By now you’ve probably heard it, seen it and or read about it — Mel Rafter, a character from TV soap Packed To The Rafters, has been written out of the script so an actress can try her hand in Hollywood. So, who cares? Well, we do apparently. Why else would the media relentlessly cover the ‘death’ of a television character as news?

For the uninitiated, a bit of a background. Last week, popular Packed To The Rafters character Mel Rafter died in a car accident while texting on her phone. The episode rated its socks off — 2.335 million viewers tuned in — prompting an encore screening and an equally well-watched funeral episode.

Cue Channel Seven cashing in on the soap’s success — after all, when you’re on a good thing it’s best to milk it for all it’s worth. Seven’s nightly news services began running stories on how “real” the death scene was, while Today Tonight also offered coverage of the “emotional whirlpool” the show had unleashed. Even Channel Nine got in on the act, with A Current Affair rolling around in the grief angle and lending a free kick to their network rival in the process.

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But it wasn’t just the television networks keen to ride on the Rafters wave. According to Media Monitors, Mel’s death received 3,900 mentions across all forms of the media. The public were hungry for more Rafters coverage and media outlets were only too happy to offer it.

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Over at News Limited they were offering a veritable smorgasboard of Rafters reportage. There was the “nervous wait” before the screening of the episode, the “simple message” that “road fatalities hurt everyone”, the revelation of “one of TV’s best-kept secrets“, the haunting details of how a co-star “triggered TV funeral tears“, the stunning missive that viewers should “get over it” and then, just to suck us back in, the caution that we shouldn’t “put the tissues away” just yet.

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Herald Sun TV scribe Colin Vickery even brought in psychologist Jan Hall to offer some advice on how viewers could deal with any grief they were experiencing after the tragedy:

“Tell yourself it’s only a TV show, exercise to release the ‘happy drugs’ in your body, or watch a soppy DVD that makes you have a good cry. Viewers could also write a farewell letter to the character and thank them for the great times they had with them.”

It’s not the first time Hall has offered some sage words for soapie addicts. Just days before the car crash she was explaining why viewers enjoyed wedding episodes, while last year she was pontificating on how it was common for people to identify strongly with fictional TV families.

It wasn’t just News Limited who were talking about it either, Fairfax also had a crack at squeezing a few drops out of the Rafters cash cow. Like News, they also ran a story on the “sadly all-too-real” death of Mel, while there was a popular opinion piece explaining why the show had “sucked us in“.

Then, if the endless streams of newsprint devoted to the topic weren’t enough for you, the airwaves were also crackling with Rafters analysis. Talkback around the country was awash with callers wanting to express their feelings about the show’s realism.

When there are so many untold stories that desperately need reporting, it’s more than a little depressing that the fictional death of a fictional character garners wall-to-wall media coverage. But, is the media just giving us what we want? Judging by the reaction, it seems so.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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