With so many multichannels on Free to Air television, sometimes it can be hard to get noticed, and to communicate what your channel offers.
ABC2 was the first multichannel on offer, launching in 2005, but re-launching in 2008.
Last August Stuart Menzies was appointed Channel Controller and in April he oversaw a rebranding with a bright green logo and the words “Always Brighter.”
Menzies talked to TV Tonight about ABC’s “other” general entertainment channel and what viewers can expect to see in coming months.
Menzies oversees adult programming from 7pm-2am. Across the week this includes a mix of first-run drama and documentary, Free to Air premieres of titles that have aired on Pay TV, and some catch-up of ABC1 content.
“When we branded with “Always Brighter” it was deliberate. It was intended to say that it’s a slightly ‘lean forward’, intelligent, eclectic offering, so that if tonight is not your documentary or drama then tomorrow might be. It’s about having in the audiences’ mind that ABC2 is always worth keeping an eye on. There’s always interesting stuff going on,” he explains.
“The rebrand has worked, the new way we’re talking to our audience has tightened things up and from the feedback I’m getting it’s starting to generate a slight differentiation from ABC1. So it’s starting to get its own identity.
“We’re getting a better share and ratings which is one nice indicator that so far so good. But that said it’s an unbelievably competitive market out there so it gives you daily challenges when you’re trying to differentiate a brand. It’s like standing on shifting sands but it’s an exciting time to be in telly.”
Since the commercial networks have launched, and re-launched, extra channels, ABC2’s share now sits behind 7TWO, GO!, ELEVEN, 7mate, GEM and ONE. For Programmers, the rise in multichannels has become a double-edged sword.
“Obviously there’s a lot more competition so that makes it tough, but there are a whole lot more people who know all the digital terrestrials so a lot more people sample us, so it’s both good and bad,” he says.
“I think as the digital terrestrials mature they will all find their own space, but that’s a sign of a sector of the industry that’s developing and maturing.”
Amongst the many titles that have helped create the ABC2 brand are The Wire, Being Human, Arrested Development, Generation Kill, Party Down, Breaking Bad, The Tudors, Scrapheap Challenge, Sanctuary, Torchwood, Good Game and The Graham Norton Show.
Menzies says progamming Drama is part of an evolving strategy.
“Drama is getting harder to launch on the digital terrestrials. There’s a lot more people playing them but not a lot more drama being made,” he says.
“Sometimes you feel there’s not a lot of life left in an HBO title or some of the premium titles. By the time the window happens a lot of those who want to watch it have watched it already.
“But I don’t think we should shy away from the fact there is a kind of curated eclecticism of ABC2. There are things that unify, but it’s about the intelligence and the wit. There’s something going on.”
Coming up are Misfits (pictured), Friday Night Lights, Pete vs Life, Peep Show, Psychoville, River Monsters, Breaking Bad, The Runaway and Free to Air premiere episodes of Louis Theroux.
ABC2 will also have the Australian premiere of 3-part French miniseries Carlos about Carlos the Jackal.
Following on from I ROCK, it will have the six-part scripted comedy, Twentysomething. Working with a limited budget, Menzies hopes to commission one drama series each year.
“They will be very particular dramas, but we would hope to commission one this calendar year. Across the board we’re commissioning modest amounts but it’s increasing off an even more modest base,” he says.
“We can and do wish to push genre. We don’t have a tyranny of audience share so we can be a little bit more daring.”
There is also a new entertainment programme to launch later this year.
One of the losses for the channel occured when the Comedy Channel took back the rights to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.
Menzies concedes the public broadcaster was outbid.
“Sitting at the ABC, clearly we haven’t got the deepest pockets in the marketplace and we get routinely outbid for all sorts of things. But that’s just part of life, there’s no point whinging about it. We just need to have alacrity and lean forward and service audiences in different ways,” he says.
“But that’s life being a public broadcaster. It’s not like you can go and raise more money so you go and find something else that’s fun.”
ABC2 Live Presents has also had mixed fortunes. Arts events help fulfill the ABC Charter, but while broadcasts of Keating the Musical were early successes, just 6,000 people nationally watched Opera Australia’s Bliss.
“Clearly there is utterly no point doing something if nobody’s watching it. Just to make it available isn’t fulfilling the Charter. The Charter is about putting things on in those genres and then getting an audience. So the ambition is always to get an audience.
“But with ABC2 you can’t be afraid of failure. If you put something on that you think has merit and can grow an audience then if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It’s an imprecise science. I think the biggest danger would be only doing things that are guaranteed success audience-wise. You need to have an eye to an audience but also an eye to why you’re doing it in the first place.
“Clearly Bliss was disappointing. It was never going to be a huge ratings winner. It was done for a whole range of others reasons but it’s still disappointing that only 6,000 people watched it or something completely miniscule.”
Another ABC2 Live performance came undone when technical bungles thwarted Tim Minchin vs the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
“It was such a shame that a series of plugs were put in the wrong way, because it was such a tremendous show. Where appropriate we’ll keep doing those,” he insists.
“At the ABC there’s always a multiplicity of reasons why you do things. Some are because of reputation , some are because it’s the only place that will (show it), some are because of ratings. When you get them all at the same time it’s fantastic. But sometimes you only get two out of three.”
Until 7pm ABC2 offers kids programming, under ABC3 Channel Controller Tim Brooke-Hunt, but Menzies has no desire to have ABC2 expand its primetime content into day schedules.
“I’m completely happy with where it is for a bunch of reasons,” he explains.
“If I’m in G timeslots there’s very little that I can do that’s interesting.
“Most of what I want to do is M and I can’t do that until 8:30 at night. It would be really restrictive in terms of what you could play. So I have no ambitions to boot kids off ABC2. It was my idea to move the start time of adult programming from 6pm to 7pm, which I did when we lost Colbert and The Daily Show.”
In September ABC2 will undergo further tweaking of its programming, with hints that “a couple of nights” are due for a shake-up.
“It’s always going to be tinkered with. You can’t just sit still particularly with a channel that’s still in short pants and growing up a bit. You’ve got to find your feet and find what night works, particularly when you’re showcasing relatively modest amounts of Australian content in amongst some the best that you can acquire,” he says.
“We will still look to pick the eyes out of the best dramas, whether it’s first run or after Pay TV, because if it’s been on Pay that’s only 30% of the audience, so it’s still fresh to our audience.”