2019 outlook part 2: Aussies focus on how to cut through the TV drama glut

08 January, 2019 by Don Groves

Joanna (Jenna Coleman) and Alistair (Ewen Leslie) with baby Noah in The Cry.

Tony Ayres identifies the primary challenge for TV content makers this year as creating work that not only makes an immediate impact but maintains quality for the whole series.

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Blake Ayshford expects to see more new voices emerge, often from communities that are under-represented on screens and in writers’ rooms. The conundrum for the industry, he believes, will be how to embrace these new voices without losing the stories and experience of established practitioners.

Glendyn Ivin is keen to explore new models for TV production on short-run series with a single director, using smaller crews and infrastructure but with more time for shooting and editing.

Among the Australian Children’s Television Foundation’s objectives are securing more funding for children’s content and exploring opportunities for children’s content from emerging as well as experienced producers on online platforms, according to CEO Jenny Buckland.

These are among the views canvassed by IF on the challenges and opportunities facing TV drama creators, part of a broader look at the outlook for the screen sector.

Almost everyone IF spoke to restated the imperative for the government to apply local content obligations on streaming services. “We need to have quotas on all players in the market that access our audiences and use our spectrum, whatever technology is used. This is the only way we will ensure the continued production of Australian stories on our screens,” says Australian Directors Guild CEO Kingston Anderson.

The mood among production companies, creatives and the ABC is bullish, despite the worldwide competition and the increasing difficulty of financing shows in Australia.

Essential Media Group CEO Chris Hilton tells IF: “We are energised and excited about 2019. We see cracking the FAANGS (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) as a real opportunity as well as a challenge for our international slate. We have some exciting projects (both scripted and unscripted) in front of them right now.

“Financing shows in the Australian market is a particular challenge at the moment, which we are meeting by bringing in overseas networks for Australian shows or by striking commercial partnerships wherever possible.”

Seven months after launching his own production shingle backed by NBCUniversal, Ayres is determined to get his first show financed this year. The goal is to work on bigger co-productions and other international shows.

Explaining his concerns about maintaining quality, he says: “With the global glut of TV content, we are seeing more and more TV shows with brilliant first episodes which don’t sustain. As a result, more and more viewers are tuning out after a few episodes and there’s a growing phenomenon of audiences re-watching old shows that they know are good rather than taking the risk on new shows.”

Ayshford worries what the concentration of media and fewer specialist critics who understand the history of TV making will mean for how future shows are reviewed, engaged with and find an audience.

“Getting an audience to see a new Australian work is much more difficult than before, and for that we need more critical writing, not less,” says the Fighting Season creator.

“Without a quota I think the big streaming companies will concentrate on making more ‘international’ genres like sci-fi and fantasy that are less culturally specific. However, I always feel, it is the specific stories in a culture have the best chance of being universal.”

As a director, Ivin feels excited and inspired by the opportunities for storytelling and he sees short-run series as an ideal testing ground for a new production model.

“Huge epics or intimate character dramas have similar shooting schedules and crew,” says Ivin, whose latest work, the BBC psychological thriller The Cry, premieres on the ABC on Sunday February 3 at 8.30pm.

“We tend to over compensate in TV because it’s built around not knowing where the scripts and story are heading and what each new director might need. But with limited series and a single director, the model can be built from the ground up. Personally I always have more than enough equipment and resources but never enough time.

“Regardless, there has never been a better time. We are being encouraged and rewarded by bold storytelling from all corners of the globe. Australia is and can be an ever increasing part of this.”

Michael Carrington, the ABC’s acting director, entertainment and specialist, observes there is a huge demand for Australian content which, he says, the pubcaster will deliver in spades this year, utilising local talent to reach broader audiences and which is attractive to some international territories.

“Viewers now want to cherry pick their favourite programs, which is why streaming services are enjoying an all-time rise,” Carrington says. “Audiences are dumping their loyalty to TV brands so it’s becoming harder to connect with them. But the ABC is fighting hard to ride the digital wave and to secure our place in the VOD world – iview is still #1 among local services.

“With a huge amount of content already created in our archive, sitting alongside new content on iview, we need to organise and tag all content to ensure easy search, access and distribution so that existing and new audiences can find what they want, when they want it.”

‘Mustangs FC’

Similarly positive, the ACTF’s Buckland says: “There’s real audience appetite for new Australian kids shows at the moment. Australian audience responses to shows like Bluey, Mustangs FC, Little Lunch and The Bureau of Magical Things have all been great.

“The ABC has done a terrific job promoting shows and making them available to kids when and how they want to watch them. There’s also interest and support from international players like Netflix, ZDF, BBC, Nickelodeon and others who are backing these shows.”

Despite the doomsayers and the rise of Netflix and Stan, ITV Studios Australia (ITVSA) CEO David Mott is confident the commercial free-to-air broadcasters will maintain or grow their audiences this year.

That will be driven by the increasing popularity of the networks’ broadcast VOD and advertising–supported platforms, capitalising on addressable data for advertisers. In turn that will encourage services to commission more shows such as ITVSA’s Love Island Australia to reach the younger viewers who watch those platforms, he believes.

In the scripted space, Mott is gratified to see shows such as Netflix/Hoodlum’s Tidelands and Playmaker Media/Stan’s Bloom as well as the revival of the SeaChange and Halifax f.p franchises.

“The challenge will be the FTA market, both creatively and financially, with scripted drama. The current model is broken and as an industry we need to find a new way,” he adds.

Fetch CEO Scott Lorson says: “We are living in the Golden Age of TV and 2019 is shaping as potentially the best year ever. Viewers are the winners as investment in TV production sets new records, the diversity of programming options expands, new formats like 4K/UHD arrive, in and out of home viewing options increase and prices tumble. However, with all of this choice comes new challenges – how to access all this great content.”

The short-term challenge for Fetch, he says, is to continue to build awareness, understanding and consideration of the OTT service, which combines a set-top-box, VOD and access to an array of FTA and pay channels, in a noisy ecosystem. “Working in our favour is the advocacy of more than 700,000 highly engaged Fetch households,” he adds. “The tipping point is fast approaching.”

Check back tomorrow for updates on the campaigns for gender equality and for better Indigenous representation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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