The COVID-19 crisis and loss of live sport have taken a heavy toll on Foxtel, resulting in mass redundancies and stand-downs – but Brian Walsh sees several positives for the platform.
Foxtel’s executive director of TV believes the additional time writers are devoting to development will result in even higher quality drama.
He’s confident its low-cost entertainment streaming service, a sibling to Kayo Sports, which is due to launch in four or five weeks, will appeal to the 70 per cent of the population that doesn’t subscribe to Foxtel or who aren’t willing to pay for its premium product.
And he hopes that giving Fox Sports’ customers free access to the drama, movies and lifestyle tiers will reinforce to sports fans the value of the platform’s scripted and non-scripted content.
In addition, with most of the population in lockdown, Foxtel has seen a 105 per cent spike in viewing for its movie channels and uplifts for the drama and lifestyle channels and for pay-per-view movies such as The Invisible Man and The Hunt.
In a webinar with Screen Producers Australia CEO Matt Deaner last Friday, Walsh said the company has taken a significant hit to its revenues from the loss of live sport and it was forced to make “hard calls” to maintain cash flow and service its loans.
Last week 70 employees in creative and marketing areas were laid off. That followed 200 redundancies earlier last month, chiefly at Fox Sports, equivalent to 14 per cent of its 2,800 staff, and the standing down of 140 employees until June 30.
The latest retrenchments affected workers in media, brand and marketing communications and publicity. “These are changes we had to make to face up to the impacts of COVID-19 on our business and a very different future for everyone involved in the media, entertainment and sporting industries,” a Foxtel spokesman said.
“The changes in marketing and creative reflect a new way of working following the merger of the Fox Sports and Foxtel teams last year that is now seeing us reduce our internal creative spend and centralise, outsource or consolidate some marketing functions.”
Walsh acknowledged the challenge of having to deal with affected staff via video link rather than in person, as he put it, “in a dignified way.”
Codenamed Project Ares internally, the entertainment service is being managed by the semi-autonomous streaming business headed by CEO Julian Ogrin.
Walsh, who is part of the commissioning team for the new service (rumoured to be branded Binge), said he expects it will appeal to a younger demographic than Foxtel. Hence, he is looking for a young-adult Australian drama.
While he is also keen to find a multi-generational family drama, he said Foxtel’s local content slate is “pretty well determined” for the next two or three years.
After a lengthy period searching for a returning series to replace A Place To Call Home, Foxtel has settled on one which is in deep development.
Referring to a recent conversation he had with the lead writer on a new Australian drama which Foxtel is yet to announce, he said: “We will end up with much better scripts than we expected to have. This time is allowing our creatives to work in a way which means that once the lockdown is lifted, we are going to see some fabulous television.”
The delay to securing some HBO shows that are in post-production meant Foxtel had to juggle its schedules, for example moving the premiere of Fremantle’s Wentworth from May to July to fill the gap left by HBO’s The Undoing, which stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant.
Walsh reiterated that Foxtel is happy to partner with international platforms on event dramas, such as with Netflix on Secret City and Amazon on Picnic at Hanging Rock. One project in development is with an international streamer.
The company intends to ramp up the commissioning of “aspirational” lifestyle shows and Wendy Moore, group general manager of Lifestyle, is discussing multiple projects with production companies.
One format that Foxtel doesn’t want is one-off Australian movies. The reason, he explained, is that the marketing effort required for a movie is the same as launching a series of 10 or more episodes, which has the potential to be renewed.