In honor of the Spotlight on Australia taking place at this year's edition of MIPCOM, realscreen has culled together collected wisdom from several of the continent's top players in the documentary and factual entertainment spheres, from top production companies to commissioning editors to government agencies. Here, we offer this overview of the climate for non-fiction Down Under.
October 1, 2010

In honor of the Spotlight on Australia taking place at this year’s edition of MIPCOM, realscreen has culled together collected wisdom from several of the continent’s top players in the documentary and factual entertainment spheres, from top production companies to commissioning editors to government agencies. Here, we offer this overview of the climate for non-fiction Down Under.


MasterChef (currently produced by FMA) is a phenomenon and several other FMA shows are television staples. Given your background in Australian television, has factual/entertainment programming historically had this sort of impact with audiences?
Certainly MasterChef has set a new benchmark in terms of audience engagement with a factual entertainment program, but I believe as a genre it has been established for many years and firmly cemented its place in the Australian television landscape. The audience’s appetite continues to grow for programs that showcase great storytelling and this can take many forms. The storytelling component of factual and entertainment formats is now key to their success and something that we focus on very heavily at FMA.
Australia’s love affair with factual programming began in 1989 with [gardening program] Burke’s Backyard. Audiences have watched the genre en masse since then, the most recent hit show being MasterChef. I have no doubt that another one will follow very soon. History tends to repeat itself.

Are there any unique qualities that you think an Australian audience looks for in its factual and entertainment programming? What seems to resonate strongest with Australian audiences?
What resonates the most with Australian audiences are strong characters that they can relate to, and then go on a journey with. The journey can be as they progress from an unknown artist to recording superstar, from home-cook to celebrity chef, or a more personal journey of self-discovery as they develop through a format. As producers we have the very important task of telling the stories of their journeys with heart, warmth and respect. If we can capture that then the audience will engage with the program and its characters and ensure its success. We’ve seen that quite clearly with programs such as Farmer Wants A Wife.

From your broadcast background at Network Ten, what can you tell us about the broadcasting climate when it comes to factual and entertainment offerings in Australia? Is there plenty of opportunity for factual entertainment producers?
We see there is huge opportunity in this market. [Pay TV service] Foxtel has shown us that there are always opportunities for growth and now with the digital channels our potential broadcast partners have increased greatly. There is an ever-growing need for quality content and original ideas and we are very well-positioned to deliver on both fronts. The bottom line is that if the idea is good one it will find a home.


In Australia, the Shine TV format MasterChef has been an absolute game-changer. Is there anything you’re looking to update once you take over production again from FremantleMedia Australia in 2012?
It’s an understatement in saying the popularity of the series has exceeded all of our expectations. In taking the show over at Shine we don’t envisage any major ‘left hand turns’ but rather refining and improving the elements which have made it such a success. We must keep deliciously surprising the audience.

Junior MasterChef has debuted strong. What hopes do you have for that spin-off and what can you tell us about what you’re doing with it for Australia?
Junior MasterChef is a shorter series in composition and roll-out but we have very high hopes it will break some new ground in primetime viewing. We’ve exercised an enormous duty of care in getting the tone right editorially whilst ensuring the safety of the kids on set. Overall it’s very much based upon encouragement and participation as opposed to winning, but that doesn’t mean the kids are not competitive. The entire series works on a points system, tasting is always in twos and eliminations are in groups of four so no child is ever singled out. The judges are incredibly warm and empathetic and the children all encourage and support each other especially when things go wrong. Bottom line is these kids can really cook; in fact, their level of skill is truly astounding. In screening the early episodes there’s no doubt we have something special here.

What do you think is the general mood in commercial television in Australia at present – did the global financial crisis greatly impact the sector and is it now looking like recovery is imminent?
The mood in Australia within the industry is positive and upbeat. It’s an exciting time to be in content. The advertising market has rebounded and broadcasters are investing in local production as the media landscape becomes increasingly competitive. The GFC certainly affected the sector – advertising ground to a halt, commissions froze and there was mounting pressure on overheads which resulted in many redundancies. It was a frightening period as the markets collapsed but the country was fortunate overall. There wasn’t the same sense of doom that existed in the UK.


What’s the best way to pitch to you?
Send pitches to Eniko Toth, SBS Commissioned Content, Locked Bag 028 Crows Nest NSW 1585. More information is available on the SBS website [htp://], though it is in the process of being updated.

What works best content-wise for fact ent on SBS?
For commissioned content it should have some Australian angle, preferably a multicultural focus, a contemporary feel. We are a public service broadcaster and so shows that are going to sit comfortably on the Australian commercial channels are probably not going to work for us. We are generally not interested in arts programs (we leave that to the ABC), programs for children or young people (our target audience is 35+), programs with big prizes, talent shows, game shows, dating programs etc.

What other advice can you give interested producers?
Look at our schedule and see what type of programs we broadcast. If a show is successful on another channel then please don’t assume we’ll want something similar. [Send] well-thought through proposals that you are passionate about.


In your opinion, what is the current climate for documentary and factual projects in Australia?
For a relatively small market, Australia has a large variety of production entities. There are the large, international operating production houses like Southern Star and Beyond as well as midsize companies like Freehand, which BBC Worldwide has acquired a large stake in; the more specialist documentary companies that aim to coproduce one offs internationally, like Electric Pictures, and the small ‘one man bands’ that mainly produce for the domestic market. This diversity is good for a broad Australian catalog. Most of the bigger players are present at MIP and the smaller companies are represented by Screen Australia, the government agency that is responsible for investing in and marketing Australian screen content.

How about coproduction – what challenges do Australian producers face if they’re keen to work with other countries on projects?
Australian producers fight the tyranny of distance. The traditional coproduction partners are in Europe and North America and, for the moment, there are no thriving markets in the proximity. Amongst the production community there are traces of an island mentality present and the local content requirements of the domestic broadcasters are high, not factors that speak in favor of international collaboration.
On the other hand though, there are some very lucrative facilities in place that can benefit international coproduction. The funding mechanisms are coproduction-friendly and put the Australian producer in a good position for doing business with international partners. Other benefits include a highly professional production mentality, a solid and workable legal structure, world class crews and post-production houses. There are a limited number of coproduction treaty agreements in place with most of the major territories, including China. An effective way to meet coproduction partners as well as broadcasters is the annual Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC).


Are there any new initiatives from Screen Australia concerning funding of docs and doc/factual series?
The production grant model, launched in February 2010 at AIDC, is fully operational. The grant model aims to benefit production companies by reducing consultation, financial and market reporting obligations and simplified contracting. A major advantage to production companies is the improved recoupment position as Screen Australia is no longer an investor and retains only one percent copyright.

From your vantage point, what is the current climate for documentary and factual projects in Australia? Have broadcasters/pay TV companies maintained their support for such projects in terms of commissions and slots?
Screen Australia’s investment in documentary this year saw increased participation by subscription television and significant support for two innovative and substantial stand-alone websites. In addition, recognition for project enhancement through online and social media presence and alternative distribution opportunities is reflected in many project applications and production budgets. The Producer Offset is now an established part of production finance plans.

Is there any news on the copro side to report – any new initiatives making it easier to facilitate coproductions?
Screen Australia will be releasing new copro guidelines at MIPCOM 2010. Fiona Cameron, Screen Australia’s executive director, strategy & operations will launch the new guidelines on October 5 as part of the official Spotlight on Australia focus at MIPCOM. As part of the spotlight Screen Australia is organizing a series of producer networking events.


You will be among the Australian delegates heading to MIPCOM this year as part of its Australian spotlight. What is the aim specifically for Film Victoria in taking part?
Film Victoria regularly attends MIPTV, but given the Spotlight on Australia at MIPCOM this year we felt it would be valuable to have a presence at this market, particularly to promote the many Victorian-based factual production companies who would make ideal coproduction partners. We provide development support and equity investment to Victorian producers, which they can access in addition to the Australian Producer Offset and funding from Screen Australia. Australian producers are very adept at putting deals together which involve multiple territories and broadcasters and coproductions are an extension of this method of financing.

In your view, what is the current climate for documentary and factual projects in Australia?
We see the Australian market for documentary and factual as relatively healthy. We have a number of companies achieving regular commissions for one-offs and series from the ABC and the Pay TV channels are becoming increasingly active. SBS is a little quiet right now; however, they’ve commissioned a lot of projects from Victorian companies over the past 12 months, and we expect they’ll seek new projects in the near future. Certainly our more experienced producers have weathered the GFC well in terms of maintaining a reasonable level of production activity, but they work very hard to get their projects across the line and often for very low fees and overheads. However, they’re incredibly resilient and talented, so we think this will improve for them once the international markets become more stable.


What’s the preferred approach for pitching to you?
The most efficient way is to send our development producer, Edwina Waddy (

For acquisitions, producers should contact our new acquisitions manager, Alison Baker( ) or acquisitions coordinator Naz Mantoo


What can you tell us about your audience?
As the national broadcaster we’re keen to connect with a wide, primetime audience. ABC1 is particularly keen on series that appeal to families. As ever, transformational journeys work well as do subjects that really hit the Australian zeitgeist. Stories from our continent and region do best. Recent home grown hits for ABC1 include Dick Smith’s Population Puzzle, The Making of Modern Australia and Voyage to the Planets. I’m looking forward to showing Penguin Island which just did really well on BBC1.

What about recent co-financed projects?
We co-finance projects regularly with international partners. Our full presales need to go to an Australian production company and those companies make deals with international producers, broadcasters and others. Natural history, history and science lend themselves really well to co-financing arrangements but the recent three-part series with RTE, Addicted to Money, shows that it can be done with a contemporary, presenter-led project too. Australian independent producers are really strong in this area and we welcome all conversations about collaborating with international partners.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.