After Rewind was axed, there will be no history show for ABC TV, as Terry Television explains.

For three days last week there was a chance the ABC would still have a history program in its 2005 Television schedule, albeit a very slim chance built on nothing but a “what if” approach from a newish senior ABC TV executive and her boss, the head of TV, Sandra Levy.

That this hope existed despite the decision of last Tuesday to axe Rewind and not renew it for next year is testimony to the innate optimism of people in TV programs.

Sandra Levy’s major role in Rewind’s problems since its inception as an idea in the middle of 2003 deserves some sort of probing by a Senate Committee, if they still exist after the Federal election?

With a budget estimated at between $8 million and $9 million it was the ABC’s biggest budget production this year for non-drama. And it has been basically lost, despite the best efforts of the people in the program to prove Levy and other managers wrong.

Did Levy has a vested interest in killing off Rewind and removing an embarrassment to her career at the ABC? And what about the role of Daryl Karp, the former head of general factual programming for ABC TV and now safely out of the organisation at Film Australia?

Her replacement Denise Eriksen (a former wife of 2UE shock jock Steve Price) was understood to have said at the Tuesday meeting that killed Rewind, that she “wanted” a history show in the schedule next year. The hope was more based on an inability to say “no” decisively and live with the consequences, rather than a hope of seeing a history-style program on the network next year.

This “hope” lasted until late Thursday or early Friday. Eriksen convened a meeting on Thursday to “toss around” a few ideas for a new program or formats for next year. Included were producers from Rewind and several other executives.

That Eriksen saw fit to ask people from a program she and Levy had killed off, for “ideas” for next year shows how far she is from managing. The people from Rewind, upset and a bit shattered at the decision of Tuesday, should not have been put in a position of discussing, in a rather fruitless fashion, options for next year. It gave false hope and was unfair.

The Thursday brainstorming session obviously didn’t work for on Friday advice came from Eriksen that there would be no history program in the ABC TV schedule next year, and the Executive Producer, Peter George, was told that his services would not be needed after his contract expired on November 11.

A rather brutal way of saying thanks to someone who led a group of people that saved Sandra Levy’s hide after resurrecting Rewind from the disaster that had been its original concept, History Detectives.

These two Crikey stories detail some of the baggage Rewind carried when it went to air in late July:

The role of Levy and Daryl Karp in the debacle that was History Detectives still has not been explained by “Your ABC”.

Because of inadequate managerial supervision the development budget of $1.3 million saw only one story produced by the time the original on air date in February was reached. Others were in production and had been finished, but not signed off on by the EP, who constantly re-cut segments.

But producers and researchers had been hired and were working on items. Jennifer Byrne was to be the host and the original timetable had the program kicking off against Nine’s 60 Minutes in February, when ratings started officially for the year.

But that deadline slipped by. Then Executive Producer Stefan Moore was allowed to fiddle constantly and fruitless refining and re-cutting stories that had been finished. Decisions could not be made by him or by Daryl Karp. Some in the ABC now wonder if Karp or Levy had a good understanding of the looming disaster that emerged in May.

Then it became apparent the program, with its $8 million budget rapidly eroding, was in no fit state. Peter George was made EP after Stefan Moore was shunted out of the program. The on air date was set for the end of July and production continued.

But as Crikey has recounted in early July, Sandra Levy suddenly awoke from her slumberings and acted, for whatever still unexplained reason. The name was changed to Rewind and the timeslot was moved back from 7.30pm Sunday’s to 9.30pm the same night. That’s the start of the grey zone in Sunday night viewing when bed is a better option than many of the programs on TV, especially on the ABC.

Host Jennifer Byrne resigned, no longer confident or happy with the changes. It was not the program she had been hired to front. Historian Michael Cathcart was hired and a great effort was made to get on air by the end of July – which it did.

The program surprised with the quality of its stories and the professionalism of the production. Despite being pre-empted by the ABC’s inept handling of the election debate between the Prime Rodent and Iron Mark, Rewind built an audience. Between 300,000 and 430,000 people watched. Not bad figures for 9.30pm on a Sunday, and on the ABC.

Its stories sometimes broke news. Not because of the efforts of the ABC publicity department who do not think audience or ratings matter much, (that must be the Levy mantra at work), but because the staff of Rewind sent out information to the newspapers to build publicity and a profile. And it worked.

But come early September and tension started rising. The time was approaching when all ABC programs face the gauntlet of being proved, prodded and argued over by management and their acolytes. It was the annual renewal period. Into October and the election campaign, no news, although the ABC somewhat mystifyingly brought back Behind The News, the schools news program so petulantly axed in 2003 by the board and managing director Russell Balding.

The justification? Sandra Levy had found the necessary savings and efficiencies to meet the budget of Behind The News. Was axing Rewind going to pay for that? No one knows.

But another question has been raised. Daryl Karp, who couldn’t tell Levy of the problems in History Detectives, left the ABC mid year to head up Film Australia – a sinecure that’s very attractive in public broadcasting in Australia.

But in the election campaign, in the Liberal Party’s arts policy there was an interesting reference to commissioning Film Australia to make a 10 part History series of Australia. The cost, $7.5 million which would come from the Government.

That’s expensive, a bit less than the budget for Rewind, but only 10 programs, compared to the 20 plus envisaged originally for Rewind.

The more dark of mind thought the strategy was to kill Rewind and put the Film Australia series into the schedule, either late next year if Daryl Karp can manage it (unlikely) or in 2006. No need for an in-house history series any more. One is coming from outside at no cost to the ABC.

Here’s the Liberal Party policy on that series:

“Film Australia’s mission is to create an audiovisual record of Australian life by commissioning, distributing and managing programmes that deal with matters of national interest to Australia, or illustrate and interpret aspects of Australian life. Its archive is also an invaluable ‘photo-album’ of our nation.

“The Coalition Government will continue funding for the National Interest Program, with a strengthened focus on funding the production of documentaries telling stories of relevance to Australian life, people and places.

“A re-elected Coalition Government will commission Film Australia to produce a 10-part series of high quality documentaries on Australia’s history. This will cost $7.5 million over three years. These documentaries will draw on the extensive video and audio libraries of heritage material held by both Film Australia and ScreenSound. “

Cosy isn’t it. And a bit political as well. Will the so-called History Wars feature, and who’s view of our history will prevail, the softish, leftish Manning Clark, or the more conservative, Geoffrey Blainey approach?

A bit bewildering for all those concerned in Rewind. But sometimes you just have to wonder about “Your ABC’ and who it’s been run for. Us, the taxpayers, or the executives?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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