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Shine on in Oz

The Australian arm of the Endemol Shine Group is ramping up its drama output for broadcasters and emerging platforms, partly in league with indie producers.

High production costs, a relatively small number of buyers in the domestic market, generally modest revenues from international sales – there are a number of reasons why producing Australian drama is not a high-margin business.

Yet the Australian outpost of the recently merged Endemol Shine Group is determined to ramp up its fiction output.

The union of Shine and Endemol down under strengthened the roster of in-house drama producers as John Edwards, Imogen Banks and Mimi Butler transferred from Endemol.

And the production company is also looking to work with third-party producers for the first time.

Lingo Pictures – a prodco launched in July 2015 by Helen Bowden, a co-founder and former MD of NBCUniversal’s Matchbox Pictures, and Jason Stephens, who was creative director and director of development at FremantleMedia Australia for 10 years – is developing several projects with Endemol Shine Australia (ESA).

“The combination of Endemol Australia’s successful heritage together with Shine’s young scripted team, in addition to some brilliant new projects with third-party creators, makes for a pretty potent mix,” says Mark Fennessy, who is co-CEO of ESA with his brother Carl.

“The merging of contemporary, talented teams with complementary skill sets and culture really delivers a case of one and one makes three. Drama is an absolute primary focus for us. We’re very much committed to building a diverse and exciting slate comprising both long- and short-form projects for all broadcasters and emerging platforms.”

Offspring's Asher Keddie and Kat Stewart
Offspring’s Asher Keddie and Kat Stewart

In November last year, Edwards announced he would depart the company and its predecessor Southern Star Group after 27 years to return to independent production. But he retains his ties with ESA as creative consultant on the sixth season of relationship drama Offspring for Network Ten (produced by Banks) and at least two other projects. One is a miniseries on Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan, which is in development with the Nine Network.

The three Australian free-to-air (FTA) networks have become increasingly risk-averse in their commissioning, relying chiefly on returning dramas and reality shows to stave off competition from Netflix and other streaming services. That conservative mentality is both an opportunity and a challenge for drama producers.

“We are in the midst of real disruption for an already risk-averse market that is fragmenting and yet expanding at the same time – it’s a bit uncertain but it’s certainly exciting. In such an environment, programmers and commissioners are under enormous pressure where there is simply no appetite for failure,” says Fennessy.

“As a result, new commissions become fewer and harder to come by. In such a turbulent environment, content producers and creators are often confined to the equivalent of ‘development purgatory.’”

Drama production budgets have doubled over the past 10 years and now range from A$1m (US$722,000) to A$1.2m an hour, driven by escalating fees for cast, crew, post houses and locations.

That increase is in line with other markets, Fennessy observes, but it does make financing more difficult. “In a crowded market with a finite number of buyers, there is always pressure on funding,” he says. “The licence fee from a broadcaster is proportional to its (55% local) drama quota and only represents one piece of the funding pie required to meet any given project. Producers are always chasing their tail to make the numbers work, which is why it’s important to have a mix of longer-form projects among the miniseries and telemovies.

“If a first-run series of six or eight episodes bites with the audience and the concept is strong enough to open out then it’s potentially an ideal bridge to longform. Miniseries, telemovies and biopics, while great fun to make, are closed-ended, financially limiting for producers and expensive and equally limiting for broadcasters.”

International sales are rarely a pot of gold for Australian dramas. The relatively modest returns from foreign TV sales were revealed for the first time in research released recently by Screen Australia. The highest prices per territory for Screen Australia-supported series and miniseries between January 2013 and October 2015 were A$137,600 per hour for the US, A$99,500 for the UK, A$78,300 for French-speaking markets, A$59,200 for the Netherlands and A$49,800 for Italy.

Further down the table the highest prices reported were A$36,000 for German-speaking markets, A$35,000 for Latin America, A$31,800 for Scandinavia, A$13,700 for Eastern Europe, A$10,000 for pan-Asia and A$9,900 for Japan.

INXS: Never Tear Us Apart
INXS: Never Tear Us Apart

The market for scripted content in the US is challenging but robust in the rest of the world, according to Endemol Shine International (ESI) CEO Cathy Payne.

“The international market for scripted product has never been as buoyant with many new linear and non-linear channels, particularly in the US where the subscription platforms have successfully found an audience for non-US product,” she says.

“At the same time, the market for US scripted product has changed. As new US channels move into scripted, increased competition has seen channels target specific audiences with more US domestic fare and/or US-centric stories. Success in the US market does not guarantee success internationally for much of this product. In addition, international markets have matured and domestic scripted product dominates in a home market.

“So there are more outlets than ever with the caution that the bar is high. We have all seen the migration of theatrical talent behind and on camera to premium television where they can tell longform stories with the freedom of not being locked to multiple-season options or restrictions in areas like episode length. UK scripted continues its renaissance with its well-packaged, innovative storytelling.

“Australian scripted needs to compete in this landscape and, as such, there will be pressure to secure that level of creative and writing talent and to invest in scripts to a higher level. Strong shows from Australia will find homes, in particular genre pieces such as crime, thriller and family saga. We are currently enjoying success with (Seven Productions’) A Place to Call Home.”

In the lead-up to the merger, Carl and Mark Fennessy (pictured in that order above), who had launched Shine Australia in 2009, turned down the offer of running ESA last April. The brothers were considering returning to their roots as independent producers, having founded comedy and factual specialist Crackerjack, which was acquired by FremantleMedia in 2003.

But after Martha Brass, CEO of international operations at Endemol Shine Group, began an international search for a new CEO, the brothers changed their minds. “It was simply a case of not getting there on the first pass,” Fennessy explains. “We had a period to serve out on the existing Shine deal so, amid the process of sourcing replacements, there was sufficient goodwill on both sides to explore a landing point to continue. Beyond that, we’re loyal to our super-talented team, which has been with us for some years, so this was also a consideration.”

Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door
Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door

Shine Australia’s first venture into drama was INXS: Never Tear Us Apart. The untold story of the pop band, led by the late Michael Hutchence, was made for the Seven Network and exec produced by Mark Fennessy plus former Southern Star executives Rory Callaghan and Kerrie Mainwaring. The two-part miniseries was the most popular drama of 2014 and gave the firm the credibility it was seeking in the drama space.

“The strategy was to start small and earn our stripes,” says Fennessy. “We needed the right projects that would generate enough noise and hopefully success to put us on the map; this was easier to do with shortform miniseries. In achieving that objective, we’ve created a strong foundation on which to build so it’s time to wade into the deeper waters.”

Momentum built in 2015 as the company created two of the year’s most watched dramas, both produced by Mainwaring. Catching Milat, the saga of the police investigation that led to the arrest of Sydney serial killer Ivan Milat, aired on Seven and drew 2.55 million viewers.

For the same network, Peter Allen – Not the Boy Next Door, which starred newcomer Joel Jackson as the singer/songwriter from New South Wales who was the first Australian to win an Oscar (for Arthur’s Theme) as well as a Grammy (I Honestly Love You, sung by Olivia Newton-John), attracted 2.23 million.

ESI sold INXS: Never Tear Us Apart to more than 121 countries, including the US (Showtime), France (MTV), Benelux (AMC/Sundance Channels), pan-Asia (AMC/Sundance Channels), Africa/South Africa (MNet), Latin America (DirecTV), Globosat (Brazil), Sweden (SVT), Spain (Telefonica) and Bell Media in Canada for SVoD.

ESI closed deals for Catching Milat in 83 countries, including pan-Latin America (A&E), Italy (Discovery), Poland (ITI Neovision), France (NBCUniversal and NRJ) and Japan (NHK).

Catching Milat
Catching Milat

Network Ten’s first drama commission for ESA was Brock, a telemovie starring Matthew Le Nevez as Peter Brock, the Australian motor racing champion who was plagued by self-doubt. He died in 2006, aged 61, when his car hit a tree during a rally in Western Australia.

Asked why Ten was attracted to the project, the broadcaster’s head of drama Rick Maier says: “It’s a great story, and a great production team. Australians love heroes and underdogs. Brock was both. To use a bad analogy, he really did start a long way back on the grid – he was not entitled to be as successful as he was. Nor was he Peter Perfect. Yet he still went on to become arguably the greatest driver we have ever seen.

“The idea had been pitched before, but not with this level of significant production talent attached. Kerrie Mainwaring produced, Adam Todd and Justin Monjo were the writers and Geoff Bennett directed. In this genre, that’s pretty much the A-team. Shine (now ESA) has always put the money on screen.”

Alice Bell and Shirley Barrett have been added to the writing team for Offspring, joining returning writers Jonathan Gavin, Leon Ford and Christine Bartlett. “Imogen is one of the best,” Maier says. “John, as he puts it, is a great alchemist and he’s done it again by assembling such a talented team. There is a genuine excitement both in the writers room and among the cast.”

Banks and Edwards produced The Beautiful Lie, a contemporary re-imagining of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina, for pubcaster ABC. Scripted by Alice Bell and Jonathan Gavin, the six-part drama starred Sarah Snook, Benedict Samuel, Rodger Corser, Daniel Henshall, Celia Pacquola, Sophie Lowe and Alexander England.

The tale of adultery and scandal involving three enmeshed families across three generations screened on Sunday nights and resonated strongly with the targeted 35- to 49-year-olds, but less so with older viewers.

“We did appear to lose a segment of the 50-plus audience who traditionally watch the ABC on Sunday nights. However, that does not tell the whole story and definitely does not capture the incredible popularity of The Beautiful Lie on (catch-up platform) iview,” says ABC TV head of programming Brendan Dahill.

“With almost one million plays, it was one of the most popular series on iview in 2015, which points to a very different way that viewers are now choosing to consume their drama. We know that for years drama has been the most time-shifted genre and now, with the convenience of iview, that ability to watch a show when you want and also to choose exactly how many episodes of it you watch has been heightened.”

Edwards has long been critical of the Australian FTA broadcasters’ increasing focus on telepics, miniseries and short-run series. Speaking at Screen Producers Australia’s annual conference in November last year, he likened the state of the Australian TV drama production industry to a “stagnant billabong,” marked by fewer series, the same writers, inflated costs for no apparent quality gain, shrinking audiences and an increasing reliance on subsidy.

The Beautiful Lie
The Beautiful Lie

“All the openness and excitement and bringing through of new talent, of new work, has certainly dissipated and the area that has historically been the largest and most productive sector of the broadcast industry has all but disappeared,” he said. He lamented the demise of 40- and 22-part series and said 13-parters are almost an anachronism.

Ten’s Maier welcomed Edwards’ speech and believes some sections of the media misunderstood his message. “He was being inclusive, not laying blame,” he says. “His last three series were shortform, so he knows what he’s talking about. There’s no doubt TV drama is in an incredibly competitive space, and attention spans ain’t what they used to be in the binge-viewing landscape.

“I don’t necessarily agree longform is the answer because viewing tastes appear to have changed so much, but I do agree the training ground for emerging writers, producers and directors needs attention. Neighbours and Home and Away play their part, but the next rung of the ladder is missing or at least significantly harder to attain.

“John has always led the way with blooding new writers, directors and producers and he’s done that with 13-part series. It is obviously much harder with a shorter run. When it comes to costs, our dramas are expensive relative to those from other countries. If we can bring the costs down, we will be more competitive and more ideas can be developed.”

ABC exec Dahill adds: “John’s speech was great and touched on many areas that we as an industry should be discussing more often. Australian talent is rightly being recognised as world class and thus being courted by broadcasters and producers from all over the world – from actors and writers to directors and producers. You can also see that global recognition in the recent acquisition of many Aussie drama producers by big internationals. The downside is that this is leading to a drain on the current talent pool here at home.

“We are focused on our audience and their tastes. We live in a global marketplace and internationally there has definitely been a drift, driven by Netflix/premium US cable and Nordic noir, towards eight-part, high-impact and highly serialised drama and away from the longer-running and more soapy drama.”

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Australian drama: Short and sweet wins the day

Australian viewers have embraced short-run dramas but are less receptive to new local series this year. DQ investigates the drama landscape down under.

In the increasingly competitive world of television drama, broadcasters and producers are working harder than ever to retain viewers over the course of a series.

Nowhere is that more true than in Australia, where ratings have shown miniseries to be the most popular form of drama on air this year, to the cost of longer-running dramas.

Miniseries House of Hancock averaged 2.17 million viewers on Nine Network
Miniseries House of Hancock averaged 2.17 million viewers on Nine Network

Audiences are also relating to homegrown stories, both across free-to-air channels and on pay TV.

The top-rating Oz dramas in the first eight months of this year were both miniseries. Shine Australia’s Catching Milat, which follows the police hunt that led to the arrest of serial killer Ivan Milat, attracted an average national consolidated audience of 2.46 million on the Seven Network.

Meanwhile, CJZ’s House of Hancock, starring Mandy McElhinney as Australia’s richest woman Gina Rinehart and Sam Neill as her husband Lang Hancock, averaged 2.17 million for Nine Network.

Some broadcasting executives acknowledge it is increasingly difficult to launch long-running dramas. Yet despite an apparent shift in audience tastes towards shorter-run fare, Seven Network director of production Brad Lyons tells DQ: “In the end, good stories well told will win out. We firmly believe there’s a place for long-running drama and will continue to pursue it with vigour as we always have.”

Budget cuts imposed by the federal government have forced commissioning changes at public broadcaster ABC, which is continuing to back longer-running dramas, if only due to the cost of producing and promoting miniseries that may only be on air for two or three weeks.

ABC commissioned several original dramas, including Matchbox Pictures’ six-hour series Glitch, a paranormal mystery about a small-town cop who discovers six naked people at a graveyard. Sony Pictures Television-owned prodco Playmaker Media’s eight-part Hiding, meanwhile, follows a Queensland family who are placed in witness protection.

Although neither scored big overnight numbers, the consolidated figures including catch-up viewing were encouraging, particularly for Glitch, which was available on the ABC’s iview platform concurrent with the broadcast premiere.

Elsewhere on the ABC, season three of December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries, starring Craig McLachlan as a country doctor and police surgeon, achieved an average national consolidated audience of nearly 1.6 million.

Matchbox Pictures' Glitch aired on ABC
Matchbox Pictures’ Glitch aired on ABC

The third season of Every Cloud’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, featuring Essie Davis as the glamorous 1920s private detective, averaged 1.4 million on the channel.

And prodco Ruby Entertainment’s two-part The Secret River (main image), with Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Mr Selfridge) as an English convict who is transported to colonial New South Wales in 1805 and Sarah Snook as his free-settler wife, drew more than one million viewers on the ABC.

“We have had to pull back on miniseries as they are very expensive and we can now only support the occasional mini or telemovie,” says ABC head of fiction Carole Sklan.

“This is unfortunate, as ABC fiction has had tremendous success in recent years with miniseries telling stories of remarkable Australians – such as Paper Giants, ANZAC Girls, Carlotta, Cliffy, Mabo and Devil’s Dust – and literary adaptations like The Slap. Also, when we return successful series such as Rake, Janet King and Jack Irish, there are fewer opportunities for new shows.”

The Nine Network enjoyed strong ratings with two Playmaker productions, including the second season of Love Child, set in 1970 at a Kings Cross home for unwed mothers and the adjacent maternity hospital. The fourth run of House Husbands, which stars Gary Sweet, Firass Dirani, Rhys Muldoon and Gyton Grantley as stay-at-home dads, launched in August, with the premiere attracting a consolidated average of 1.381 million viewers.

Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan says: “Audiences have so much choice now that dramas have to work harder to capture and retain the public’s imagination. True stories have worked extremely well for all the networks, as have series like Love Child and House Husbands that tap into a broader social conversation.

“There is a thirst for novelty in drama, but the ratings prove there is also a big audience for stories that reflect and explore Australian life. It’s crucial that dramas start strongly and boldly. It will always be a challenge to sustain this intensity over a long-running series, but shows like House Husbands prove it is possible.

Shine Australia's Catching Milat
Shine Australia’s Catching Milat

“A major change over the past few years has been the growth in time-shifting. Our consolidated audience is consistently more than 250,000 higher than the overnight figure, which can be a 20% or more increase on an already dominant show. But as a commercial network, we also want to maximise our overnight audience.”

Love Child’s second run averaged 1.6 million viewers per episode, with the overnight national audience of 1.228 million accounting for 76% of viewing and the remainder coming from time-shifted, encore and longform video viewing. Its third season recently wrapped.

At Network Ten, romantic comedy-drama Wonderland drew an average capital-city consolidated audience of 537,000. Due to premiere on Ten later this year is FremantleMedia’s telemovie Mary: The Making of a Princess. The show chronicles the real-life fairytale romance of a Sydney real-estate agent and Crown Prince Frederik Andre Henrik Christian of Denmark, and stars Emma Hamilton and Ryan O’Kane.

Also coming to Ten is Shine Australia’s telepic Brock (working title), which will dramatise the life of Australian motor-racing champion Peter Brock, a complex man plagued by self-doubt who died when his car crashed during a rally in Western Australia in 2006.

Network head of drama Rick Maier says: “Wonderland was generally well received and we were happy with the production, but we just failed to find a sufficient audience. Longform series are now without doubt the hardest to launch successfully.”

However, Maier adds: “The strength of the idea drives commissioning at Ten. Shortform and event dramas are not necessarily a focus. As always, we have plenty of options and our planning is usually 12 to 18 months ahead.”

Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan
Nine co-head of drama Andy Ryan

ABC’s Sklan is enthused about Endemol Australia’s upcoming six-hour series The Beautiful Lie, a contemporary reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina. The sprawling saga of adultery, scandal, manners and mayhem involving three enmeshed families across three generations stars Sarah Snook, Benedict Samuel, Rodger Corser, Celia Pacquola, Daniel Henshall, Sophie Lowe, Alexander England, Catherine McClements, Dan Wyllie and Gina Riley.

The exec feels vindicated by her decision to greenlight Glitch and Hiding, viewing both as groundbreaking for Australian TV. “It’s extremely important for the national public broadcaster to showcase a mix of a dramas and to support a diverse quality slate of stories, storytellers, styles and genres,” she says.

“Every commission is risky; it’s a leap into the unknown. There are no safe shows. Sometimes they defy expectations; sometimes everything coheres and the show is better than the individual parts.

“Hiding was a bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama that explored the everyday parental challenges of raising teenagers but in a high-stakes world. Glitch was the first Australian paranormal drama series.

“We took an additional risk for Glitch with our binge strategy on iview, which audiences responded to very positively. In fact, Glitch has become the most popular iview title so far this year, recording more than one million plays to date. Consolidated national figures plus iview make a huge difference and better represent the way people choose to enjoy drama anywhere and anytime. Drama is consistently iview’s most popular genre.

“The ABC is not driven by ratings alone. It’s not only about broadest possible reach but also the deepest possible engagement. Critical acclaim and awards, social media and audience feedback for our edgier shows can be intensely appreciative. The compelling, original political thriller The Code (of which Playmaker is shooting a second season) and the exuberant, satirical legal drama Rake (Essential Media and Entertainment is making a fourth season) are also great examples.”

Hiding, a 'bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama'
Hiding, a ‘bold hybrid genre of crime and family drama’

Chris Oliver-Taylor, MD of Glitch producer Matchbox, says: “If you take the overall results, the huge iview numbers, the critical acclaim and the quality of the work, we think Glitch is an incredibly successful show and one that we expect to have future series and strong international appeal.”

Playmaker Media co-founder David Taylor says the brief for Hiding was to attract a younger audience to the ABC. The show ranked as the number one scripted series for the 16-24 demographic and second overall on the channel across all slots.

“There is obviously more competition in the scripted space with audiences now having so many on-demand options for viewing drama,” Taylor adds. “As producers, it’s our job to create a must-watch experience that taps into the zeitgeist. All shows can be binge-watched six months after telecast. We strive to create dramas that have a water-cooler element that get people talking week after week.”

Seven’s Winners & Losers, which follows the lives of a group of best friends as they deal with life’s ups and downs, drew a combined average audience of 1.56 million in 2014. This year the ratings dropped but Lyons says the “consolidated figures are really good, often hitting 900,000. That’s a great result.” Last December the network commissioned a fifth season.

Lyons was also delighted with the ratings for Seven Productions’ Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field, which featured Rebecca Gibney as a detective who investigates the murder of a 23-year-old woman in a fishing town south of Sydney.

One local story to feature heavily in the last year was that of Gallipoli, the First World War campaign that took place 100 years ago in April. Endemol Australia’s Gallipoli, which covered the bloody eight-month battle of Australian and New Zealand troops against those from Turkey, launched with more than one million viewers on Nine but went into a steep decline.

Ryan says: “There is no denying that audience numbers were lower than expected, but this was a phenomenon repeated around the world with First World War-themed dramas and documentaries. The centenary of the First World War hasn’t captured the public imagination as much as we thought it would four years ago when we embarked on the series. Even so, Gallipoli was a superb production about a story of enormous national significance.”

By comparison, Deadline Gallipoli, a coproduction between Matchbox Pictures and actor Sam Worthington’s Full Clip, which explores the campaign through the eyes
of four war correspondents, drew a consolidated average audience of 203,000 on pay TV platform Foxtel’s drama channel Showcase. That ranked as the third largest consolidated audience ever in the channel’s history, trailing Game of Thrones and Screentime’s 2011 Australian miniseries Cloudstreet.

Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field
Winter, a sequel to the telemovie The Killing Field

Those ratings marked Deadline Gallopoli out as one of the best-performing local dramas on pay TV, alongside the third season of FremantleMedia Australia’s prison drama Wentworth (on Foxtel’s SoHo) and Banished, a coproduction between Jimmy McGovern and Sita Williams’ RSJ Films and See Saw Films that aired on BBC First.

Banished, co-commissioned with the UK’s BBC2, marked the debut local production for BBC First. It chronicled the lives, loves, relationships and battle for survival in penal colony Sydney and starred David Wenham, Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Ryan Corr.

The first episode reached a gross audience of 293,000, the highest ever launch title on BBC First, according to BBC Worldwide (BBCWW). The seven episodes pulled in a cumulative gross audience of 1.8 million, the highest-rating BBC First title to date.

Tim Christlieb, BBCWW director of channels for Australia and New Zealand, says: “We are delighted by how Banished has been embraced by audiences on BBC First. The show delivered audiences well above the primetime and timeslot averages for the channel.”

On SoHo, Wentworth season three achieved a consolidated average of 313,000 viewers per episode, up 8% on season two’s average of 290,000. FremantleMedia Australia head of drama Jo Porter says: “Wentworth has proven to be a wonderful critical and ratings success both locally and globally, and can now be seen in 89 territories worldwide. It was voted the most outstanding drama at the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association Awards in 2014 and 2015. We have started production on season four, which will see Wentworth become Foxtel’s longest-running Australian drama series.”

Asked about the long- versus short-form drama issue, Porter agrees that the current appetite among viewers is for miniseries and telemoves “based on noisy, strong stories that stand out in a crowded schedule.”

She concludes: “As we have seen with Wentworth, there is absolutely still a market for ongoing series. Our job is to ensure we hold the audience from the first frame and give them enough reasons, through character and plot, to keep coming back week after week.”

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