Kyas Sherriff, Joseph Maxwell and Susie Jones. 

Given its charter is focused on multiculturalism and diversity, SBS’s commissioning editors naturally receive many documentary and factual pitches focused on social issues like immigration, identity and the refugee crisis. But to stand out, producers are urged to be creative in the form in which they look to tell those stories.

At last week’s Australian International Documentary Conference (ADIC), SBS head of documentaries Joseph Maxwell told delegates to not just pitch a theme, but pitch an approach.

As the smaller of the public broadcasters, Maxwell says SBS commissions need to “punch through”, and spark national conversations. Contemporary documentary is at the heart of the slate, and the broadcaster is seeking a variety of tones and forms, such as ob doc, docudrama and presenter-led shows.

“The schedule every night on SBS has documentaries, and they do a fantastic job of keeping the audience. But our commissions must do much more. They must engage debate. They must make an impact. They must get publicity. They must get ratings; we are a broadcasters – we do want to have hit as many Australians as we can with the stories that we tell.

“They’re really imbued with a sense of purpose, and each one we really, really treasure. Unfortunately, with the budget, there are not as many as we want. But those that we have, we’re immensely proud of.”

Currently SBS’s “biggest need” is finding shows in the vein of Filthy Rich and Homeless, First Contact or Go Back to Where You Came From, that can run as stripped events.

“It’s something SBS does really well but they are the hardest things to do. It needs you, the production community, to come to us with the idea and the approach,” Maxwell said.

Generally, stripped shows will run across Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights and get buy in from the entirety of SBS, including its various radio platforms that extend across many language groups.

Filthy Rich and Homeless‘ third season will air later this year, and Maxwell said it is as “strong as ever” and stands as an example of what it is looking for. “What happened last time was 60 per cent of viewers who watched it changed their opinions or their actions towards homeless people. Now, that’s what we as a public service broadcaster should aim to. It also reached a far broader audience than what we could have hoped for; it was amongst the top four rating shows of the entire year. It doubled the slot average for 25 to 54s.”

When it comes to contemporary docs, SBS is looking for shows that touch on “fault lines” in society – areas that are preventing social cohesion – that will resonate with audiences.

“Is it on the front page of the tabloids? Is it something that is getting a lot of attention anyway? Is there a heated debate where there are two sides to it, where there’s a natural conflict, where there’s a drama? That’s what we often seek to explore. We’ve got some ideas in development but this is an absolute need for us,” said Maxwell.

And while social issues are at the core of the charter, commissioning editor Susie Jones warns programs can’t be too worthy or earnest so that they might reach an audience “who don’t think that they care about this content”.

“They need to be engaging. So they can be worthy subject matters, but we need to do it in a form that won’t feel like homework. We don’t want people to not come to the projects,” Jones said.

“We’re not scared to take on big subjects and difficult subject matter – in fact, we run towards that. But then we spend quite a bit of time working out how to do it appropriately and who the team is behind it to make sure they get it right.”

To avoid preaching to the choir and attract an audience, Maxwell said they’ll often use reality tropes, but not for entertainment alone – “it’s about being provocative with a sense of a purpose.”

When bringing in talent, Jones also warns to also be aware of of the average age of the SBS audience: 61. “Remember that’s the audience you’re speaking to.”

History documentary remains a key focus for SBS, but Maxwell says they must be ‘landmark’ in scale. He notes they often get pitched one-off history docs, but they’re very unlikely to commission such a program – they are typically looking for series runs of 3 x 60″ or 4 x 60″. Blackfella Films’ upcoming First Wars, which looks at the frontier conflicts between 1788 and 1928 and their impact, is an example of the scale of shows Maxwell is looking for – it is focused on our national history, encapsulates the whole of Australia and covers a period of 150 years.

However, personal histories are still a focus, but in the vein of shows like The Secrets of Our Cities, Every Family Has A Secret, and Who Do You Think You Are?, where the personal can speak to broader issues.

“With our personal history stories, what we want to do is get an ensemble cast,” Jones said. “Even though they might be personal stories, they should speak to very broad, global and Australian themes and take us through giant swathes of history.”

SBS is still seeking one-off docs for new strand Australia Uncovered, and gave development funding to two projects Northern Pictures’ A Strong Female Lead and Princess Pictures’ Why Do People Hate Jews?, and a full commissioning budget to Mint Pictures and Jumping Dog Productions’ The Bowraville Murders during AIDC.

As for sister channel NITV, it’s currently looking for documentary and factual programming speaks firstly to Indigenous communities, but then has potential to extend further, said senior commissioning editor Kyas Sherriff.

“Social issues that are impactful; there’s plenty of it in the black space. But I want to add other words for you to take away from today. I want to look at things that are engaging, that are entertaining, that are broad, contemporary and finally, authentic. We want something that resonates with community – and by having that focus, and if it’s handled in the right way, you will absolutely have broader appeal. It’s how you choose to interrogate the the themes and the subject matter,” she said.

“Consider what you’re bringing to us. Do you want to watch it? Do your children want to watch i? And finally, to bring it us, I need you to understand where we stand in the community is: Will the community enjoy themselves represented this way?”

The priority for NITV at the moment is half hour series, particularly 4 x 30″ and 6 x 30″. It’s also looking for broadcast hours, but Sherriff stressed NITV wants to a reach a younger audience – a majority of Indigenous Australians are under 25.

Producers can also take risks, Sherriff said. She noted Weerianna Street Media’s slow TV project Marni, which followed a three-week recording of a commissioned painting by Pilbara artist, Allery Sandy, and upcoming series The Beach, which follows filmmaker Warwick Thornton as he reconnects with country, as examples of the kinds of things NITV is looking for.

Typically, NITV wants projects that have two Indigenous key creatives attached. “That’s something we champion. Through that, we then populate the sector with more talented blackfellas who then can go across and work on anything they’d like to do. When you come to us, have thought about that and know who your creatives are, where the concepts have come from, and why you’re brinigng it to NITV.

“If you have content which has Indigenous themes, that’s not a reason not to talk to us… But understand, we will push back. We will challenge you and interrogate: Where did the ideas come from? Us your project already at a stage where you can’t bring on other creatives, or is there scope to do that? We would prefer to have that conversation than not have that conversation.”