If there’s one form of entertainment that tends to leave us feeling a little bit icky, it’s those shows that have infiltrated our weekend afternoons and crept into our multichannels: Branded Entertainment.
Surely it’s enough that we have ads in commercial breaks -do we really need them as content too? It depends on who you ask.
The rise in Branded TV across the last decade has been a win / win for networks, advertisers and production companies, if not necessarily for viewers. We now have entire datacasting channels devoted to the stuff. Today a Festival of Branded Content and Entertainment (with their very own awards, no less) takes place at Luna Park, Sydney.
Yet one production company has used Branded Entertainment as a springboard to other genres.
WTFN (and we’ll get to that name, shortly) is the successful company behind Bondi Vet, The Living Room, and Tony Robinson Explores Australia.
Formed in 2001 by producers Daryl Talbot and Steve Oemcke, their first production was the business show Bread for Network TEN. Talbot, who started the travel series Postcards for Nine, then developed Victorian travel series Coxy’s Big Break starring Geoff Cox. It’s now about to proceed to its 11th season on Seven.
WTFN now has more than 60 staff and has produced for every network except the ABC -but even that’s about to change.
So what about that name? Does it really stand for what we think it stands for?
“It literally came out of the fact we were trying to start the business and raising sponsorship to do our first Pilot, but we didn’t have any success which was frustrating. We were trying to raise $100,000 which ten years ago was a lot of money,” Talbot explains.
“In the end we said ‘If we want to make this work why don’t we just put the money in ourselves?’ And one of us said ‘Why The F*** Not?’ In the next conversation when we wondered what we would call this, I said ‘I think we just named it.’
“We were coy about it for a long time because we thought it was a bit irreverent and our own private joke. Steve’s mum is fairly conservative and I don’t think we’ve told her what it stands for. One day, maybe.”
Sometimes he jokes that it stands for World Television Film Network (the company is developing its first feature film) and when he travels overseas, many Americans mistake it as a US company.
“With the W in front of it people think we’re somehow tied up to an American radio or TV station. Until we open our mouths,” he laughs.
But Talbot defends Branded Entertainment, explaining how he used it to build the company to ensure their longevity during those early days.
“No matter how smart or bright we thought we were, we may or may not come up with an idea to be commissioned to go into primetime television and presupposing even if we achieved that, you can have the best show on television and it might be successful for a series. But then the other networks will programme against it,” he explains.
“We thought that was a pretty unsound basis to start a business. So we rolled back and thought ‘What do we need to do to achieve longevity?’
“So we identified a lot of non-primetime slots and thought if we provide better programming, offer the broadcasters a higher quality of product, then we go form a relationship with the sponsors…. everyone is a winner.
“We had a lot of success early on because it was a good deal for the networks. They had programmes of marginal value in a space where dollars were getting tighter.”
Early productions included Talk to the Animals, Go For Your Life and Mercurio’s Menu.
That all changed with the hit series Bondi Vet starring Dr. Chris Brown. This year the show has turned out 30 hours for TEN and has been sold to numerous territories.
“It’s a hit for us right around the world. It’s massive on Animal Planet in the UK, 6 nights a week for an hour,” says Talbot.
“We’ve just sold it to air on CBS in the US.”
WTFN’s success with TEN led to The Living Room also featuring Dr. Chris.
“The Living Room is such a fantastic show. The team that gave us our first go was David Mott and Rick Maier at TEN with Bondi Vet, and The Living Room was David Mott and Bev McGarvey,” he says.
“I think it was a sad day when David stepped away from Programming because he made so many bold decisions. He was the kind of Programmer who would talk to you about what he wanted and then let you get on and make it. The Living Room is a result of that.
“He wanted something in Lifestyle with Entertainment and the Channel TEN feel.
“But Bev also saw the potential in the show. After the first year the ratings weren’t kicking it out of the park, although they showed promise. But Bev has really said ‘Let’s bed it down in the timeslot and let it build its audience.’
“There was some early movement at the start and Bev said ‘No it’s going to 7:30 and it’s not moving’ and it’s benefitted from that.
“While we do get comprehensively beaten in Total People by Better Homes and Gardens when you chop down the demographics, that race is much tighter.”
For Seven they produced the Logie-winning doco Trishna & Krishna: The Quest for Separate Lives.
“Trishna and Krishna reminded broadcasters that we were very good at making primetime television too.”
WTFN has also expanded into History titles, notable for Foxtel including factuals featuring Brit Tony Robinson and the excellent live performance, The People Speak: Australia.
“Jim Buchan and Brian Walsh at Foxtel have been fantastic supporters of our business. They really hadn’t done business with us until our Tony Robinson project and we’re now about to do our 4th or 5th series with them. With those shows we took traditional history-telling and gave it a bit of a WTFN shake-up with Entertainment and a bit of pizzazz,” he says.
“So you can see consistently over the works that we’ve done, Bondi Vet, The Living Room, Tony Robinson –we’re not necessarily creating new genres but taking genres that have already existed and given them a bit of a freshen up.”
But one project attracted plenty of criticism: McDonald’s Gets Grilled, touted as propoganda sponsored by the company and lacking independence. It was screened in primetime on Seven.
“We always knew the kind of reaction it would get. We always aimed to create a primetime programme and that came out of a brief from McDonald’s. They had done a high degree of research with their audience and realised they had a communication problem,” says Talbot.
“So they outlined the issues they wanted to tackle and we came back with a creative way of tackling it.”
Not everyone will agree it was the best use of primetime, but there’s no denying WTFN managed to lift awareness and generate some discussion.
ABC projects are next on the list, but without Branded elements.
“We’ve got a couple of things in development with the ABC,” Talbot acknowledges.
“There will be something coming up in 2014. It won’t be Branded! But we have 3 separate projects in development with them. And that’s partly because we’ve broadened WTFN with Drama and History and Light Entertainment.”
Also coming are new series of Bondi Vet, The Living Room, Coxy’s Big Break, more History, a first feature, and their first drama.
Tony Skinner, formerly with FremantleMedia and Grundy Ogranization, has extensive experience in Asian market. He has been appointed Director of New Business.
“Tony has only been in the office a couple of weeks, but I don’t think it will be too long before we have something to announce,” Talbot insists.
Drama production company The Film Company, headed by Richard Keddie (Hawke, Curtin) was recently acquired by WTFN.
Whatever they announce next there’s little doubt it all began from those early decisions, with an eye on the future.
“People looked down their noses at us as ‘Branded Content Producers.’ Now we’re recognised as the foremost producer of Branded content in this country,” Talbot insists.
“Branded was the heart and soul of WTFN. The qualities that we have put into our Branded have flowed through to every programme we’ve ever made. More than that now, Branded Content is driving Digital.”