kerry Anne Kennerly show on weekday mornings.

They way Nine goes with The Block in 2005 will be a tough decision for
David Gyngell. His first real call on a pure programming basis.
His natural instincts are commercial. But he has to understand that
Less is More – a concept that worked last year and works in other
programs too.

Peter Fray

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