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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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Game on

Playmaker, the latest addition to Sony Pictures TV’s international production empire, is on a hot streak in its home market. Co-founders David Taylor and David Maher tell DQ what they’re doing right.

There is no better time to be producing Australian TV drama for both local and international networks than right now, according to Playmaker Media co-founders David Taylor and David Maher.

The former Fox Television Studios Australia production executives cashed in on the worldwide boom in demand for quality drama by selling their Sydney-based prodco to Sony Pictures Television (SPT) in December.

The deal, which will see Taylor and Maher remain at the helm of the banner they founded in 2009, gives their company access to SPT’s worldwide distribution machine and increased funds for development.

“We had been talking to Sony for a while. We liked what they had to say and it’s a good opportunity,” Taylor tells DQ, interviewed with his business partner in their offices adjoining Fox Studios.

“The opportunities for producing TV drama have increased exponentially in the past five years,” says Maher. “There has been a tonal shift among the networks, reflecting the great drama being produced in the US and the UK.”

Typifying the Oz broadcasters’ more adventurous spirit, the Playmaker duo doubt that Love Child, the most-watched drama series on Australian TV in 2014, would have been commissioned five years ago.

Set in 1969 at a home for unwed mothers adjacent to a maternity hospital in Sydney’s red-light district Kings Cross, the show was ordered by Nine Network and drew an average national audience of 2.087 million.

Just as the first episodes went to air, the broadcaster committed to a second season, which follows the doctors, midwives and expectant mothers in 1970, launching this year.

Love Child (web)
Love Child

“Love Child was definitely a risky commission,” according to Nine’s co-heads of drama Andy Ryan and Jo Rooney. “The lead characters are all deeply flawed and the subject matter of forced adoption is not typical of network drama. It was crucial to get the tone right, and we all worked hard to marry the story material with the exuberance, music and fashion of 1969 Kings Cross. The ratings definitely proved that commercial drama can be adventurous and have mass appeal.”

Maher adds: “The definition of what is commercial has undergone a complete metamorphosis in the past five years.”

Playmaker had entrusted international sales of its shows to DCD Rights, All3Media International, ZDF Enterprises and ITV Studios Global Entertainment since a first-look deal with Fremantle Media Enterprises expired in 2013.

SPT will handle all future Playmaker productions and the format rights to Love Child, which were not included in the deal with All3Media. “Having one point of call for international for the shows we create will be a big advantage,” Taylor says.

While the company’s primary focus has been, and remains, the Australian market, it aims to ensure every project it develops has export potential, both for finished series and as formats.

House Husband
House Husbands

That strategy looks like paying off for House Husbands, the fourth season of which debuts on Nine in 2015. Producers in France and Italy have bought remake rights to the drama, which looks at the relationships between four stay-at-home dads and their families. The French version will be produced by Paris-based Made in PM while the Italian remake will be produced by Rome-based Publispei. Both companies will adapt scripts from the first season.

The Australian government’s producer offset for TV series, miniseries, telemovies and non-feature documentaries, which gives producers a 20% rebate, is pivotal to the bottom line of prodcos such as Playmaker.

Playmaker’s conspiracy thriller The Code performed strongly enough on pubcaster ABC this year to be renewed for a further six episodes. DirecTV bought US rights to the show, created by Shelley Birse, and it aired on the UK’s BBC4 in October last year.

The Code
The Code

Filmed in Canberra and the Outback, the drama stars Dan Spielman (An Accidental Soldier, Offspring) as Ned Banks, a young internet journalist desperate for a break. Ashley Zuckerman (The Slap, Rush) plays his troubled hacker brother Jesse. After the siblings post online a blurry video of an Outback accident, they are plunged into the darkest heart of politics, the world of black marketeers and international agencies who monitor and manipulate them.

The second series follows the brothers as they face the prospect of being extradited to the US unless they agree to entrap one of the most elusive players in the darknet, who hosts an online bazaar of illegal weapons, drugs and dangerous ideas.

Created by Matt Ford, Hiding (8 x 60’) which premieres on ABC this year, follows a Gold Coast family who are forced into witness protection and must build a new life in a strange city, knowing that any contact with friends or relatives could lead a killer to their door. The ensemble cast includes James Stewart (Packed to the Rafters), Kate Jenkinson (House Husbands), Lincoln Younes (Tangle), Stephen Curry (The Time of Our Lives), Nathan Page (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries), Jodi Gordon (Underbelly: Badness), Kim Gyngell (Lowdown), and Jacqueline McKenzie (The Water Diviner).

All four shows were created by writer-producers who were nurtured by the Screen Australia-funded showrunner development initiative dubbed Scribe. The three-year programme was a potent catalyst for the careers of Drew Proffitt (who co-created House Husbands with Ellie Beaumont), Ford, Birse and Sarah Lambert (Love Child). The initiative was so successful that it continues in 2015 as a self-funded enterprise at Playmaker.

“The unbroken authorial voice is what we strive for, and that guarantees the quality of the end product,” says Taylor. “One person oversees a project from the start to the end so there is a consistency.”

Birse recalls: “I was travelling in the Middle East when Playmaker called to see if I would be interested in joining the first round of their Scribe project. At the time, the Arab Spring was starting to escalate and I was surprised to find Australians playing a pivotal role in getting the truth of what was happening in countries like Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia out to the rest of the world.

“They were helping the voices of ordinary men and women be heard against the express wishes of extraordinarily powerful government and military forces, and they were doing this not with firepower, wealth or strength, but with their brains and their digital prowess. At the same time, the act of whistleblowing was attracting seemingly unprecedented punishment, and to have Australians operating on the world stage in both these areas was story territory too rich to resist.”

Birse sold the concept to Playmaker, playing up the fresh angle of freedom of speech in the digital age, combined with a commitment to prioritise character over plot whenever possible. Taylor, Maher and Birse felt the ambitious project would best suit ABC and did a verbal pitch to the pubcaster’s head of programming Brendan Dahill, head of drama Carole Sklan and commissioning editor David Ogilvy, and got the nod to start developing in earnest.

“What attracted us to the project the Davids pitched with Shelley Birse was the central relationship of the brothers, the complicated bond between the responsible older brother, Ned, and the brilliant Asperger’s brother, Jess,” Sklan explains. “It wasn’t simply a generic political thriller; it had this fascinating, heartfelt relationship at its heart. It was a groundbreaking contemporary thriller with big ideas and enthralling storytelling.

“The series faced tough competition but did particularly well with catch-up viewing on iView. There was also extraordinary critical and audience acclaim for the show.”

As for Hiding, Sklan says: “It was a bold and fresh approach to a crime story and a story of a family under exceptional pressure. It was also a fish-out-of-water story with the crim working undercover in the criminology department of an elite university. Matt [Ford] brought a great deal of verve, humour and astute observation to the drama.”

Birse had been writing scripts for nearly 20 years before she was selected for the Playmaker Scribe initiative. “I felt ready to develop projects of my own, but without the creative and financial support of a production company, it was just too easy for the demands of ‘writing to meet the mortgage’ to consume all my writing time,” she reflects.

“Scribe delivered a dedicated ‘creative breath’ – two days a fortnight carved out to devote purely to development – and was set up to move creators into a producorial role once shows headed towards production. It was in this area that the greatest learning curve took place. Far from pressing send at the end of the scripting process and looking out for a DVD in the mail some months down the track, I was at the table for every creative and logistical discussion for the whole six months of production – from the first day of casting until the final international copies were signed off.

“It was an extraordinary chance to learn on the job, and while there is so much more to learn, the opportunity increased my understanding of the production process tenfold. Perhaps more importantly, it’s made me acutely aware of the costs of failing to bridge the gap between script and production and the importance of keeping writers’ voices present long after the scripts have been finished.

“It’s no mystery that the finest-quality television being made in Australia and overseas has a showrunner at the wheel.”

Maher and Taylor brought complementary skills to the table when they launched Playmaker. Taylor got a part-time job on the studio floor at Channel 7 Sydney when he was 17 while embarking on a communications degree at Macquarie University. He quit uni after deciding TV was more fun and stayed at Seven for five years, rising to first AD on dramas including A Country Practice and Home and Away. He later spent four years at prodco Screentime, working on shows such as Popstars and the Bondi Beach-set drama Breakers.

Maher also did a communications degree at Macquarie, while working part-time for Beyond Films as a script assessor. He spent four years in the UK, initially as a runner with Tiger Aspect on Mr Bean, The Vicar of Dibley and other programmes, and later as an assistant floor manager at the BBC.

Back in Australia, Maher and Taylor teamed up at Fox Television Studios, where they spent 12 years producing scripted and unscripted programming for Australian and international broadcasters. They served under three regimes: Fox Studios Australia CEO Kim Williams (who later headed paynet Foxtel); David Martin, who was promoted to Fox Television Studios executive VP, production and development in Los Angeles and is now president of Avalon USA; and David Grant, the former FTS president.

While their output ranged from lifestyle, reality and game shows to drama series, serials and telemovies, drama was the Davids’ true passion. Among the shows they remember most fondly are Supernova, a comedy starring Rob Brydon, co-commissioned by the BBC and Australia’s UKTV and coproduced with Hartswood Films, and Crash Palace, a drama set in a Kings Cross backpackers’ hostel for Foxtel’s Fox8.

Their decision to launch Playmaker coincided with a change in strategy by the Fox TV brass in Los Angeles to focus their international efforts primarily on producing drama series in Latin America. It was an amicable parting, typified by the agreement that the pair could take with them their development slate. That led to Playmaker’s maiden productions. Wicked Love: The Maria Korp Story was a telemovie for Nine which starred Rebecca Gibney, based on the true story of a Melbourne woman who was left to die in the boot of a car in 2005.

Commissioned by Fox8, Slide was a multi-platform, 10-part series following five 17-year-olds making their way to adulthood in Brisbane. “The show merged the non-scripted and online worlds and was beautifully executed,” according to Ross Crowley, Foxtel director of programming.

Crowley adds: “Playmaker is one of the production units that understands the differentiation between cable and broadcast network dramas. We need a unique voice and they really get that. They started with a small team, wanting to specialise in shorter-run, more complex works, and they nailed it.”

When they launched Playmaker, neither founder saw it as a gamble. Apart from a ready-made development slate, they were encouraged to go solo by such peers as Goalpost Pictures’ Rosemary Blight, Screentime’s Bob Campbell and Endemol Southern Star’s John Edwards.

In their office the long-time colleagues display an amusing banter and repartee, “We bicker about the small stuff,” says Maher. “We don’t disagree about the big stuff.”

Nine’s Ryan and Rooney observe: “The Davids only pitch shows with a strong creative vision, but they are also very receptive to our input at every stage, from development through to production. The success of House Husbands and Love Child proves that local drama can have a unique voice and be commercially successful.”

Sklan concurs: “The Davids bring strong creative ambition and tremendous skill to the work. It’s not only the idea, it’s the creative realisation of the idea. They are wonderful creative collaborators who identify and inspire very talented people to work together to do their best work. They are also incredibly nice, self-deprecating people.”

Birse reflects: “I think part of the strength of the Playmaker team is that they bring a great marriage of pragmatism and possibility to the table. There’s a tremendous sense when you’re talking ideas with them that the sky is the limit, and yet it somehow remains grounded in the reality of how it’s going to get made.

“I think their track record is testament to a broad commercial palette, with Scribe spawning long-running commercial family dramas like House Husbands and Love Child and edgier works like Hiding for the ABC. At the base of all their productions is a commitment to stretch the boundaries wherever possible.

“When the Davids first rang four years ago to talk about wanting to do things differently, I was in Tel Aviv, and the line was pretty crackly. What I heard between that crackling were some half-phrases: ‘develop something you love’, ‘showrunner model’, ‘integrity of authorial voice’. I got off the phone thinking I was hearing things but, four years on, the promises of Scribe on The Code were delivered in full, and then some.”

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