Australia & New Zealand: Upside Down

The film and TV industries in Australia and New Zealand have undergone a metamorphosis of late. Gone are the days of big budgets and the ever-steady government funding. In its place has been a round of budget cuts so severe as...
December 1, 1998

The film and TV industries in Australia and New Zealand have undergone a metamorphosis of late. Gone are the days of big budgets and the ever-steady government funding. In its place has been a round of budget cuts so severe as to make even the doyen of the Australian television industry, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, nervous. According to an abc spokesperson, budget cuts of US$42 million have taken place over the last two years. In New Zealand, television license fees used to supply the main funding body, New Zealand On Air, have been frozen for almost a decade.

While programming mandates vary widely across both countries – from a rise in reality entertainment, docu-soaps and adventure programming at commercial broadcasters, to public broadcasters who specialize in a broader range of documentary and multicultural fare – what has remained constant is the antipodean appetite for homegrown product and high-concept international programming. The growth of the pay-tv industry has also increased competition, holding firm to their newly dedicated audience. Kiwis and kangaroos aside, what is unique about broadcasters in Australasia is what they are looking for, and who they are looking to to get it.


The Australian Broadcasting Corporation

The ABC is the only national, non-commercial broadcaster in Australia, seen by many as the prestige home for both Australian-made and internationally-acquired factual programming.

Armed with over 60 years experience as Australia’s largest broadcaster, the publicly-owned corporation has its own in-house production facilities and departments which commission, acquire, and pre-buy docs and factual programs. Two primary doc slots which run on the channel are: Inside Story, which airs ABC/Australian-made one-off 55-minute docs; and The Big Picture, which screens long-form series. Recently aired Big Picture fare includes the BBC’s eight-part series, The Human Body – a coproduction between Milan-based Mediaset and tlc in the U.S. Counted among the abc’s other departments are natural history, current affairs (which has a slot for in-house and buy-ins called Four Corners) arts, religion, and children’s programming.

Where once there were departments at the abc responsible for commissioning and program production, changes announced in 1996, in tandem with the conservative government’s heavy budget cuts, have split this task into two camps. The Network Television group now commissions and schedules programs, while ABC Program Production is the in-house production operator for general programs (excluding current affairs, who have their own portfolio, but including the Natural History Unit and Indigenous Programs Unit).

According to Roger Grant, GM of corporate affairs, the ABC’s programming mandate is simple: ‘In terms of television, our interest is factual docs, series docs, natural history, religious docs, and arts/performance docs… We also buy a lot of children’s programming, and for that we deal with everyone from CCTV in China through to Canal+ in France. Those tend to be shorter, 15-minute programs,’ he says. ‘We buy in our own material from overseas – generally British or American.’

Over 55% of programming on the ABC is Australian, with the mandate to retain a minimum of 50% indigenous content. Grant makes ABC’s interest in local product very clear, an opinion also shared by the majority of broadcasters down under: ‘We’re very insistent that the `Australian’ at the front of the ABC is the emphasis,’ he says, ‘so we’re very keen that we don’t look like an antipodes version of the BBC if we can.’

Grant counts the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS as key international acquisitions partners. He admits, however, that although the ABC is the main acquirer of docs in Australia – they commission approximately 35 hours of Australian documentaries per year – they are selective about what they acquire: ‘We don’t deal so much with production houses, mainly with networks,’ he says. ‘We deal more with production houses locally in Australia. Unless it’s a specialist field like arts programs.’

As Grant sees it, the recent budget cuts at the broadcaster will not have an effect on how much fare the ABC acquires internationally. Instead, changes will chiefly come from within the broadcaster itself. ‘I don’t see the ratio changing,’ Grant explains. ‘What will happen is the ABC will not be able to make as many in-house productions but we will seek to purchase more from other Australian producers – either pre-purchase programs or buy completed programs.’

As for coproductions, Geoff Barnes, commissioning editor of documentaries, says that although the cuts have reduced the number of coproductions the ABC commissions, coproductions with international partners will continue to be key. ‘ABC TV Documentaries has coproduced with organizations such as the BBC and Channel 5,’ says Barnes, ‘as well as organizations in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.’ Adds Grant: ‘We tend mainly to go into ventures as coproductions because we find that everyone is in the same boat as us. Often people have the facilities but they don’t have the cash… We do a lot with A&E in America, but we never deal with the American networks because they have nothing really that’s of interest to us, except the occasional news doc that we might put in Four Corners.’

An added consideration for the ABC in acquiring overseas material is their status as a non-commercial broadcaster. Programs with commercial inserts are not as interesting for them. ‘We’ve just judged the international Emmy’s here and one of the categories was documentaries,’ Grant explains. ‘The Australian judges noticed how many of the docs submitted simply could never be shown on the ABC because of their structure. Commercial inserts in the middle destroys the whole narrative line of the documentary. For us, it’s the quality, the innovation of the approach, and the fact that it’s not interrupted by breaks for commercial transmission – which means we’re somewhat limited then as to who we can go to.’

Seven Network Australia

Of Australia’s broadcasters, it is the commercial networks which air the least amount of documentaries across the board. They have, however, seen a boom in factual programming over the last few years as viewer appetite for docu-soaps and reality entertainment has increased. According to Chris O’Mara, director of programs at the 41 year-old commercial, free-to-air broadcaster, free-to-air stations have also been experiencing a ratings boost of late. ‘The ratings on free-to-air have gotten stronger over the last couple of years. There’s definitely been a re-birth of interest in it,’ he says.

Of the three free-to-air commercial television networks in Australia – Seven, Nine and Ten – it is Seven Network which, according to O’Mara, acquires the most international documentary fare. ‘We would buy more doc material than any of the other commercial, free-to-air networks,’ he says. ‘The Ten Network has no doc slot in its schedule at the moment, and the Nine Network plays a doc slot over summer but other than that, they don’t really have one. So we would be the most prolific acquirer.’

Despite this, Seven Network has only one documentary slot. Called The World Around Us, it airs one-hour per week in primetime and does not run series. Programming in the slot is almost exclusively travel/adventure and natural history. O’Mara stresses that even traditionally high-commodity natural history material has to contain adventure elements to rate high among viewers: ‘Straight, pure natural history does not rate on free -to-air,’ he says.

O’Mara, like his ABC counterparts, also admits that Australian content figures largely into what Seven Network broadcasts, some exceptions being Survival and BBC natural history fare. One-off docs shown outside of the slot have to be unique, according to O’Mara, to have a chance at the channel. ‘The question a producer or packager should ask himself when he’s trying to pitch [a project] to a free-to-air network in Australia is: `Would NBC, ABC or CBS acquire this?’ If the answer is no, chances are we won’t either. So it’s got to be of that standard.’ A recent acquisition for the network is Discovery’s Emmy Award-winner Wolves at Our Door, from Idaho-based Dutcher Film Productions.

Special Broadcasting Service (SBS)

With the exception of the ABC, it is SBS – Australia’s national multicultural broadcaster – which, of the terrestrial broadcasters, is the best avenue for international producers, acquiring and airing the majority of the documentary fare Australia has to offer. This is due, in large part, to their programming policy – that 50% of scheduled programming be in languages other than English – and their mandate to subtitle or re-narrate any international material.

The television arm of SBS – which, like the ABC, also has a successful radio network – began in 1980. It now reaches almost 16 million Australians and is received by approximately 80% of Australia’s population. According to network programmer Rod Webb, ‘You could turn on SBS at any particular time and see programs in virtually any language at varying times… SBS is also quite general: we have sport, docs, soaps, dramas and movies – it’s a general free-to-air semi-public network.’ This year the number of languages broadcast on SBS has risen to 60.

Although SBS receives the bulk of its funding – about 90% – from the government, they are independent when it comes to what they program, and documentaries figure largely in their mandate. In the past year alone, SBS has broadcast close to 426 hours of imported one-offs and 62 hours of local doc fare, almost half of that being series.

Explains Webb: ‘Our documentary output is fairly stable but it’s at a high level. We have 5 or 6 slots per week for one-hour docs.’ Included in their slate is the CBC series The Nature of Things, and well as programming from the BBC, PBS, Channel 4, TF1 in France, ZDF in Germany, and TV2 in Denmark.

The network also has a commissioning arm for programming produced by indie Australian producers. Called SBS Independent, recent programs include the Australian Film Institute award-nominee Mohamed Ali’s Happy Day Feast, a look at members of Melbourne’s Somali refugee community from Melbourne-based Little Universe Films; and In My Room, which takes an inside look at teenage life in Australia (from Melbourne’s Olympus Films).

Unlike most other broadcasters, SBS is not interested in wildlife programming. ‘[We program] anything but wildlife,’ says Webb. ‘With the exception of the ABC, if you talk docs in the commercial sector in Australia they mean wildlife, they don’t mean anything else. We have weekly history, travel, cooking, and arts slots, and a current affairs slot called The Cutting Edge, as well as environmental, anthropological, ethnological and archeological programming.’

A standard fee of AUS$100 (US$63) per minute is paid by SBS for all acquired material. Says Webb: ‘We have a fixed price… It’s not high but we are a regular source of sales and we only have something like a 3.5% market share. It’s sort of relative to the ABC in terms of what we pay. And we’ll take the programs in any language. If the language is not English, we will re-narrate or subtitle or both.’ Webb adds that SBS does, occasionally, put up money for pre-sales but not often. Material focusing on multicultural situations is a high priority for the channel.

Webb stresses that one of SBS’s prime interests these days lies in doc series: ‘Because our output is so eclectic, it’s very difficult for people to keep up with us in terms of regularity because we show stuff from all over the world. Anything that will help our regularity, in terms of series, is a good thing.’

The Odyssey Documentary Channel

Although still relatively new, the steady growth of pay-tv in Australia has significantly improved the market for international fare. There are three pay platforms in Australia – two cable and one satellite. Part of the Optus Vision fiber optic cable platform is the Odyssey Documentary Channel. The channel, launched on July 1st of 1997, airs documentaries and lifestyle programming. It is Australia’s first locally-programmed 24-hour doc channel.

Jim Kosub, managing director of the channel, says docs comprise 80% of Odyssey’s programming, at least half of which is screened for the first time in Australia. ‘We have seven major genres that we program and we mix them up a lot,’ Kosub says. ‘Currently we run science and technology, history, culture, people and places, current issues, nature and lifestyle documentary programming.’

For now, the channel predominantly acquires finished material. Says Kosub, ‘At this point in time the only things that we commission locally are interstitials and promotions.’ Acquisitions make up the backbone of Odyssey’s programs, helped, in large part, to deals with international distributors. ‘We like to localize the product and focus as much as we can on Australian content, but the fact of the matter is, any channel chews up a lot of material really quickly, so we do supplement what we don’t have available to us locally by going to markets outside of Australia.’ Among Odyssey’s suppliers are Buena Vista International, ITEL, C4 International, Minotaur, Beyond Distribution, Film Australia, and Unapix.

Not willing to quote specifics in terms of how much Odyssey pays for acquisitions, Kosub will admit to trying to get the best deal possible. ‘The Australian pay-tv industry is still in its infancy. I believe our acquisitions costs are in line with most other markets of the same size and age,’ he says. According to Kosub, Odyssey’s antipodean location has had no effect on pricing.

Successful Odyssey programming to date includes: Moon Shot, a look at the real-life race for the moon from Turner Original Productions and distributed by ITEL; C4I’s science strand Equinox (produced by C4I, in association with ABC Australia and Scottish Television, among others); and Naked News, a four-part series produced by the Oxford Television Company for C4I.


TVNZ – TV1 and TV2

Although a much smaller industry, New Zealand has recently experienced a surge in both pay-tv (satellite giant Sky now broadcasts 20 channels into the country, including National Geographic, Discovery and Animal Planet), and feature films. However, a combination of funding cuts and an across-the-board preference for homegrown material has meant a leveling off in opportunities for international documentary producers at all of the country’s four national television networks.

With a combined market share of approximately 70%, it is TVNZ-owned free-to-air channels TV1 and TV2 which have the strongest hold over New Zealand’s audience. TVNZ is a state-owned enterprise and has board representation on Sky. Of its two channels, it is TV1 which airs the majority of international information/doc programming, while TV2 – with its 18-39 demographic – airs mainly comedy and entertainment programs.

According to Andrew Shaw, GM, programming and acquisitions at TVNZ, both TV1 and TV2 operate as commercial organizations in the same way as Ten, Seven and Nine Networks in Australia. According to Shaw: ‘There are some strong common bonds in terms of viewing habits. We have similar lifestyles and a high degree of interest in sport.’ TV1′s only doc strand, which commissions domestic product, is titled Documentary New Zealand.

Although there are currently no local quotas imposed on NZ broadcasters, TVNZ’s most re-occurring mandate is to air more locally-produced product, especially in documentaries – a policy similar to commercial stations in Australia and the way of the future, according to Shaw, for many broadcasters around the world. ‘We’re actually trying to buy less [international programming],’ he states.

‘Because American programming does not perform as well as it has in the past, we are looking to put more of our investment into original programming produced in our own territory. It’s getting harder and harder to find international shows that work. Audiences want some relevance in their content.’ Successful international doc series on TV1 have included the BBC’s The Human Body (also aired by the ABC) and the 10-part series Around the World in 80 days with Michael Palin (a BBC/PBS coproduction). Shaw estimates that payment for docs acquired from international sources such as Canada, the U.S., or the U.K. would amount to between US$3,500 -$4,500.

While there seems to be no shortage of programming for TVNZ, it’s the lack of high-caliber fare that concerns Shaw. ‘There is a shortage of quality programming that is being produced for the free-to air market, for mass audiences. There’s an awful lot of cable, niche, narrow-cast content which is, frankly, not viable when you want to play it to an adult, metropolitan audience because it’s already being produced for a dedicated niche crowd.’

In line with Australian commercial networks, TVNZ is also experiencing great success with lighter fare and experiential formats. ‘A lot of our documentaries are social/ human interest documentaries or experiential documentaries like BBC’s The Cruise and Airline [produced by London's LWT Productions]…’ Shaw explains. Harder-hitting material airs on TV1′s own current affairs strand.

TV3 and TV4

TVNZ’s free-to-air competition in New Zealand is Canadian media conglomerate CanWest, which broadcasts the other two national networks in New Zealand – the aptly-named TV3 and TV4. Launched in 1989, TV3 is New Zealand’s first privately owned TV broadcaster, breaking the state monopoly. It is a commercial broadcaster with a programming mandate very similar to TVNZ’s. Factual fare rates high while international doc material only comprises approximately 10% of their slate. Inside New Zealand is TV3′s premiere doc strand, airing 30 weeks of locally produced, one-hour docs per year.

Of their factual programming, Sue Woodfield, head of production, documentaries, information and drama at TV3 and TV4, says: ‘We pay about US$4,000 – $5,000 per hour. In New Zealand, like most other countries, there’s a move toward factual programming generally. Unlike a lot of other countries, however, locally produced programs rate more highly, generally, in New Zealand than acquisitions.’ She continues, ‘All of our highest rated programs are here… For example, in Britain something like Friends will be a top rating show, whereas in New Zealand, it will be number 12 or something.’

Woodfield points to entertainment series and lifestyle format shows as increasing trends in the industry. ‘We’re buying pop-factual series… and docu-soaps,’ she says. ‘Reality is also popular.’ She counts HBO, the BBC, and Carlton among TV3 and TV4′s main sources for international acquisitions. Of coproductions, she says: ‘We haven’t had a lot of experience in coproductions but we’re definitely interested in them… The programs would need to be commercial, high-concept to be considered.’


Hilton Cordell Productions

Formed from the merger of factual program-makers Aspire Films and the Bondi Picture Company, Sydney-based film and video production company, Hilton Cordell Productions has had marked success producing ten hours of docs per year for both the Australian and international market, garnering, among others, two UN Media Peace Prizes and a bronze medal at the New York Film and Television Festival. Successful projects include: Year of the Dogs, an inside look at an Australian Rules football club for ABC Australia and the BBC which also had a theatrical release in Australia; and Dealing with the Demon, a three-hour series on the international drug trade which sold to ABC Australia, PBS and TVOntario.

Company principle Chris Hilton, who has been directing, producing and writing documentaries for 12 years, says despite their success, selling internationally is always difficult. ‘There’s not many people doing very well at it. You have to put in the miles… It’s very difficult when you are in a completely different time zone to both North America and Europe to do things over the telephone…’

For Hilton, their location does, however, have its benefits when it comes to Asia. ‘We end up doing a lot of stuff in China that others don’t do, partly because of the time zone, partly because China hates Britain and doesn’t like the BBC and are pretty weary, I think, about letting Channel 4 type people in as well.’

Another card up Hilton Cordell’s sleeve is their success with coproductions. ‘We’ve done more coproductions than any other company in Australia,’ says Hilton, ‘and we’re more used to doing it. Although it can be bureaucratic and everything, there are plenty of lessons we’ve learned to make it smoother.’

Recent projects include the 1.2 million pound Irish/Australian coproduction, The Irish Empire, a five-hour series tracing the history of the Irish diaspora for the BBC, RTE Ireland and SBS Australia; and The Instinctive Architect, a US$350,000 one-hour on architect Renzo Piano for ABC Australia, AVRO Netherlands, RAI Italy, TSI Switzerland, and France’s ARTE.

Ninox Films Ltd.

Now celebrating its tenth birthday, Wellington-based Ninox Films (producer David Baldock and company director/producer Bronwen Stewart) produce 30 hours of docs and factual programming a year. One reason for Ninox’s success, according to Stewart, is their wide programming slate. ‘We have a series which follows emergency services [called Emergency Heroes for TV3], which is sort of an over-the-shoulder look at police and ambulances and fire work on emergency calls. We also do one-off docs such as single hours for local markets which examine subjects like how much tax you pay through to the real estate market.’ Upcoming Ninox fare includes the US$21,000 per episode TVNZ commissioned series called Location, Location which follows people through buying and selling their houses, and Kiwi Life, also for TVNZ.

Stewart estimates that roughly 50% of their product is sold internationally, due mainly to partnering with California-based distributor, RWI Enterprises. ‘New Zealand doesn’t really have a distributor in terms of program sales,’ says Stewart, ‘which is why we use an American agent who sells our catalog for us. And they do very well because there is such an appetite for docs and factual programming at the present time…Our distributor is reasonably successful in selling to cable stations. We don’t get much in the way of primetime network sales because we’re not making for that market. Something like Kiwi Life will have a huge international application because it’s a natural history doc. Whereas something like Location probably wouldn’t sell, because quite often there’s a problem with accents.’

One strike against NZ prodcos, as Stewart sees it, is the very different mindset the New Zealand industry has when it comes to funding domestic fare. ‘Australians are able to access funding for their programs mainly by the fact that they’re Australian; they can go overseas and make a program about politics in Indonesia and it will have an inherently Australian view…Therefore, they are able to access domestic funding, which is a much broader view from the Australian industry’s perspective than from ours, which tends to be a little more introspective.’

Stewart, however, hasn’t given up entirely on the industry. ‘There are 60 hours available to be commissioned or filled for the independent industry per year in New Zealand [for docs],’ she says, ‘which for our population is pretty good. Outside of that there can be series or there can be the bigger concept docs which fall outside of that 60 hours but that can also get funding from NZ On Air.’

Southern Star

Twenty-five year old Southern Star is the largest TV and film production and distribution company in Australia, representing programming from the U.S., U.K., and Australia. With over 170 countries within their distribution network, Southern Star recently expanded further by acquiring U.K. indie distributors Circle Communications and Primetime. Southern Star Sales, the group’s sales, licensing and merchandising arm, also substantially increased their Australian program catalog with a recent three-year exclusive distribution agreement with Australia’s Nine Network covering their television drama, children’s, sitcom, and doc slate.

With an expanding factual programming division specializing in wildlife, and a growing interest in science and technology fare, Southern Star provides an unparalleled source in the region for independent producers. Says Cathy Payne, deputy head of TV distribution, Southern Star Sales: ‘Because Southern Star is a producer and distributor, we represent not only our own productions, but we acquire a lot from independents as well… We also provide financing for producers.’

Of the fare that sells well for Southern Star internationally, Payne says: ‘You have to remember that up until recent times, Southern Star only handled wildlife programming. In my experience, the very best one-hour wildlife programming that has a very strong dramatic script and has a long shelf life [will sell internationally]… Australian filmmakers in the factual area – in general, their work travels very well overseas. Factual programming, especially when you are working on the big budget titles, attracts a special type of expertise. Those people are usually prepared to dedicate two or three years of their life to the project.’

Payne also sees a trend beginning to emerge when it comes to documentaries and the Australian television market: ‘I think the trend is that these days there is so many more choices of television around the world and so our television market continues to fragment,’ she says. ‘Because of that channels become more specialist and you get niche markets. I think people are always looking for the very best in projects – more so than ever.’

Current Southern Star offerings include, Hipsi the Forest Gardener, a 30-minute wildlife special from Queensland’s Malporc Productions, and the 60-minute Rare Animals of China, a joint venture between Southern Star/CCTV from the China Wild series.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.