The ABC TV session was spearheaded by new Director of Television Richard Finlayson, who talked about the network’s priorities and challenges.
While he felt that “not a lot is broken at the moment,” with a positive culture at the ABC with people who are the leaders in their field, there is an understanding that they need to embrace the future. “We can’t do the same things we have.”
With half their top 100 shows being made locally, one challenge is to continue the production of such programs.
The second challenge Richard identified is the rush to on demand and personalised viewing. “Viewers don’t care if they are paying for content, or if it’s free,” he said. Last year there were 20 million views on iView, and the other networks are catching up.
Thirdly, younger people are dropping off the viewing charts, although the trend could be flattening out.
To address these challenges, the ABC has come up with a series of strategic priorities.
The first is to put audiences first.
“We need to adopt a user experience view of the world,” he said. “Iview gives us data on how people are using our content.”
The second is the need for high quality, high impact content.
The ABC wants to be seen as a destination for the Arts. Finlayson spun the fact that Foxtel has stolen the march on first run BBC drama from the ABC in a positive way, stating that it will free up resources to provide high impact content. “The audience will turn to the ABC for coverage of big events,” he explained. He also announced that they are relaunching a new version of iView for the Android platform in December 2013. He said they would also be releasing a major show exclusively on iview, so that it will be available for binge viewing.
The third priority was to promote the ABC brand, and communicate with clarity.
The fourth is to harness our creative culture. They are going for a cross-cultural approach, to utilise our diversity. “We also want to work with independent producers who think really big.”
The fifth priority was to improve flexibility and agility.
“The independent sector is vital to our success,” said Finlayson. “We need local ideas that resonate globally.”
He said that he had met with the Danes who have found such impressive success with their dramas (The Killing, The Bridge, Borgen). “They saw a need for change, and they found that the more local they got, the more globally successful they became.”
Chris Oliver-Taylor, who steered the session, asked some curly questions, which he was able to do as the current MD of Matchbox, and who previously worked at the ABC. He asked about the challenge of Netflix, and if was true that the ABC’s budgets have suffered a cut.
Finlayson agreed that there have been cuts, but they haven’t been material, more like 1 to 2% of overall budgets. “When I arrived I was greeted with a big spreadsheet which said you have less money. So we’ve had to trim across each of our budgets, but we have to be able to back our strategic priorities. Drama and kids programming are still absolutely our priorities.”
Another priority is to re-energise ABC Commercial, and to back Robert Patterson, who is the new director. “I’m asking my team and producers to work with ABC commercial to give them a go and put them back into the game.”
Asked where he will take the channel next, Brendan Dahill, the Controller of ABC1 replied that it’s about serving Australians the broadest, widest service across all genres. “It has been great to be number 3 in the ratings,” he added, “and that has grown our audiences, but it’s not about ratings.”
Brendan admitted that Serangoon Road hasn’t found an audience, and indeed it was the only drama he had to shift slots this year. “It’s disappointing but we’re not a commercial broadcaster, and it was a risk to work with international partners,” Brendan said. “We’ve learnt so much in the process.” He explained that their partner HBO Asia wanted more action, and the ABC wanted more character based stories, so that was an issue.
Chris asked what sorts of programming he wants to be pitched, and Brendan said it’s always about the ‘cool idea.’ “We have a fantastic slate of drama for 2014 that will work here and internationally,” he said. “We should be confident about telling our stories around the world.”
Next, Stuart Menzies talked about ABC2, which he said is getting great growth with interesting ‘noisy’ programs that are captivating audiences.
“We get competition from everywhere,” said Stuart. “The thing that we rest on is our Australian content. The shows that work are the shows that we commission. Our own commissions should work best.”
ABC2 will commission 100 hours this year, and hopefully more next. “It’s hard to make a whole network on 100 hours but it’s what defines us.”
Stuart mentioned that they had discovered a lot of their audience finds the channel via surfing, particularly around 9.30 pm when the main channels ‘go to sleep.’ They deliver ‘rock solid public service content, with tabloid titles.’
Barbara Uecker, Acting Controller of ABC Children’s Television, maintains strong focus on audiences and quality as the secret of their success. “It’s about risk, reliability and reputation. We can take more risk than commercial channels.”
ABC Children’s has Dance Academy and the new Nowhere Boys from Matchbox – fantastic content that sells around the world, she said. Asked what they are looking for, she added that they were open to all kinds of pitches, but they have a focus on animation. “Please get in touch with us and pitch your ideas. We will love to get together and work with you.”
On documentaries, Brendan Dahill maintained that the ABC commissions as many singles as they ever have, but they also make more factual content and more series, so it looks like there are fewer singles. “The issue is its really hard to navigate an audience to singles,” he said. “Trying to make any one hour single in the schedule is really difficult. But we will be rigorous about why we are doing the things we do.”
Menzies said they commissioned the sorts of ideas ‘that keep you awake at night.’ “Unless it keeps you awake at night worrying, you probably shouldn’t be commissioning it.” He added that if you are trying to attract a younger audience, the ideas should be dangerous. He likes to see the fundamental idea pitched succinctly, rather than a 30 page document.