Networks offer free choice, but are there prime TV shows worth watching?

The three free-to-air networks, SBS and the ABC delivered highly produced presentations at the end of last year of what was in store for audiences in 2023.

For example, Nine’s presentation to a captive audience (and online) felt like our year of television, audio and publishing was going to be bigger than ever before.

Industry heavyweights spruiked the network’s smorgasbord of shows, innovations and the ability to watch live content streaming with the now-familiar “start over” option.

We were told 20 million people were signed in across Nine’s platforms, with our viewing habits analysed and interpreted for future decision-making.

The other networks have delivered similar showcases and all have similar streaming capabilities, promising a vast choice of original TV series, documentaries, news and current affairs, along with the reality TV catalogue that periodically delivers strong ratings.

The 7.30pm time slot is crucial for the networks’ programming. Have they got it right this year? Photo: Getty

With more than 70 per cent of Australian households now subscribing to at least three of the top five streaming services – Netflix, Apple TV+, Foxtel/Binge, Stan and Paramount+ – the question is whether the big investment in making local TV is worth it. And will we watch it?

“Free-to-air television is an important part of the Australian cultural landscape and screen industry. It is where the primary intent is to produce screen content by Australians for Australians,” former TV director Dr Michael Sergi said.

Now a Bond University lecturer, Dr Sergi (Home and Away, Neighbours) says that while free to air is under “sustained pressure from US production behemoths, every year it finds innovative ways to survive”.

He says marquee sports (AFL, NRL) can be big dollar earners and audience drivers, and that there is a solid reality TV audience out there.

“The abundance of reality shows is largely audience driven. If people did not watch them, networks would not make them.”

What is missing, he says, is more big-budget scripted drama and documentaries that the streamers tend to pick up.

Not all bad news

So, if you’re not set up with the right tech on your TV and free to air is all there is, it’s not all bad news.

As we head into the next viewing cycle, the crucial 7.30pm time slot (or 8pm on the ABC) is shaping up to deliver a swag of return series and new shows.

Some might say it’s more of the same, a grim forecast, while Dr Sergi says the networks are adapting to change.

“Once upon a time, this was the time slot for scripted drama,” he said.

“But, as production costs kept rising, and streamers – who could deliver even bigger-budgeted scripted drama, became more popular – Australian free-to-air networks had no choice but to adapt or die,” says Dr Sergi, who has produced, written and directed many short films, documentaries, TV commercials, music videos and the feature film 10 Days to Die.

“Some people say reality TV saves Australian free-to-air networks.

“That might be too big a point, but there is a large Australian demographic that enjoys consuming significant amounts of reality TV on a weekly basis.

“Australian free-to-air networks are pretty good at identifying shifting trends,” said Dr Sergi, adding that it cannot be overstated how important “marquee sports” are to remain on free to air.

What’s on the TV menu

So what’s coming up on our networks after dinner and the dishes are done?

There’s original content on the ABC, including another series of Working Dog’s brilliant Utopia, a Tim Winton documentary series and Gardening Australia Junior, while veteran actor Anthony LaPaglia will take us on a journey of exploring his Italian heritage in Australia.

SBS will thankfully give us The Handmaid’s Tale, and Adam Liaw’s next season of The Cook Up looks delicious.

Seven has the AFL, and Nine has controversial Shane Warne docu-series Warnie, The Summit, and is trying to redeem a failed 2022 The Block tree change.

After senior executives and expensive on-air talent exited The Project, Ten has its high-end productions MasterChef and I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! to look forward to.

Ten: I’m a Celebrity … Get me out of Here! – April 2

Along with crime thriller North Shore and the ever-popular Gogglebox coming up, Ten has just launched another well-produced promo for I’m A Celebrity, which is heading back to a real jungle.

Several seasons in the past have been shot at Kruger National Park in South Africa, so this is the likely filming location for Season 9.

The Ferrones in the shop as it would have been post-WWII. Photo: Supplied

ABC: Back in Time for The Corner Shop – March 7, 8pm

Although we have a few more months to wait before Utopia is back on our screens, there’s the next instalment of Back in Time.

Hosted by political commentator Annabel Crabb, the Ferrone family again goes inside the time capsule and travels back … in time … starting with what the corner store looked like in the 1850s.

Western Bulldogs’ game against Melbourne is the match of the round on March 18. Photo: AAP

Seven: 2023 AFL premiership season – March 16, 7.20pm

Footy is back after a five-month break for sports fans, who have had the Spring Racing carnival, World Cup football, netball, basketball and cricket to contend with.

And it’s free to watch.

The AFL television rights deal means Seven broadcasts several matches, and has exclusive rights to the grand final, while Foxtel broadcasts all matches every round.

The Block

The Block will be a less-ambitious renovation show this year. Photo: Getty/TND


Married at First Sight still has a way to go in the key time slot before it wraps for another year.

Then, after a mostly dismal 2022 season for the contestants on The Block, the renovation show is back for an incredible 19th season, and will broadcast in the second half of the year.

They’ve chosen an easier street – not a regional location with houses on 10-acre blocks – in Charming Street, Hampton East, in Melbourne.

LEGO Masters was a ratings phenomenon, and is back with an all-star cast with host Hamish Blake and resident judge Ryan “Brickman” McNaught.

Travel Guides, rugby league’s State Of Origin, rugby union, cricket, FINA World Short Course Swimming Championships Melbourne and the 20th FINA World Swimming Championships Fukuoka make up a decent programming schedule, and many will fall into key viewing times.

Collette Dinnigan shares stories, recipes and pears. Photo: SBS

SBS: The Cook Up – 7pm

He already has 400 episodes in the can, so he must be doing something right to secure the coveted 7pm time slot for a fourth season of his cooking show.

The 2010 MasterChef winner and lawyer Adam Liaw shares the kitchen with a host of old and new cooks creating dishes around a different theme every night.

On the guest list? Gabriel Gaté, Julia Busuttil Nishimura, Colin Fassnidge, Collette Dinnigan and Peking Duk’s Reuben Styles.

“At its core, The Cook Up was created to provide Aussies with real and achievable home-cooked food that also reflects the melting pots of cultures that our country has,” Liaw said.

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