The media regulator ACMA has given Nine a big whack over the rating of Underbelly and Gordon Ramsay eps from last year, ahead of the new series of both programs airing from next week.

In fact it’s the first ever settlement of its kind ACMA has reached with a TV Network. Basically, if Nine and its affiliate, WIN, breach the undertakings with ACMA with the new series of Underbelly or Ramsay, hundreds of thousands of dollars will have to be paid to the regulator by the networks.

“This is the first time that ACMA has been offered and accepted enforceable undertakings from commercial television licensees relating to matters covered by the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice,” said Chris Chapman, ACMA Chairman.

“‘This remedial action is the product of extensive discussions with the Nine and WIN networks about action they will take over the next 24 months to ensure that these programs are correctly classified and shown in the appropriate time slot. It is a response to the unacceptably high number of incorrectly classified Underbelly and Ramsay programs broadcast in 2008. It aims to create an improved compliance culture, while giving ACMA an avenue to pursue further remedial action if necessary,’ said Mr Chapman.

It means next Monday night’s first two eps of the prequel will be the most closely scruitinised by a regulator of any recent program going to air in Australia.

It must therefore be concerning to hear around the traps that Nine sent the first episode back to the producers Screentime after the final producers cut with the comment that it was “flat and boring” and that Screentime had to make it “interesting.”

Just how interesting we and ACMA will find out from 8.30pm to 10.30pm Monday. Hence all those promos of machine guns, shootings, bribes and the suggestion in newspaper stories of on screen s-x and bare female flesh.

The upshot of the undertaking with ACMA is that Nine will have to train staff to handle the ratings, Ramsay now won’t be seen before 9.30 pm after Nine abused its rating of him last year and shoved him at 8.30 pm.

So much for the argument by Nine and its censors last year led by Nine’s chief classification officer Richard Lyle. Nine’s deal with ACMA effectively repudiates its defence last year, as articulated by Lyle:

(Coarse language) may be used more than infrequently in certain justifiable circumstances only when it is particularly important to the storyline or program context. And so my interpretation of that, in this instance, for most of Gordon’s language, that is exactly how I would defend it. And 1.6 million Australians seem to think that they would rather hear him unedited than beeped.

That’s one bit of sophistry that has bitten the dust, and Nine is okay with its defence being in tatters.

Why? Because the gloss has gone off Ramsay as a ratings magnet by Nine’s over promotion and heavy use of him in the first half of last year. Ramsay’s claimed infidelities have also lowered his appeal, as have reports of his first ep of the new series of Nightmares, with something like 240 expletives.

Nine now has something more important to protect in the next series of Underbelly. It’s going to lead Nine’s ratings bid this year. (But Nine won’t do well if this pre-ratings week is any guide. They will need more than Underbelly). The new series of Underbelly will be closely watched by ACMA. The Senate inquiry into Ramsay’s swearing had been vindicated by regulators deal with Nine and its (finally) strong approach.

“If ACMA subsequently finds that one of the licensees has breached its undertaking—for example, by incorrectly classifying a program covered by the undertaking — ACMA may apply to the Federal Court for an order that the licensee pay ACMA an amount equivalent to the financial benefit the licensee obtained by breaching the undertaking,” said Chapman. 

“For this purpose, Nine has provided to ACMA a confidential estimate of the financial benefit it is likely to obtain by broadcasting one of the programs with an incorrect classification. ACMA could also apply to the Federal Court for other orders regarding Nine or WIN licensees aimed at enforcing the undertakings. ACMA has accepted the undertakings from both Nine and WIN licensees for a period of two years. The undertakings can be viewed on the ACMA website.”

Peter Fray

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