Underbelly is Back – with all Guns Blazing

Nine’s co-head of drama, Andy Ryan, says the time is right to bring back Nine’s highly successful Underbelly franchise.

Speaking ahead of Sunday’s launch of the two-part television event focusing on Mark “Chopper” Read, Ryan said: “We have come back with all guns blazing, with a new Underbelly Files: Chopper. It’s the story of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, the story of his life picking up after the well-known Eric Bana movie.

“It really is a return to the energy, dynamism and gangster chic of the original Underbelly, and we have several returning characters, such as Alfphonse Gangitano, played by Vince Colosimo, who was such a fan favourite of the original series and is a major part of this story, as is the Moran family, with Debra Byrne reprising her role as Judy Moran.”

Ryan said the launch of Underbelly Files: Chopper on Sunday, starring award-winning actor Aaron Jeffery, would introduce a strong year for Nine in the drama space, with a mixture of different genres.

“We have great variety in our drama slate for this year,” he said. “We have announced four scripted programs for 2018: Underbelly Files, Bite Club, Doctor Doctor and True Story with Hamish & Andy.

“We have the gangster genre in Underbelly Files, we have a crime procedural in Bite Club, we have a broad family drama in Doctor Doctor, and a comedy in True Story with Hamish & Andy. We like to have a big variety across the slate. I think the thing that unifies all those shows is their extremely high quality. They are of an international standard in terms of production values and they have broad audience appeal.”

Underbelly in particular is seen as a format that has broad audience appeal and is a high energy production.

“When Underbelly came on-air in 2008 it was a complete game-changer, both commercially and creatively for the drama industry,” said Ryan. “We had great success over many years with the Underbelly franchise and the telemovies as well.

Chopper is a return to the energy, dynamism and gangster chic of the original Underbelly.”

Ryan also said he was excited about the return of programs like Doctor Doctor later in 2018 and the launch of Bite Club.

“We haven’t had a crime procedural on Nine for several years,” he said. “It used to be something we did a lot of, where you have a crime-of-the-week storyline. Bite Club is a return to that kind of storytelling, updated for contemporary audiences.

“It is a crime drama with a real edge. We have a great cast with Ash Ricardo, who was in Offspring, Todd Lasance, who is a Logie winner, Deborah Mailman, who is one of Australia’s most loved actresses, and an international star in Dominic Monahan, who was a star of Lost and Lord of the Rings.

“This cast brings a real energy and dynamism to what is a crime-of-the-week drama with a serial-killer story arc. It looks fantastic, it’s set in the inner city and beaches of Sydney, it has a strong backing from Sony internationally, and most importantly for us, strong local appeal.”

The senior Nine drama executive also noted that Doctor Doctor was returning due to strong viewer demand later in the year.

“The great thing about Doctor Doctor is its heart-warming, life-affirming drama with an edge,” he said. 

“With this series, we were keen to return to something that Australian audiences really respond to, which is the country doctor. It’s been a feature of Australian television for more than 40 years, but wanted new life breathed into it.

“In Doctor Doctor, we achieved that with Dr Hugh, played by Rodger Corser, who plays a very naughty character in a country town which is very modern – it isn’t stuck in the past – and so you see very contemporary issues and the Knight family are extremely relatable to all audiences and all age groups.”

More broadly, Ryan said drama on Nine was being viewed very differently as audience habits shifted and viewers moved to more on-demand viewing through platforms like 9Now.

“It used to be that we commissioned drama purely and simply for the overnight ratings number,” said Ryan. “That’s no longer the case.  We now take a much broader view of how we measure the success of a drama and that includes the overnight numbers, the time-shifted viewing, and also 9Now.

“We see our drama as having a very long lifespan, something we factor in right from the start.”

Ryan cited the success of the Summer Love initiative, which accounted for close to 50 per cent of streams in December and January, as an example of how Nine is driving its drama product in the digital era. 

“The way we measure success has changed rapidly,” he said. “The numbers we get on 9Now are fantastic.  It’s exciting to see how our drama lives on way beyond the initial broadcast.

“Over summer we saw a terrific response from the audience for shows like Doctor Doctor, House Husbands and McLeod’s Daughters. We now have a fantastic library of dramas for Nine. It is a destination for people who want to watch drama at a time of their own choosing, and it’s a great complementary platform for our free-to-air channels.”