In the last few weeks we’ve had The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, The Young Pope, Orphan Black….
Now Versailles, Cardinal, The Good Fight and more of Outlander are on the way.
SBS viewers have never had it so good.
So how does a broadcaster that is continually challenged with limited funds manage to nab some of the hottest titles in international drama right now?
Marshall Heald, SBS Director of Television and Online Content, acknowledges the broadcaster is enjoying good ‘cut-through’ with its suite of international dramas.
“We’re all about establishing a position with the world’s most distinctive drama. We’re very agile and fast-moving, we take more risks and we are far more flexible with the types of deals that we do,” he explains.
“We often buy second windows on titles (such as) Outlander, The Night Manager or Deutschland ’83.
“We are probably punching above our weight”
“We often buy at script stage, so we’re very, very early, often on the basis of one script, perhaps with an attached director and maybe a couple of cast. And not a lot of people are doing that.
“We’re in a period of peak drama and there is a lot being made worldwide. But as a largely acquisitions network we will naturally follow the ebbs and flows and overall shape of the market. More than 90% of our schedule is acquired, so with more Drama around we are naturally going to go there, assuming we can on a cost basis compared to other genres.
“We are probably punching above our weight in terms of perception around the offer.”
The Handmaid’s Tale starring Elisabeth Moss launched on SBS on Demand last Thursday and, along with its glowing reviews, is attracting plenty of buzz. So with a property that hot, why not premiere it on broadcast TV?
“Handmaid’s was made for Hulu, and in our view it was made to be binged”
Heald says SBS is experimenting with its platforms, having previously debuted Trapped and Midnight Sun online before on broadcast.
“Handmaid’s was made for Hulu, and in our view it was made to be binged. We thought it would attract a passionate audience, so looking at it through those prisms we thought the best plan was to put it all out On Demand at one time,” he continues.
“We make individual decisions with every piece of content we make and license. Some we are happy (to premiere) On Demand. The trade-off is whether that will cannibalise a TV audience or will those viewers tell other people about it?
“There’s a general consumer trend towards binging and while SBS isn’t going to be a market maker we’re a follower of those trends. We are very small, with a small marketing budget, so at a practical level where we can grab people’s attention with something then it probably serves us better to super-serve them quickly, rather than try and compete over a longer period of time.”
In early August The Good Wife spin-off The Good Fight will debut, which SBS was able to acquire because it was produced for SVOD platform CBS All Access. But how does a broadly-appealing commercial drama fit the SBS Charter?
“When CBS came to us we thought it had a fantastic cast, a great situation with Christine Baranski losing her job and investments, and the only job she could find was in a black law firm. She spends all her time looking at police brutality cases and social causes. So it’s a nice fish-out-of-water story.
“But we also need a certain number of broadly appealing titles which we can use to bring audiences into the network to be across all of the other distinctive drama we have from around the rest of the world,” Heald maintains.
“Diversity on screen is important, but for us it’s not enough”
“Diversity on screen is important, but for us it’s not enough. There’s extraordinary diversity on screen in American television. Far more than in Australia.
“But we’re also looking for thematics. A show like The Good Fight, when you pick it apart, is about an affluent, white lawyer working in a black law firm and having to engage in a whole ecosystem that she has no experience with. So there’s a strong Charter alignment there.
“As an acquisitions network, and one of the few networks in the world with our kind of ‘purpose’, it’s very difficult for us to consistently acquire content that 100% meets our needs. We could really only do that if we had more local commissions.”
In local dramas SBS has two original titles on the way, Sunshine set in Melbourne’s Sudanese community and an asylum-seeker psychological thriller, Safe Harbour.
“We get good ‘cut-through’ with quite a small slate”
“People talk to me about being ‘back in Drama’ but we only have 12 (Australian) hours a year so it’s a very modest output. But the types of stories we are telling are very distinctive. There are a lot of thematics that others aren’t looking at and we have a good strategy in amplifying what we do. So we get good ‘cut-through’ with quite a small slate,” he continues.
“Our key creative challenge is to look at often quite-serious themes but turn them into getting broad cut-through. So you need to manage a mixture of light and shade.”
Still to come are the Scandinavian noir-thriller shot in Thailand, Farang, Norway’s Valkyrien, French drama Riviera, historical drama Knightfall, and crime thriller Below the Surface.
On Demand with its 900 titles, including 750+ movies, is doing so well commercial networks are beginning to raise eyebrows about a publicly-subsidised platform denting commercial business.
But Heald is confident the offering is on Charter.
“We often get out-muscled from a Live viewing perspective, so for us investing in On Demand and giving audiences a chance to catch-up on our content makes perfect sense,” Heald insists.
“I think the content we’re offering is typically not being offered anywhere else.”