ABC1′s man on a mission

Channel Controller Brendan Dahill talks about his vision for ABC1, how he views Ratings and that programming move that pitted Rake against 2 Aussie dramas.

ABC1’s Channel Controller Brendan Dahill gives his first interview to TV Tonight since assuming the role in August.

The former BBC Australia executive talks about his vision to reposition the channel, how he views Ratings and addresses a programming move that pitted Rake against two Aussie dramas.

In taking charge of the channel under a restructured ABC, Dahill has spent time looking at the channel’s brand with audiences.

“You need to understand the foundations that you are building on and how solid they are. The foundations here are pretty solid. There’s nothing that’s fundamentally broken. It’s a good problem to have,” he says.

“We looked at the top 20 channels in Australia, so all the FTA channels and the Pay TV channels as well, and nobody really valued the entertainment values of ABC1.

“It was all of the Public Service values of the ABC that everyone was judging ABC1 against. That was kind of okay in the world where ABC wasn’t even ABC1, it was just ABC, it was our only channel.

“So we’ve been talking a lot about what is the “1-ness’ of ABC1? What is our unique expression of the ABC Public Service values in an ABC1 way?”

His programming team now have a new strategy, designed to crystallise what the channel stands for,

“The values that I would like everyone to take away from ABC1 or at least I hope they notice more about ABC going forward are the four ‘E’s: Entertaining, Engaging, Enlightening and Exciting,” he says.

“If we can get shows that do the quadrella that would be perfect.”

ABC1 will also seek to broaden its demographics, but there is a qualification about pursuing a younger audience.

“ABC1 has a really super-loyal audience but we need to grow our reach. We need to be more relevant in more Australian’s lives, more often. So we need to grow our reach and we need to grow younger,” he says.

“If we need to preserve the future of pub-casting in this country, and particularly in regards to ABC1, we need to be relevant to all Australians.”

But young does not mean aligning closer to TEN or GO!

“I mean mainstream Australia. The average age in Australian is about 38. But ABC1 skews older than that at the moment so I’m just re-focusing us back to the middle. I’m trying to grow our reach amongst those 35 to 49 year olds,” he explains.

Research has identified stay-at-home parents and working families as under-utilising ABC1.

“It’s working families, it’s families of Australia that ABC1 is not doing enough for at the moment. Certainly we’ve already got their older parents and we’ve already got their grandparents on our side. And the kids are already on our side because they are watching ABC2 and we’ve got the number one kids channel in Australia in ABC3,” he says.

“But there is a little bit of a disconnect between us and working parents at the moment.”

Without having the money to compete with Seven, Nine and TEN, Dahill is also “quite comfortable” with not being the highest rating channel, so long as programming has something, somewhere for everyone.

“That may mean that we don’t have massive audiences, but there will be lots of shows that lots of people like and love,” he says.

“I’m not in the ratings business, I’m not asked to flog advertising, so I don’t need to deliver eyeballs. What I need to do is deliver reach and I need to deliver value for money for the full public funds that we spend.

“If audiences aren’t responding to a show, then you have to look at where you’ve made a mistake and everyone has to have some way of judging whether a show’s connecting people. The only measure we have at the moment are the Overnights.”

One of his earliest re-scheduled was in pulling public-speaking show Strictly Speaking from 8pm Wednesdays. The show had been produced before his appointment.

“I did pull Strictly Speaking and that was my fault. I put it in a slot that wasn’t right. But it will come back in another slot, hopefully where an audience responds to it and where it’s not being put under the harsh glare of Wednesday nights. So that was my mistake- My Bad. I’d love to say we get it right all the time, but we don’t.”

With 20 years in the industry, Dahill says Overnight ratings would once make or break his day.

“By 10:00 in the morning I was either going to have a great day or shit day. Now I’m much more sanguine about them. Sometimes things work and you think, ‘Great that was exactly what was expected to happen.’ Sometimes it doesn’t work at all. And sometimes you just don’t understand it.

“So, they are a currency by which TV is judged. But now we have a PVR world, so Catch-up and Consolidated ratings a week later are much more important. We still have yet to find a sophisticated enough way of aggregating, what happens with iView . We have the number one Catch up site in Australia. So we need to find a much more sophisticated way of adding the impact of iView, particularly if you’re after a younger demographic.”

Much of the 2011 production slate has been in place prior to his appointment. Dahill’s touch will take time to resonate.

“I can’t take full credit for most of the shows. That’s a lot of hard of hard work by a lot of people before I turned up. Hopefully I brought a little bit more strategy and focus to what we’re talking about and the things that we are commissioning. Trophy Room is mine. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, it’s on me as well,” he insists.

“I know it’s from my 6.5 years here how significant sport is to the Australian national identity and I thought it was nuts that the ABC wasn’t doing something meaningful about sport and entertainment. Spicks and Specks manages to pull off the feat of being about music in a really geeky way sometimes, as a super-entertaining show.

“I know that sports entertainment shows can work because I’ve seen enough of them that do really well, so I really wanted one.

“But people have got to remember picks and Specks wasn’t a hit til season 3.”

He also doesn’t claim credit for Rake but admits early marketing deadlines saw him schedule the show in a timeslot that resulted in a 3 way local drama battle.

“I’ll be completely candid with you. When I saw it, I was looking to get ABC drama into the mid-week schedule. Tuesday night is a non starter because of Rafters so Thursday 8:30 seemed like the undiscovered territory to me because most of the year it’s a disjointed schedule on the other networks,” he says.

“So Thursday was where I had my cross hairs set on. Rush was there, yes. But Rake and Rush are completely different viewing experiences.

“I was quite comfortable Rake and Rush were sufficiently different that we were actually adding something new to the mix.

“We picked Thursdays at 8:30 within about three days of me being here. And the train was already going and then Cops LAC turned out up on Thursdays at 8:30! So I sat in here with people going ‘What do we do?’ And I watched the first couple of episodes of Cops LAC go out. And it wasn’t for me. I didn’t like it. And I saw the ratings. Given Nine’s history, I didn’t expect it to be there by the time Rake launched.

“I think we were up against it once. I think we had the three-header once.”

Based on the success of Rake, and with several more dramas to be produced in 2011, Dahill says ABC1 audiences should expect more mid-week dramas in the future.

“The more important long term strategic issue for me was reclaiming a part the mid-week schedule for drama on ABC1.”

18 Responses

  1. ABC 2’s new look is expected next month, also. It will be interesting to see the differences in presentation and character between ABC 1 and ABC 2 given they have different channel controllers.

    Someone should give the guy a rundown on the history of the ABC. They’ve been a prolific producer of youth programming over the years and have also had numerous sport panel shows. Denton’s “Live and Sweaty” was another successful sport/entertainment show.

  2. Good on you Vinny. Out of that whole article, a very interesting read btw, the only comment you can make is to point out a missing letter??

    I think one thing that all the ABC channels (except perhaps ABC24) need to do is fix their on-air presentation like graphics and promos. Especially on ABC1, it’s just wrong in so many ways and too often look like something whipped up on Powerpoint. I know money can be tight but spend a bit of money on a decent-looking channel and it can make a huge difference with public perception.

    And I don’t know what ABC thinks of its 6pm-7pm hour but IMO that is a timeslot that ABC1 could fix up – a lot. Given that there is now going to be news content across 5 FTA channels in that timeslot (Seven, Nine, Ten, ABC24. And SBS1 from 6.30pm) there is an opportunity for ABC1 to try and get a hold of some viewers looking for some entertainment. It’s a pity SBS have Letters And Numbers but I think that show would sit far better on ABC1.

  3. a typical channel controller who completely ignores viewer research and twists it to suit their own ideas….he says research shows viewers didn’t value the entertainment side of ABC so we decided to focus on entertainment… its like people complain about too many ads and the executives say research shows people love ads

  4. It is interesting to read what direction they are planning ABC1 to head in.

    David P – The ABC have done good sports entertainment shows in the past – “Club Buggery” in the 1990s (with Roy and HG) and “The Fat” from 1999-2003. When “The Fat” moved to commercial TV that’s where it bombed.

    The ABC have shown that they can do sports entertainment shows – they just need to find the right people to host it.

  5. Great interview, David. His apparent candour and willingness to own up and accept blame is a breath of fresh air in a world of commercial TV spin. I agree that there would have been little overlap between the audience for “Rake” and “Rush”, and none with “Cops L.A.C.” so the “pitting” of one Aussie drama against another was largely irrelevant (at least with regard to “Rake”).

    I also agree with Russell that while ratings can’t be the be-all and end-all, they are still the only objective measure we have of whether a program is working or not.

    I don’t think that “Trophy Room” is ever going to get big numbers, even if it makes it to a third season. David P has hit the nail on the head. The ABC has always had a strong association with music amongst the “Countdown” generation, and later Triple J, and I suspect that these people make up a large percentage of “Spicks and Specks” viewers.

    It’s association with mainstream sport is very tenuous – it’s mostly third and fourth tier stuff such as lawn bowls and women’s football (soccer). I happen to like Helliar’s dorky lame-duck comedic style but a lot of people don’t.

    “Trophy Room” is “Spicks and Specks” for sports fans in the same way that “Letters and Numbers” is “Spicks and Specks” for bibliophiles and mathematicians. Not very.

  6. Good luck to Brendan – I hope he can reinvigorate ABC’s drama slate – but he needs a visionary head of drama capable of leadership, not just Eps who project manage these series and take no real responsibility for sucesses or failures. Rake is great Aussie drama, but programming in non-ratings feels like the ABC didn’t have confidence in it. BORing 3, on the other hand has been cleverly programmed (buried) in non-ratings. I like what he’s saying about trying to get the ABC to skew a bit “younger” by targetting 40 year olds – once again intelligent drama will do the job, not all that awful “youth” drama like Laid and I Rock – these belong on ABC2. Also agree kids programming should happen on 3 and 2 should be younger/edgier/riskier material.

  7. I hope they still air the British stuff (dramas or other) assuming they don’t get pinched from the commercial networks. I’ll admit not all of us are interested in contemporary dramas. I’m largely sick of them. Unless they have a quirk or quirky characters. Like Sherlock (I also have loved Sherlock Holmes), House (until they killed it on Sunday when I usually watch ABC1) and Sea Change.

    I’m not saying I should be the template because I like watching more than one channel. Also some people do like contemporary drama. I used to once upon a time but there is only so many plots until you get sick of them. I like historical, science and even futuristic stuff (that’s why Doctor Who is perfect for me). Documentaries or fictional. Or even docu-dramas. I look forward to Phryne Fisher. I hope it’s like Poirot (in quality not sensibility as I want it to be itself). Maybe they could be paired for some of it. But I’m no expert.

    I wish him well and since he comes from the BBC I like it. As he hopefully gets quality work not just what sells well. Because that’s what I’m after.

  8. While I don’t mind the occasional US show on ABC2 (Breaking Bad/The Wire) it should be more focused on the interesting, unplayed stuff from all countries.

    If you want US stuff, watch Any of the commercial entertainment channels (there are 5, nearly 6 of them now)

  9. “People have got to remember Spicks and Specks wasn’t a hit till Season 3.”

    In fact, Mr Dahill’s got to remember that Spicks and Specks was doing big numbers, had an avid critic and viewer fan base, and was regularly cracking the million audience mark in its First season. Just saying!

  10. Great coup, David, and an interesting read. My bias I readily admit, having worked under (way under, i should add) several heads of television, finds his own publicity shot, a tad smug, but that’s just my op. They always seem to arrive and tinker with things that they did not initiate. I’ve seen it numerous times, and with lower executives too – it seems to be the way of the world. I also react strongly to the restructed titles – ‘channel controller’ conjures up thumping fists on tables to me! Time will tell if he stamps the ABC culture during his tenure. Sandra Levy did (& i didn’t like it, but at least she did) & Courtney Gibson did not

  11. The ABC3 is more like the worst kids channel, only Nine Go! manages to provide any decent programming for kids anymore.

    The ABC3 has too much focus on Australian content (far too many old Australian series), more reality TV rubbish than any other (free to air) TV network, and far too many silly/stupid series (especially new cartoon series). The ABC3 has only resulted in more endless repeats than ever (just look at summer schedule), they really think kids are mindless.

    The ABC should merge kids content into a single channel, with programming for pre-schoolers during school time.

  12. The ABC has had panel Sports Entertainment shows before and they have all bombed. With no major sport on ABC1 it is not seen as a sports channel and never will be, so it does not have that sports association. This new effort, Trophy Room,also appears to be a dud. Employing a host associated with a previous failed effort and not noted for his sporting prowess was not a wise move.
    I wish Brendan Dahill all the best and I hope he will be the one that will finally get ABC Australian Drama right. He only has to look at his former employer’s production efforts to see how it should be done.

  13. This is a great story David, great interview. Thanks for the insight. Brendan really sounds like he knows what he is doing. I like how he says he is not obsessed with ratings, but at the same time he needs to find programming that has wide appeal for Australians. I think that’s exactly what ABC1 and ABC2 should be about.
    I’d like to see ABC1 has less stuff British period dramas and more wide appeal Australian programming – things like Gruen, Spicks & Specks and of course a lot more drama.

    I also like he point that the average age of an Australian is 38, and he needs to be programming a bit more to that age.

    ABC1 – should become more like BBC1 – mainstream appeal
    ABC2 – should become the home of pre school programmes( age 2 – 6) 6am-7pm, then switch to more quirky, young adult fare (more US stuff)
    ABC3 – should be like Nick – ages 6-15 from 6am-7pm, then switch to a slighly older target – with classic Oz programming – like Nick at Nite

Leave a Reply