Hopes are high for the return of The Block
Blockbusters ... the series again features four couples renovating four apartments.
Most television programs live and die on the prevailing state of the television market and their ability to connect with an audience.
The Block, Channel Nine's ratings record-setting property series from 2003 and 2004, is a rarity in that it depends on outside forces: the stability of the economy and the (preferably) upward ascent of the property market.
The series involves shifting four couples into a rundown apartment block, asking them to renovate an apartment each and then selling all four apartments at auction. Each earns the margin above the reserve and the couple whose apartment sells for the largest margin is declared the winner.
"Back in 2003, when we did the first series, there was no denying it was the single national conversation going on," says The Block's co-executive producer, Julian Cress. "What we noticed in 2010 was that, around the nation, there was a lot of talk about property again. That led us to think there is enough interest in the subject matter to look at doing The Block again."
But, Cress adds, The Block isn't just about property. And he's right, in the way that MasterChef isn't about cooking and The X Factor isn't about singing. The best reality shows deliver a character-and-situation narrative that should be the equal of the best dramas.
"This is a series where four couples embark on one of the toughest things they will do in their lives; you follow them on that journey while they put their heart and soul into something," Cress says. "There is an audience for that at the moment. It's about celebrating people who put their heart and soul into doing something special, whether it be cooking or renovating."
The first two seasons were filmed in Bondi and Manly, respectively. The series was a hit – 2.2 million watching weekly and 3.1 million tuned into the finale – spawning a raft of international clones.
Cress says the conversation about bringing The Block back to Australian screens never really ceased, though it quietened during the economy's darkest hours. It was resurrected, he says, because it remains a powerful program brand.
"I think everyone has realised that the best way to cut through to an audience in an environment with so many channels is with a brand," he says.
"The real strength in network broadcast television – and I mean broadcast in the true sense of that word, to broadcast to as many people as possible – is in putting recognisable brands in front of them. At that point, The Block became a viable option again."
Co-executive producer David Barbour agrees. "It's a tougher market than it's ever been. If there is a brand there that can jump out of the pack and people can recognise it, that's a valuable commodity."
In the half-dozen years since The Block was last seen, the narrative style of reality TV has tightened dramatically. Consequently, the revamped show – with Scott Cam as host and property expert John McGrath and Belle editor-in-chief Neale Whitaker as judges – has shed its extraneous challenges and instead of revealing a room across a fortnight, the contestants now reveal a new room each week.
Those contestants include high-school sweethearts Neisha and John, sporty couple Erin and Jake, Melbourne couple Cheryl and Brenton and self-described "fat tradies" Mark and Duncan.
But the two producers believe The Block, which hurls people into the horror of a home renovation against a ticking clock, has a natural edge over most of its rivals, who must impose tension to create it.
"That might sound obvious initially but it's less of a stretch to put someone on a game like The Block and then watch their personalities, stresses and relationships come unstuck or develop very quickly; it's more of a stretch for some other shows to do that because what they're doing at the time does not have natural tension," Barbour says.
The environment, Cress adds, is also relatable. "We try to keep everything real. They still have to go about their daily lives, they still have to go to work every day, the audience can appreciate what is going on," he says.
"It's less of a contrived environment and it's more of a documentary about what happens when four couples go into this building and face the challenge of renovating an apartment over a couple of months."
The most striking aspect of The Block is the prominent product placement. It's jarring at first but it should be remembered that the first two series of The Block were also brand loaded.
Barbour says the product placement works for The Block, as it does with MasterChef, because the types of brands are a natural fit for the situation.
"As soon as you have a product you have to force in there because it's not something they would naturally choose to achieve the end of renovating an apartment, then, potentially, you have a bit of trouble," he says.
Cress adds that the "ratings and response to The Block in the past has tended to suggest the audience of The Block haven't had much of a problem with the way that products have been integrated in this series".
Neither Barbour nor Cress will put a figure on their expected audience. Since the first two seasons of The Block aired, the television landscape has shifted to accommodate more than half-a-dozen new free-to-air channels. MasterChef, conversely, has proven a commercial network can still pull titanic ratings.
"We don't expect to match the ratings of the first series of The Block because nobody has yet," Cress says.
"But the greatest thing about the fact that Junior MasterChef was watched by 2.2 million people is that, at the same time, 60 Minutes was doing more than 1 million and so was X Factor – that's more than 4 million people watching commercial TV. That's fantastic."
The Block begins on Nine on Wednesday at 7.30pm.