Sally Riley outlines the kind of shows the ABC is seeking

06 May, 2019 by Don Groves

Jolene Anderson and Remy Hii in ‘Harrow’ 2.

Here’s a shout-out to producers: The ABC is keen to find another genre series to fill a gap as Matchbox Pictures’ Glitch comes to its conclusion after three seasons.


The pubcaster is also looking for a multi-generational relationship drama, comedies for Wednesday nights and shows with diverse casts and creatives across all genres.

It is less interested in programs set in small country towns and procedural crime series, particularly with the second series of Hoodlum Entertainment’s Harrow premiering on May 12 and the second season of Bunya Productions’ Mystery Road due to shoot later this year in Broome.

That’s the word from ABC head of scripted production Sally Riley. She hopes the funding for her domain – drama, comedy and Indigenous content – for the next financial year will not be less than the last couple of years, despite the federal government-imposed three-year $83.7 million funding cut.

“My mantra to my team is let’s keep making the best shows we can make with the money we have and get them to audiences,” she tells IF in an interview in her Ultimo office.

As for genre shows, she says, “We don’t make a lot of them here but it’s an area around the world that people are watching, so we should be participating in that space.”

She is open to pitches for crime shows but only if they have a fresh angle. On the quest for greater diversity, Riley, a former head of Screen Australia’s Indigenous department and the inaugural head of ABC TV’s Indigenous department, says: “We are making great headway in that area.”

She is particularly proud of The Heights, the drama serial from Matchbox Pictures and For Pete’s Sake Productions. Co-created by Warren Clarke and Que Minh Luu, the show set in a public housing block in a rapidly gentrifying suburb gave opportunities to emerging directors, writers and actors. The second batch of episodes airs in July and discussions are underway with the producers on a possible renewal.

Riley welcomed the appointments of Ita Buttrose as ABC chair and David Anderson’s confirmation as the MD for the next five years after a turbulent couple of years for the broadcaster.

After hearing Buttrose speak at an ABC leadership day, Riley says: “She was funny, very engaged and supportive of the ABC. I am very positive. It’s great to have a woman as chair.”

Of Anderson she says: “I think there will be sighs of relief across the ABC. David knows production, he knows the ABC inside out and he cares about its future.”

The funding squeeze on the ABC and Screen Australia does make it even more imperative for the broadcaster to partner with international broadcasters or platforms, such as with ABC Studios International on Harrow and Keshet International Content Fund on Blackfella Films’ Black B*tch.

Sally Riley.

“If you want to do large scale projects like Mystery Road and Black B*tch, with star actors, locations and the scale that audiences expect, we need partners to get those budgets up,” she says.

“When we choose a project it has to be intrinsically Australian with a great story with great characters but we also ask, ‘Will it work with an overseas audience?’ The feedback we get from those partners in terms of our storytelling and what will work overseas is very helpful.

“Generally, the more specifically Australian a show is, the better it travels internationally. Mystery Road hit the sweet spot for us with this strategy, our audiences loved it and it also worked for our partner All3 Media.”

The new season of Harrow sees forensic pathologist Daniel Harrow (Ioan Gruffudd) waking in hospital after his near-fatal shooting and determined to piece together the puzzle of who wanted him dead and why.

Jolene Anderson joins the cast of regulars Robyn Malcolm, Darren Gilshenan, Hunter Page-Lochard, Remy Hii, Ella Newton, Damien Garvey and Anna Lise Phillip as a forensic pathologist named Grace.

Directed by Rachel Perkins, Black B*itch stars Rachel Griffiths (the co-creator with Blackfella Films’ Darren Dale and Miranda Dear) as Australia’s embattled Prime Minister Rachel Anderson.

Seeing a publicity goldmine for her party, she decides to arrange a Senate seat for Alex Irving (Deborah Mailman), a charismatic and contradictory Indigenous woman, which triggers a fierce rivalry.

“It was a no brainer,” says Riley. “The rushes are looking great.” The Keshet fund came on board after Riley and her then colleague Alastair McKinnon met Keshet executives at the Banff festival.

In the comedy field she is keen for shows that have something to say as well as being funny. A perfect example is Frayed, which stars UK-based Australian comedian Sarah Kendall as Sammy Cooper, a fabulously wealthy London housewife who is forced to return to her Newcastle hometown, where she must revisit her past and the events that led her to flee as a teenager years earlier.

Sharon Horgan and Clelia Mountford’s production company Merman Television co-produced with Kevin Whyte’s Guesswork Television for the ABC and the UK’s Sky. “It’s very funny, very 1980s and very Newcastle,” she says. “At its heart it’s about family and belonging.”

Check back tomorrow for more from Sally Riley on the upcoming drama, comedy and Indigenous slates.