Chris Irvine, head of production and commercial at SBS, takes DQ inside the Australian broadcaster to reveal its drama strategy, his thoughts on the scripted television business and how he is developing new series in partnership with head of drama Sue Masters.
How would you describe your current drama strategy?
Sue Masters, head of scripted, and I have been working together on SBS’s drama strategy for the past couple of years. SBS is one of the smaller commissioning networks in Australia and our ability to commission drama is limited by the size of our content budgets. However, we have made a commitment to commission three four-part drama series a year. Four-parters have worked really well for our schedule and we are likely to continue to develop to that model.
It’s also a model that makes economic sense for SBS, owing not simply to the production costs themselves but also to the associated increased marketing expenses that come with longer-running franchises.
What has been your biggest success?
We have enjoyed significant success with our four-part series strategy. The Principal (produced by Essential Media) was the progenitor of the model and we have since commissioned Deep Water (Blackfella Films), The Sunshine Kings (Easy Tiger), Safe Harbour (Matchbox Pictures, pictured top) and Dead Lucky (Subtext Pictures). They are all four-parters, and there are more on the horizon.
How would you describe the current state of the television drama industry?
Much has already been written of the fact we are living in a golden age of TV drama. Our ability to commission drama is fuelled by invaluable partnerships with Screen Australia – the federal government screen agency, which is also the custodian of Australia’s screen tax subsidy – and state agencies, plus increasingly competitive distribution advances made against the value of rest-of-world sales.
What’s the greatest challenge facing your business?
SBS has a charter mandate to explore, appreciate and celebrate diversity and showcase content that contributes to a cohesive society. That mandate provides a laser focus for our commissioning strategy, but it is sometimes a hard target to hit. We make a substantial investment in our development slate to make sure we’re always commissioning to that charter focus.
What are the biggest changes affecting the drama business?
In Australia there is a shallow pool of experienced writing talent and directors, and the demand on their time is compounded by the lure of the big UK and US shows. We have a responsibility to develop the next generation of Australian creative talent, and through SBS’s diversity lens we have a responsibility to develop and escalate careers of writing and directing talent, and screen professionals generally, from underrepresented backgrounds.
SBS has implemented a diversity talent escalator programme to escalate the careers of diverse screen practitioners. Australia is an incredibly diverse society and we ultimately want to commission filmmakers to make shows that are representative of the Australian audience that watches them.
What’s your coproduction strategy and what obstacles do you face?
SBS is absolutely open to the possibility of co-commissioning with international networks. Given the increasing pressure on ‘traditional’ sources of drama funding in Australia – the pressures on the Screen Australia budgets, for example, have never been more acute – finding ways to co-commission and coproduce drama are likely to be paramount to the longevity of our commissioning strategy.
The challenge we face is that while we develop projects across a broad range of themes and genres, everything we make needs also to respond to our charter mandate. As such, we are looking for opportunities to develop as well as commission shows with international partners, so they can develop organically to fit both schedules.
Tell us about your development process.
Development is a key pillar of our drama strategy and we have a policy of developing to a 3:1 ratio: for every three shows we develop, only one will be greenlit for production. Drama requires a substantial level of investment, both from a direct financial perspective and the weeks, months and sometimes years involved in realising a show’s potential.
For SBS, a drama series also has to hit a very specific tone and respond to our charter mandate to explore, celebrate and appreciate diversity; to shine a light on the fault lines of society and explore social cohesion in all its forms. And that’s a hard brief to execute without veering into worthy or didactic content. We will spend time and money on development to make sure we’re backing the very best projects – rather than the ones that might be ‘ready.’
How early do you join a producer or writer in development?
There is no hard-and-fast rule to this, but we generally board a project at the very beginning. For the most part, we will develop a production team to engage writers and so on, but we do have an in-house development team that will work directly with writers too.
What role do you play in development and into production?
We are very hands-on. For us, drama commissioning is a partnership in every sense of the word. Sue Masters executive produces all our drama commissions, and our development team will work with producers and writers across initial research, treatments and all draft scripts. We play an active role in the story room.
How has your development process changed over the last few years?
It’s much more structured that it was previously. We are constantly on the lookout for ideas and projects that can explore Australia’s multicultural society in new and engaging ways. Diversity is in our DNA so we naturally want the most diverse slate of projects possible. I cannot imagine SBS has ever enjoyed a more robust slate of drama projects in development than it currently has.
How will things be different five years from now?
We are already seeing the seismic contribution the on-demand platforms have made to the drama production landscape. Our hope is that the increased volume of drama content being produced continues its current trajectory and that we see a commensurate growth in the next generation of talented Australian writers, directors and producers from more diverse backgrounds.