ABC TV’s Richard Finlayson on one-offs, iview, and international co-pros

28 November, 2016 by Harry Windsor

Are one-offs becoming an endangered species?

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We do far less one-offs in the drama space than we did in the past. We have one significant one that we’re not announcing yet but it’s a big title for next year that we’re looking towards. It really needs to be a big idea – something that really is promotable. We want those ideas to be very distinctive. But really [we’re doing] one, maximum two a year of those events. What we have been toying with are slightly longer closed series. [The] Beautiful Lie is an example: four episodes. In a way Seven Types of Ambiguity, coming up next year [is another].

You’ve got David Stratton’s Stories of Australian Cinema coming up, too.

We’ve got a really nice balance of big, blue-chip arts shows. Things like Matilda [and Me] that we did with Tim Minchin recently, and David’s show coming out next year. We try to build these flagship arts shows that will really engage a mass audience with the arts, but also push them down to the offer that we carry on iview, and [to] our 10 o’clock arts slot on Tuesday night as well. That’s where [new series] Art Bites will go: six documentaries in that. Mandy Chang’s been doing a brilliant job of curating big broad pieces and a range of edgier, braver docos that sit at 10 o’clock on the main channel. We produced 24 hours of short form content last year for the iview Arts channel. We’re doing that again next year. It’s already doubled the traffic to that channel that we had previously; to the old arts portal on the website. When you make a video navigable and you have a good collection sitting there for people, it’s a great way to engage. It’s smarter for us rather than trying to provide a text-based service and that sort of old fashioned portal function to industry when there are other people who do that.

What’s the quality of stuff being pitched: are you turning a lot down?

We’re always knocking back much more than we take on, of course. That’s part of the job. But there’s also a lot more competition in the marketplace now. We’re seeing different type of commissions coming from Ten and Nine in particular. And of course Foxtel have made it clear they really want to be in the space.

What would you like your slate to look like in five years?

We talk about an underpinning philosophy we’ve got which is: ambitious, accessible and Australian. We want our shows to be ambitious in the subjects that they tackle and risky where it makes sense, but we also want them to be ambitious in that we want them to drive an audience. We’re interested in mass audiences for broadcast channels, particularly for dramas. That’s what broadcast channels are for. Accessible is also really about making sure those shows can connect with as many people as possible; but then accessibility is also about digital distribution and making sure that iview is as easy to use, and as rewarding to use as any other product in the marketplace. And then Australian is self-explanatory: our job is to hold up a mirror, warts and all. But we’re also here to celebrate Australian identity as well.

Not everybody has a good internet connection. Does the accessibility question make investing in streaming difficult?

Down the track, and we’ve seen it happen in the UK already, we probably won’t need to provide all our channels on the terrestrial service, but there’s a couple of things that drive that. One is the amount of audience that is actually using those platforms. We want to make sure that we’re bringing everybody with us and not losing significant amounts of audience. Another is the economics: at what point does it become un-economic to broadcast on the free-to-air spectrum? And what other uses will the government have for that spectrum? Broadband speeds are a part of that, because universal access is critical for the ABC. While there are significant portions of the population who don’t have access to broadband, that’s something we’re going to have to think really hard about before we turn off free-to-air services, which are really, really good at getting into almost every home in Australia.

Is it hard finding stories that come from outside the big metros?

We’re really conscious of not being Sydney and Melbourne-centric. We’ve done our own interval surveys on our geographical representation. We do a pretty good job actually of showcasing regional Australia. Think about Doctor Blake, set in Ballarat; Glitch, which is also set in country Victoria; Rosehaven, set in Tassy; The Code in Canberra. We’d love to do more big dramas in Adelaide and in Perth. Brisbane for that matter. Particularly Adelaide and Perth, and we’ve got plans. But there’s a smaller pool of creative talent in those areas, and we try to take on the challenge of the state agencies to help nurture those communities.

Is there much difference between where factual and scripted submissions are coming from, geographically?

There’s no doubt that Sydney and Melbourne are the homes of scripted content, and those scripted communities tend to congregate around [those cities]. It tends to be that factual production dominates a bit more in those smaller markets. But that’s changing as well. Rosehaven, I think we had 80 per cent of cast and crew come from Tasmania. And of course The Kettering Incident helped in that regard.

Kettering was interesting in that it melded a couple of genres in a way you don’t usually see on Aussie TV.

You’re going to see a lot more of that, because what’s changed in the last few years is the interest from international networks and distributors in content that’s made here. There’s great opportunities for international co-productions to tell really distinctively Australian stories that will be picked up and will travel, and that obviously offers you the opportunity to significantly boost your production budgets and be more ambitious in terms of production values. So we’re urging producers to really get to know the international market and think about the relationships they can build, because the creative compromises are far less than they used to be, and these businesses are global. They’re looking for ideas that will travel and ironically the ideas that seem to travel the best are the most local stories, the most authentically local stories. Of course the Scandi noirs have really shown us that: that even stories about local politics in Denmark can have a resonance.

Denmark notoriously spends a lot of money on development – is it difficult finding that money here?

There’s absolutely no reason why Australia can’t do that. Why wouldn’t Australia be as successful as the Scandinavian countries as an exporter of drama? We’ve got incredible talent, amazing locations, attractive incentives; all the ingredients are here so it’s up to us to do that. Probably one of the biggest threats is the double-edged sword of – the quality of our talent being such that they are being offered opportunities to go and work overseas. We can’t discourage that, but we’ve got to find ways to bring them back here to tell local stories, because they all want to do that. They all want to tell those stories, and they’ll be the stories that they tell best.

With the number of hours in series getting squeezed, what are the prospects for young writers to get a foot in the door?

We have platforms like iview and initiatives like Long Story Short with Screen Australia – we’ve got six fantastic scripted ideas that we’re working through that initiative. Most of whom are [from] young emerging writers. I think the prospects for young writers are pretty good. There are so many different ways to experiment. We’ve just launched an initiative with ABC Radio in Comedy, where we’re joint venturing on radio comedy as a way of piloting comedy shows for much less money. Why don’t we do that with drama too? We should. Podcasting offers the same for factual. There’s great opportunities to do low risk experimentation now. 

Iview has already unearthed some new faces.

Over the last couple of years, as we’ve invested more money in iview content, we’ve deliberately set a much lower price point for the cost of production. We’ve been very open with the production community about this: we’ve targeted a $40,000-an-hour cost of production for non-scripted content. That can be higher for scripted content; we haven’t done much scripted content in the iview space. But what’s happened is we’ve uncovered thousands of ideas and hundreds of new creatives have emerged as the barriers for entry have really dropped. That’s been great for us because it’s opened our eyes to the pool of creative talent that we almost didn’t know was there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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