TV Tonight continues its interviews with key executives in television. Following on from last week’s interviews with Seven, ABC, TEN and Nine, today the spotlight turns to SBS Director of Content Matt Campbell.
The last two weeks have not been without their challenges for Campbell, who learned the fate of Top Gear, a programme he had taken a punt on many years ago when no other network would touch it.
Having spent a lot of time trying to convince the BBC it should be staying at its natural home, he admits the loss of the brand is disappointing. SBS was outbid by an aggressive Nine Network.
“For me the wisest move the BBC could have made was to leave the Top Gear brand where it was. Only the future will tell whether they went the right way, really,” he says.
“We’d built up the brand and if you listen to the BBC we hadn’t done anything wrong. So it does come down to financials. It is very disappointing to build up a brand like that and suddenly see it go away. Sometimes that’s unfortunately the business…
“The thing that everybody, including my team, has to remember is it’s an hour in our schedule. It’s not the be-all and end-all. Obviously your number one programme is your number one programme and it’s very important. But we’ve got a whole lot more to concentrate on. Probably my biggest concern now is where Nine are going to put it. And we probably won’t know that until about 3 hours before they put it there. They probably won’t want anybody to know where they’re going to put it.”
He admits to being curious to see what Channel Nine will do with the somewhat controversial Top Gear Australia.
“I read (Nine Programmer) Michael Healy’s comments about Top Gear and he did say he appreciated all that SBS had done, which was nice for what it’s worth. It will be very interesting seeing what they do with it because it’s a bloody tough call. I know having done the two of them.”
SBS will telecast Top Gear until January 18th, soon on both Monday and Friday nights, to wind up its remaining episodes.
“We’ve got four Top Gear specials on Monday nights beginning with the Winter Olympics special, which hasn’t been seen in Australia. Then we do the USA, the Polar Special and the Vietnam Special which has been seen before. And then we go back to Series 4 through to January 18th which is first run.”
Meanwhile Campbell was more cheerful about other brands arriving or returning to the network. Award-winning US miniseries John Adams airs in December. Big Love‘s third series is due mid-January.
A second series of Wilfred is due around February / March. “I’ve seen 5 episode rough cuts. It is hilarious,” he promises.
There is more Swift and Shift Couriers from Paul Fenech next year. “It appeals to many, and it disgusts many others,” he cheekily admits.
Heston’s Feasts is one of several more cuisine series to begin, there is documentary series Secrets and Lives and a new series of The Circuit in December starring Aaron Pedersen and Gary Sweet.
“The Circuit is a great series,” he says. “There is a lot more light and shade this time. It’s certainly not just lighter, there are some very big issues. But I think it’s a corker.”
Yet one of the network’s finest local dramas, East West 101 is languishing on Tuesday nights against Packed to the Rafters and NCIS. Campbell said it was originally intended to air on Sunday nights over summer, when SBS enjoys its biggest audiences, but due to “internal” reasons had to be brought forward. He explains how he was boxed in to running the show on Tuesdays instead of Sundays.
“At this time of year that’s Dateline, and with news and current affairs you don’t move around the timeslot. So looking at the rest of the week we had little to no choice. Wednesdays is the big night on the ABC which is the biggest portion of our audience that we share. Tuesdays was the lesser of evils.
“We also brought Who Do You Think You Are? forward too, which is doing fine, but it’s East West 101 which got hit. And it’s a real shame because it’s such a good series.”
Campbell says research indicated the percentage of SBS viewers who would go to Packed to the Rafters was quite small compared to those who might disappear if East West 101 was on another night of the schedule. Even holding the show against the impending Hey Hey reunion (originally slated for Tuesdays) was a mistake.
“We reacted to the Hey Hey special which we’ll never do again because they changed the night.”
By the end of all the switching, he acknowledges, “It was disastrous…”
To rectify the problem, East West 101 will have a relatively swift repeat season over summer, a third series is in development and it has a swag of AFI Award nominations for December.
Lately SBS has been making more switches to its programming, including a flip from South Park to Man Vs Wild.
“We were waiting for new episodes of South Park, that was the main reason. We were looking for something to keep those Top Gear viewers in for the next hour. But South Park will be coming back into its home.
“I’m surprised by the figures for Man vs Wild. There was flow there, good god! Unbelievable!” he laughs.
“We probably move our schedule around less than anybody, and still do by far. But that’s not to say if something’s clearly not working and we think there’s a possibility of doing better we won’t hesitate.”
Next year SBS will again have three of its biggest international events.
“The World Cup is the biggest sporting event on the calendar in the world. It’s bigger than the Winter Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. So we’re working very hard on that already. We’ll go straight out of that into the Tour de France which is getting bigger and bigger for us and we won’t have the clash with The Ashes next year.”
RocKwiz host Julia Zemiro and ADbc host Sam Pang are also returning to Eurovision, this time in Norway. Campbell knows that EV fans are just as passionate and particular as Top Gear fans to please.
“The reason we sent them is because Terry Wogan had retired,” he says. “Julia is a perfect fit. It took a little bit of time to warm up given it was their first one but once we got to the semi final they were getting into sync. But there’s no in-between with Eurovision. People either love it or hate it. Don’t think we didn’t get any complaints about Terry Wogan with people saying, ‘How dare he take the piss out of my country!'”
A second season of Mad Men is not due before July due to rights. Campbell says it is a show which brings the network prestige.
“I knew it wasn’t going to get huge audiences. But I was so glad to have on the schedule because that’s the kind of thing our audience expects from us.”
He says some shows, such as Entourage, are obvious choices for the network. Despite their American-centric themes, they fit the network’s image of Monday night quality drama.
“It’s the kind of thing that should be on SBS. It’s clever drama. People come to us because of the drama we show. Traditionally people have been coming to Monday nights for drama, going back to Queer as Folk, Oz and all of those things,” he says.
Recent MIPCOM acquisitions include more international drama. Campbell says SBS never leans towards acquisitions based on their country of origin, noting a high proportion of French content despite a relatively modest number of French-Australians, when compared to other diverse backgrounds.
“We never buy an Italian programme because we think ‘the Italians will like this.’ We have never bought programmes like that. We buy them because we think all viewers will like them.”
SBS TWO meanwhile offers its traditional foreign-language movies, supported by the network’s recent buyout of PAN and the World Movies Channel.
“Ever since PAN started we have been buying and contracting all the movies for them. So now it just makes it simpler. But on a day to day basis it makes no difference, other than we get a bigger share of the revenue,” Campbell notes.
“The big thing about SBS TWO, given we’ve been given absolutely no money to run that channel, is that anything I put on I am stealing from an underfunded SBS ONE. So that makes life interesting. Our movies, which are the best in the world of arthouse, start at 9:00. They’ve been consistently pushed further back in the (SBS ONE) schedule. There’s not a lot of people who want to sit down at 10:00 or 11:00 to start a movie –particularly a subtitled movie. People just put it in the ‘too-hard basket.’ But it’s a fantastic line-up of movies.”
And as the television landscape changes, more and more viewers are migrating to new digital channels, further eroding numbers for the traditional premium channels. Campbell is pragmatic about the challenge.
“All those people tuning into digital channels were Free to Air viewers spread across the five channels beforehand. So when you’ve got certain things pulling significant numbers it’s being taken from somewhere. It’s being taken from all of us really. But it’s where it’s all going, there’s no point in crying about it. You just get on with it and try and make yours as good as possible and watch it like a hawk.”
Unlike his commercial counterparts, Campbell has to program two channels on a versatile budget. And unlike the ABC, its triennial budget in May enjoyed no significant boost.
While some question its shifts in foreign-language content in primetime, or the combination of advertisements and public funding, its 34 year history would indicate it is surely an Australian institution. The audience now spans a vast demographic.
“It’s as eclectic a mix as our schedule. From a segment point of view it’s cultural information-seekers who are our core audience.
“Whether we like it or not SBS does tend to be an appointment viewing channel. They come in to watch what they want. It’s our job to try and get them to stick around.”