How a woolly jumper helped The Alice.

You’d hardly think a sheep could be so crucial. But the future of the Nine telemovie, The Alice, hinged on such an unreliable ‘character actor’. It had to fall asleep by sundown on a day in Alice Springs on which the movie’s story ended, setting it up to move to a series format next year if it was well received by Australian television viewers.

And it was, more than 1.8 million watched it on Sunday evening, making it the most watched movie of the year, with good receptions in all cities, especially Perth and Adelaide. More cynical Sydney viewers loved it and made it number two most watched program on Sunday evening.

Now Nine has to decide to go to a series and foreign buyers will have to be found to help finance the cost.

It was the mix of Seachange, the quirkiness of people heading for Alice Springs for a total eclipse of the sun, odd, but well-defined characters, some good writing and good acting. Also helping was the unresolved sexual tension below the surface in some characters and relationships.

And although there’s a police element, it was just that, a part and not the reason for the show. Nor was there a doctor or lawyer, hospital or courthouse as a central character or theme.

There was German-speaking sun worshippers. Which makes it a bit like Muriel, Priscilla and Strictly Ballroom. Where the idea is a little left of field, and result not much like any genre, except in a general way.

But without a sleeping sheep, the movie’s future ability to morph successfully into a series for Nine, would have been that much more difficult. Having to base a series on a movie that ended, with the story lines neatly tied together, without anything left up in the air, would have been a big gamble. Doable but a tough ask.

So what I hear all the cynics saying. “You just go and get a sheep trained to sleep! No, we are not talking about Kiwis and no more jokes please. The smarties then say, “if there are no trained ones around, get an animal wrangler to spend a couple of months whipping a sheep into shape. Easypeasy all the wannabe producers are now saying.

Well, it wasn’t that easy. First up it was a production on a very tight budget (it was on the Nine Network, and the production company was Southern Star). So tight that the producers probably couldn’t afford to say the word animal wrangler, let alone summonse one up for an extensive workout with the sheep. So the producers improvised.

Now Alice Springs is in the heart of Australia, rural and regional Australia, but if anything it’s cattle country and not suitable for sheep. And yet the producers ended up securing the ONLY sheep in Alice Springs and it ended up in The Alice and not on the table. Don’t ask where they got it from. It’s one of those, “if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you,” secret producers business stuff!

And to top it off, the sheep could act. It slept its part, on cue. And, for those who missed it, the sheep did fall asleep by sundown for a major male character, meaning he’d be staying in Alice Springs. And him staying made the idea of the series more logical. For Nine it was just what they needed. A critical success with a difficult idea after a pretty miserable year, despite winning the ratings.

And next year it’s going to be tougher. Besides the battle with Seven Network for the 5.30 pm to 7.30 pm evening slots, especially in Sydney, Nine has got some worries emerging elsewhere.

The Friends franchise is dying. The repackaged best of Friends approach isn’t working. Viewers are not watching because at the moment there’s no sign of any of the remaining first-run episodes. And, judging by cards, letters, comments etc, they are feeling a little cynical and miffed by that.

Nine has hopes that the Friends spin-off Joey, will fill in. But so far the reports from the US have been cautious. It might be a risk rather than a simple move from a series to a spin-off. Frasier also departs as a first run series later this year (when the rest of Friends and Sex and the City will be seen).

No doubt Frasier will bounce around next year, but whether it works as well as the year goes on, is highly problematic. So the 7pm to 8pm slot looks weak on Mondays next year for Nine. Malcolm in the Middle and Two and a Half Men do well, especially Malcolm, but Two Men is starting to lose its impact and needs a solid program or two before it to delivery good viewer numbers.

Tuesday evening from 7.30 pm to 8.30 pm is also a problem. The Block did average numbers there this year (Survivor did very well, but that’s only a limited run series. It’s a 44 week ratings period.) Renovation Rescue rated well when it reported back for duty last week, but it’s not the answer either next year. It can be one of a number of programs rotated through the timeslot to prevent viewers becoming tired.

Wednesday has McLeod’s Daughters as the main act and Thursday is Getaway. In the 8.30 to 9.30 pm slots, Monday is mostly Millionaire, Tuesday is CSI, Wednesday is CSI Miami and Thurday has been ER, and now Comedy Inc. Friday night is mostly football. So the most logical slots for The Alice as a series would be Monday or Tuesday evenings as an hour program, or perhaps two half hours run Monday and Tuesday night to see if that worked.

Complicating matters next year will be the appearance of Seven’s 10.30 pm comedy news show based on the old Nine product of Coast to Coast.

That’s likely to appear first up after the Olympics and come out of the new Martin Place studios in Sydney with a lot of Jay Leno-David Letterman street involvement hype, especially in the warmer months.

If it works it will put a ratings blip for Seven at 10.30 pm, maybe forcing Nine to reposition the floating Nightline at 10.30 as a counter (rather than 11.30 pm and onwards), and also force Ten to make sure the Late News with Sandra Sully goes off at 10.30 pm most evenings.

If that is successful, it will absorb attention and resources at Nine, meaning that they might not be as focused on correctly positioning The Alice and working it up to a full run series, like they did with McLeod’s Daughters.

But with Posie Graeme Evans at Nine there’s every opprtunity that won’t happen and she will take the weight while David Gyngell, Michael Healy, the head programmer, and other executives struggle to fix the 5.30 to 7.30 slots, especially with A Current Affair, and fill those important positions on Monday and Tuesday evenings.

And of course there’s also fixing the Today show and re-inventing The Block which won’t last another year if there is a repeat of this year’s flat series.

Big Brother is coming back onto the market for the series renewal and that will see Nine and Seven bidding madly, if only to add costs onto Ten.

But The Alice is a welcome success for Nine in a year in which victories have been few and far between. That it came with some fresh and original ideas makes the win even sweeter. It shows Nine what it can do if it takes risks.