Marshall Heald: SBS is still commissioning and developing
Despite COVID-19, SBS director of TV and online content Marshall Heald says the broadcaster is still commissioning and developing local content, and pursuing initiatives with Screen Queensland, Film Victoria and Screen Australia.
Q: You have said 30-40 of your shows, mostly factual, have been disrupted in various ways by the production shutdown but your schedule is intact?
A: Like many other broadcasters, our commissioned slate of content has been significantly impacted by COVID-19 in some way, with the limited exceptions of shows that were in post-production and some children’s animation for NITV that was able to continue. It’s been a case-by-case basis, depending on the individual production and what stage it was at.
Whilst these delays have caused disruption to our primetime schedule we’ve also been able to maintain a consistent schedule – from a genre, mix and time-slot perspective – by bringing some titles forward, mainly acquisitions, to fill gaps with commissioned shows to appear later.
We’ve also been lucky in many ways with Eurovision being the only property cancelled. Mastermind filming was halted after interstate travel was not possible; the finals will return as soon as those restrictions are lifted.
We’re trying to minimise disruption and support the production sector by doing things differently and devising new versions of some key properties as we did with Eurovision, with our Big Night In program shot during the lockdown.
COVID-19 has not meant we’ve closed up shop; we’re still very much working with the sector to keep things moving. We’ve just greenlit a new documentary that makes extensive use of archive during the period. We’re also investing more money in development to ensure a strong pipeline of programs for 2021, including extra development in some ideas to make productive use of the extra time to produce even stronger shows.
Elsewhere across the SBS network, we’ve been very focused on providing essential services to multicultural and Indigenous communities. We’re producing vital news and information in more than 60 languages – across radio, TV and online, from in-language explainer videos to infographics in multiple languages. We’re super-serving those audiences to help keep communities safe.
Q: If the global shutdown persists won’t that mean you have to juggle SBS’s schedules in 2021?
A: We acquire lots of drama, movies, documentary and food programming to bring distinctive content from around the world to Australians across our network. We don’t know exactly what the longer term impacts will be yet, however some of our key dramas like Fargo, The Good Fight and The Handmaid’s Tale have already been delayed and tentatively re-scheduled.
We’re receiving weekly updates on shows from a range of sources but we always carry a surplus of programming. That means we’re confident we have enough stock to carry us right through till mid-2021.
Q: Will that also affect programming on SBS On Demand?
A: Most of our programming for 2020 has already been delivered but there is some uncertainty around 2021 titles given the global impact of the pandemic. As soon as lockdowns lift we anticipate a rapid return to production and in the meantime we are considering and planning for a range of contingencies.
Q: You are still looking to acquire local dramas, factual content and food shows, plus Indigenous children’s series for NITV?
A: Yes, we’re currently maintaining our local commissioning strategy in those areas with many shows in active development across all genres. There’s more information about the specifics on our Commissioning website. If someone has an idea they should try to chat to a Commissioner or send across a short synopsis as we prefer to get involved early. We are very much focused on doing what we can to support the sector through this, and ensure we all come through in the best position possible.
Q: You are working with Goalpost Pictures on a timetable to start filming on New Gold Mountain? As IF reported, some cast members live in New Zealand so bringing them back is a challenge?
A: Yes, New Gold Mountain needs to be shot in the warmer months for a range of creative and production reasons so we’re planning to be shooting later this year, about 6-8 months later than originally forecast. We’re incredibly excited about the show – the scripts are magnificent, and Goalpost have assembled a fantastic creative team. It’s not fully cast yet though so we also have some flexibility around timelines and approach.
Q: I think Matchbox Pictures delivered Hungry Ghosts last year: When will it premiere?
A: We’re going to premiere it later this year. We will have some really strong overseas dramas launching around the same time to provide a strong launch-pad for Hungry Ghosts. It’s a really innovative and distinctive show that takes creative risks – a unique fusion of genres and cultures which we’re very proud of.
Q: With Amanda Duthie acting as head of scripted, how is the search going for a permanent appointment?
A: We’ll kick off the recruitment process shortly – it’s been slightly delayed by COVID-19. We’re also very lucky to have Amanda working with us given the breadth and depth of her experience in the industry. It’s great to have her as a part of the team, particularly during this time.
Q: Four dramas are being developed through the SBS/Film Victoria Pitch to Pilot initiative. You are optimistic at least one will get up?
A: Yes, absolutely. Not all that we develop goes on to production, but we expect at least one of the Pitch to Pilot shows get greenlit. It could be more though – there’s no set rule. Development is a competitive process with lots of factors at play including how the idea itself develops, but also key talent and financing considerations.
Q: Screen Australia and SBS selected three short-form series from the 2019 Digital Originals initiative to further develop, with the intention of at least one going into production for SBS On Demand. When will you determine which may go ahead?
A: There isn’t a definitive timeline as such but I’d hope we could make a decision in Q3. The Digital Originals are opportunities to experiment and be innovative and to also give emerging practitioners a critical career opportunity, so the timeline is subordinate to those broader goals.
Q: What are you hoping will result from the SBS/Screen Queensland feature film initiative?
A: We were thrilled to launch SBS World Movies last year as a free-to-air channel and our partnership with Screen Queensland is a bold statement of our desire to play a positive and constructive role within the local film industry. We hope the initiative will deliver at least 2-3 new features over the next few years with emerging multicultural and Indigenous talent behind the camera. It’s incredibly exciting and an initiative we’re proud to be a part of.
Q: On a personal note, how are you coping with the lockdown? Working remotely? How are you filling in the downtime?
A: Like most people I’ve been juggling work with trying to home school three children, with a partner who also works in the TV industry. It’s certainly a challenge but I’m grateful for the work I get to do with the team. We’re really busy and I’m incredibly proud of the dedication and commitment from my team.