From left: Tanya Denning-Orman, Joseph Maxwell, session moderator Brendan Dahill, Brian Walsh, and Steve Bibb.
The changing screen landscape means broadcasters are looking for creative ways to draw audiences to factual content, and for bold “cut through” commissions that help build brand identity.
These are some of the key messages from a panel which brought together the country’s leading factual commissioners at this week’s Australian International Documentary Conference.
In order to compete with the likes of Netflix, ABC head of factual Steve Bibb said the national broadcaster was looking increasingly to event television like its upcoming Stargazing Live – shows that can be stripped across multiple nights and “binged”.
Event programming is also a key focus for SBS. While the broadcaster does have key slots with clearly defined briefs – Sunday 8.30pm is blue-chip science and history, and Wednesday 8.30pm is contemporary documentary – head of documentaries Joseph Maxwell said that SBS remains flexible.
SBS's recent Face Up To Racism Week was attractive because it could “blitz” it across three nights, he said. Ditto last year’s First Contact.
“You can come to us with something that doesn’t fit our slots, doesn’t fit our schedules and challenges us,” said Maxwell.
“We definitely look for those stripped events – whether it’s a season, whether it’s from one company, whether it’s multiple companies. We’re also quite creative [in] how we commission with dramas and documentaries. So we had Deep Water, the four-part series, and then a single feature doc which explored the real story behind that.”
Bibb listed Restoration Australia and Anh’s Brush With Fame as key examples of “ABC brands”. The latter, which sees comedian Anh Do paint a portrait of a different celebrity each week, was the highest rating Australian ABC show last year (1.6 million average audience), and had the highest Facebook engagement of any ABC product.
To stand out in a competitive marketplace, Foxtel is after noisy, provocative commissions, said executive director of television Brian Walsh. Foxtel is currently seeking local factual content for its History Channel, A&E, Crime and Investigation (CI) and Foxtel Arts channels.
“For the owned and operated group in Foxtel, it’s Australian stories that are important. [Against] the SVOD players, I think that’s a real point of difference for us, at least for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Maxwell noted that SBS is an acquisitions-driven channel, and has to be given its budget; around 90 per cent of its content is acquired, the majority of which is international. Local commissions, then, need to be like “hand grenades” that cut through to audiences with stories of Australian multiculturalism, diversity and social cohesion. He pointed to First Contact as a success story: it peformed 83 per cent above slot average, and generated huge media coverage and debate.
“We put a great deal of pressure on our commissions – which means I put a lot of pressure on the producers I work with, because I have really high expectations of what I want our shows to do. Added to that obviously is our really clear focus on our charter… we’re not going to take a show that could rate but isn’t relevant to our charter,” said Maxwell.
NITV channel manager Tanya Denning-Orman emphasised that documentary is at the channel’s core, and that she was looking for stories that tackle the hard topics.
“The channel exists due to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. We have a real purpose as a channel to ensure that these stories get out. What we need then is our film sector to really know how to cut through,” Denning-Orman said.
However it doesn't all have to be hard-hitting, she said – programs which showcase the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to the community are also of interest. She referenced the Sundance music doco Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World as the kind of thing she wants to be pitched here.
Risk and reward
For Bibb, success for ABC factual is all about the three Rs: reputation, risk and reach. Bold “risky” programming like Bullied and Stargazing Live are key, he said – “I’ve convinced the ABC it’s a good idea to put 4.5 hours of astronomy in prime time. I sort of can’t believe I got through with that, but I did and it’s going to be great."
Foxtel’s subscription-driven model means it’s freer than most to take risks in different sorts of programming. “In the world of subscription TV it’s all about serving niche audiences. It might only take one show or one channel that convinces a consumer to subscribe to Foxtel,” said Walsh.
Older Australians are a key demo, he said. “I think the free-to-air networks are abandoning that demographic in a big way, and that’s fine. That’s their commercial decision. Even the ABC I would argue is tending to – quite controversially I think – abandon some of its commitment to senior Australia. So we see that as a great opportunity for us. We’ll be investing a lot more heavily in catering to that demographic going forward.”
Walsh also revealed that Foxtel was offered VICE as a channel prior to SBS. “We determined it wasn’t right for us; we didn’t think it was something that would attract subscribers. So we let that one go. I won’t comment it on its validity sitting now in the Australian landscape.”
Maxwell said that SBS’s advantage as a secondary public broadcaster with a clear remit is that it can take risks and tell stories others can’t, even if they don't always work.
While SBS’ Face Up To Racism week wasn’t a ratings success, Maxwell said it started a national conversation and had good feedback from advocacy and education sectors.
“Would I do it again? Absolutely I would. But I think it’s really important for us to go: why didn’t that rate as much as we’d hoped?”
All four executives agreed they’d be happy to accept a early pitch, even on paper, though Bibb cautioned against "a thesis. Two pages to start the conversation is enough.”
Know the channel you’re pitching for, emphasised Walsh. “Producers often come to us with an idea and when you ask [them] what channel it is designed for, they don’t know the channels that are actually on the Foxtel platform.”
While he doesn’t dismiss the paper pitch, Maxwell said that as TV is a visual medium, he’d love to see a reel – especially if there’s new talent involved.
Denning-Orman said that while NITV has commissioned towards the end of a production, its preference is to work together from the start. “For us as a channel, perspective and audience is really important. We can’t just pick [a show] off the shelf.”