Bland 'lifestyle' show illuminates another impending problem at ABC

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The ABC produced just one unmissable drama in 2018: the dismissal of managing director Michelle Guthrie in the final week of September. The fallout soon engulfed Justin Milne, the national broadcaster's chairman, who resigned just days after firing Guthrie, and grew to include claims and counter-claims. The most prominent revolved around whether Milne told Guthrie to sack the ABC's chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici, purportedly following a complaint from then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Five months on, with Guthrie suing the ABC and the matter before the Federal Court, the headlines have faded and the commentariat have moved on to speculation about Guthrie's successor. But the lasting impact of Michelle Guthrie's tenure running the ABC is only now starting to appear. The shows that reflect Guthrie's philosophies and the directions she gave her senior commissioning staff are beginning to air across the country. What they suggest is that her true legacy – in television terms – will be bright and bland programming that dilutes the ABC's reputation.

One of the most noticeable additions is Escape from the City, which technically debuted in January but was instantly familiar to anyone who has ever seen Escape to the Country, the long-running British version of a real estate show format that the ABC's version is licensed from. Each week a hopeful rat race escapee from the city is presented with a selection of potential property purchases in their desired rural or coastal destination. Floorplans are evaluated, neighbourhoods judges, and prices pondered.

The first episode, which featured a pair of Sydney professionals looking to buy a home on acreage in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales with plans to add a paddock-to-plate restaurant and accommodation, was spectacularly ill-judged. Their goals, and the $2 million budget, put the couple in rarefied air. But beyond that, what does this show, which has a prime slot of 8pm on Thursday nights, add to the ABC? Based on the recent Sunshine Coast episode, which had some double D breast size references from two female participants that should never have gone to air, not a great deal.

The images in ABC's <i>Magical Land of Oz</I> deserve better narration.

The images in ABC's Magical Land of Oz deserve better narration.Credit:ABC

This is lifestyle programming – the British Escape to the Country literally airs on Foxtel's Lifestyle channel virtually every day of the week. The ABC's version nods to illuminating the various local surrounds with brief and picturesque interludes, but it's a real estate show on a network that's never previously needed to indulge the genre. The series, which has a sizeable episode order, is filler for the schedule. Inoffensive, breezy and worryingly repetitive.

There's an underlying desire for simplicity at work. The three-part nature documentary Magical Land of Oz is full of vivid compositions, beginning in the oceans that surround Australia, but at a certain point you realise that the narration – delivered by Barry Humphries with a less than necessary grandiloquence – is mostly descriptive. It's as if the script was derived from notes for an initial draft that was never updated. The images deserve better.

Both shows also recap basic information, such as Brisbane being the capital of Queensland, which suggests that they meant to play for international audiences. International sales and co-productions are a way of stretching a budget trimmed by a disapproving federal government, but there's a point where accommodating a northern hemisphere viewer devalues the experience of those in Australia.

That point can already be found in Harrow, the ABC's forensic pathologist mystery driven by international co-producers that is slick and essentially anonymous despite the Brisbane setting. It has a second season on the way and is the anodyne antithesis of the best recent ABC program, the fierce satire Get Krack!n, which clearly reflects the voice of creators and stars Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan.

The three-part nature documentary <i>Magical Land of Oz</I> is full of vivid compositions.

The three-part nature documentary Magical Land of Oz is full of vivid compositions.Credit:ABC

Given the attacks the ABC has had to wear politically, it's not surprising that Guthrie's ABC had a predilection for introducing shows that offer the smallest possible targets for criticism. The upcoming documentary series The Crown and Us, for example, offers every viewpoint possible about Australia's relationship with the British monarchy. But in seeking to appease monarchists, republicans, Baby Boomers and Millennials the show is a helter-skelter assemblage that lacks a definable viewpoint.

Last week the ABC advertised for a new managing director. "The ABC has a unique role to provide the highest quality content and services to inform, educate, entertain and connect all Australians," read the introduction. Whoever gets the job will have fires to fight on multiple fronts, but they're definitely going to have to address their predecessor's programming philosophy. Michelle Guthrie lasted less than three years at the ABC, but the underlying damage is only now starting to become apparent.

<i>Escape from the City</I> is filler for the schedule. Inoffensive, breezy and worryingly repetitive.

Escape from the City is filler for the schedule. Inoffensive, breezy and worryingly repetitive.