“Fewer, bigger, better” for ABC

ABC Director of TV Richard Finlayson has big plans to win new audiences across the coming years.

2013-11-25_0047The ABC is developing a long-term strategy to attract audiences to “big, national conversations” with bigger Dramas and more risks.

Richard Finlayson, Director of Television, told TV Tonight the public broadcaster is looking at ways its Content can resonate in a changing television landscape.

“Linear TV can be around for a long time but it has to change. So the changes we’re seeing are that people want it to feel very current. They want it to reflect what’s happening now. If you want people to sit down as a group and aggregate big audiences, families, lots of people together, then you’ve got to give them a reason to come and watch,” he explains.

“The commercial channels are doing that through big Reality formats, News, Sport and launching big Dramas where everyone has got to be there for those first few episodes.

“We don’t have the Reality formats or a lot of Sport so we will take the position that we have to tap into and spark big, national conversations. Factual is the easiest thing to get your head around. A big, noisy Documentary looking at a contemporary issue in our society.

Go Back is a good example. SBS do that really well and I think we have a bit of work to do to change the nature of our slate.”

ABC will draw upon Drama and Factual as viewing events as it seeks to attract both group and younger viewers. The long-term shift in its tone is part of Finlayson’s Draft Strategy to the ABC Board, but it won’t necessarily come at the expense of other genres.

“The last thing I want to do is knock off our slate because there’s a lot of fantastic productions but it’s a big shift and we have to start moving now. Those changes will be about trying to give our channels a greater sense of currency. More reasons to watch in the moment. More events, more noisy Factual pieces. Possibly fewer, but bigger Dramas. Taking bigger risks and bigger punts,” he says.

“’Fewer, bigger, better’ is an idea across the whole slate, really. We need to push our resources behind some bigger bets.

“It doesn’t mean there won’t be a role for all sorts of one-offs, or big telemovies, Arts, Indigenous, specialist Factual –all those things will continue to exist. But to really stand out we have to take some bigger punts.”

Tomorrow ABC TV announces its 2014 Programming slate, but Finlayson’s plans are part of a much longer arc.

“These are conversations we’re having as group now. What does this look like moving out to 2016?”

Also included in his Draft Strategy are plans to “put the audience first”; to “brand with clarity”; to “harness our creative culture” and to improve ABC’s flexibility and agility with the production sector.

““I’m a great believer in execution: getting shit done, really. That’s how you move things forward. So I presented the Draft Strategy to the Board and said ‘This is my thinking right now. These are the 5 areas we need to focus on. The vision for ABC TV. Do you agree that these are the 5 areas we need to be prioritising?’ And they do,” he affirms.

Finlayson has been at the ABC for some 5 months, previously as Chief Operating Officer with SBS. In his new role he is responsible for the Channel Controllers, Heads of Content, Policy & Governance, Business Operations and Marketing.

“It’s a big brief,” he admits.

“You have to work out what the priorities are, because you can only spend so much time with so many people. It’s really about trying to isolate the key challenges and opportunities, like any key management role.

“My role is really about leadership. I’m not there to consult on scripts. I love reading scripts , viewing and being across everything we do. That’s the joy of the job, really. But that’s not my expertise. It’s understanding the broad ecology of the industry and then knowing how to hopefully put the right people in the right jobs and then lead them towards a common goal.”

His appointment comes at a time of change. The broadcaster has moved into 3rd pole position, ahead of TEN in Total People, but also when the government has changed hands.

He is thankful the Abbott government promised no cuts to the ABC, but mindful politics may impact on the broadcaster’s future.

“We’re realists and are able to see what’s happening in the broader environment. So while we’re cautiously optimistic, we need to be aware that this government will be seeking to judiciously manage its costs. So it’s a wait and see game,” he says.

“Obviously we’ll be selling all our messages very hard to the government about why any changes to the ABC would be harmful, particularly at a time when we’re on a roll. It would he such a shame to impact the level of Drama and great Factual, and all those things we’ve been able to do, and of course Kids. It would be such a shame to see that stopped in its tracks when it feels like we’re just getting going.”

With Digital Switch-off to be completed within two weeks, does the ABC have any immediate plans to make ABC1 its HD channel? Finlayson is cautious.

“The challenge for us is, if we did make that move, that we didn’t disenfranchise a whole lot of people who don’t have HD televisions as their second and third TVs,” he says

“There are still some who don’t have it, particularly in their second sets.

“It’s important if we were to make that move that we don’t spark an outrage from people who couldn’t access the channel.”

“There’s always going to be a trade-off. The other option is ‘Do you use that spectrum in a different way?’

Finally, the ABC also faces content challenges from mid year when it loses first rights to much of its scripted Drama and Comedy from the BBC, signalling the end of a 50 year deal. While it has the opportunity to purchase titles after a 12 month window, how will ABC fill the gap in the window period?

“We have a number of other suppliers and we’re talking to the BBC about various contingency measures to help us through that period,” Finlayson explains. “They’re well aware that it creates some challenges for us as well, so they’re being quite helpful in that regard. With other suppliers like ITV, Channel 4 and various indies that we have relationships with, we’ll up our acquisitions of some of Best of British content.

“Many people don’t appreciate how much of the fantastic UK content we have is actually not BBC content.

“This is a BBC Worldwide deal. So not even all the BBC content comes through Worldwide. Attenborough is a good example. Doctor Who we’ll still retain as a separate deal.

“We’re pretty confident. The thing I am most pleased about is that there is clearly there is a massive swing to local content. These are apron strings that would have been quite hard for the ABC to cut. In a way, the BBC has inadvertently done us a huge favour.”

ABC will achieve significant savings as a result of the end of the contract, but plans to divest them into Australian production.

“Those savings will be put back into local content,” he insists.

“The BBC deal will reach less than 20% of the audience, by the time you look at Foxtel penetration and the tier.

“While waiting might not be ideal we think (the audience) will be happy enough just to receive that content for free, albeit with a wait.

“It’s a 3 year deal, so we’ll see what happens.”

16 Responses

  1. I know im going to be burned for this but Crownies is/was awesome! I am in the targeted demographic so I guess that helps. Actually is one of my fave Aust dramas

  2. How about giving the ABC audience a Classic TV channel? There are many great shows that the ABC has rotting in their archives.. I would love to see classic four corners and classic music programs such as Countdown and Rock Arena shown on a daily basis. If I was to complain about the ABC they show too many kids programs on ABC2 and ABC1. The reason why we have ABC3 is to give children a exclusive channel for them to enjoy.

  3. Blah, blah, blah. The “fewer” bit they have achieved already. As in fewer viewers.
    Had a look at the guide for next week and SBS wins hands down between the 2 stations!
    (I don’t count 7, 9 or 10 as worth even checking).
    Hellfjord, Walking Dead (S1 retro), Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero, Borgen, Shameless, Prisoners of War, Master of Sex, Secrets of the Irish Landscape, Nordic Wild, and a movie: Just Another Love Story. Lots of interesting stuff!
    And the ABC has the Movie Show and QI repeats. Wonderful.

  4. I am pleased Richard is able to articulate a bold and ambitious vision for drama as this directive has to come from the top. Now he has to make sure he puts the right team in place to make sure it happens. It’s reassuring he’s made a few astute observations even though he’s only been there a short time.

  5. The ABC was given a golden opportunity with its increased funding over five years ago to do all the things that Richard Finlayson now wants it to do. So is he going to ask his commissioners why top end documentary became almost forgotten and why they commissioned the disappointing Crownies, The Straits, Serangoon Road, probably 20 million in ABC cost there, and have failed to anchor a good mid week drama which could run for many years as GP did years ago. Time Of Our Lives may have worked mid week but it is just too earnest and kitchen sink for the ABC audience with little to say. But good Richard is determined to pursue this plan and show real leadership. He has a lot to do if he wants a turnaround.

  6. Fewer, bigger, better? When the ABC goes “high end” we end up with a snooze-a-thon like Serangoon Road. Or a schlock-a-thon like Crownies. High-end comedy seems to consist exclusively of Chris Lilley (although I do have high hopes for the new Working Dog comedy).

    The problem with shows that deal with Big Contemporary Issues, like Redfern Now, is that they often come across as preachy and morose. And no-one likes to be lectured.

  7. @Laurie
    What he is saying that if they make ABC1 HD then people won’t be able to watch it on SD TVs.

    That’s all just management speak from someone pretending to drive change when it is trivial and inevitable. Brandifying the clarity is more accurate.

  8. laurie: “What!! pray tell how many is a whole lot ?”

    By the last lot of figures I’ve seen – late 2012, so a little outdated, but I don’t know of any more recent – about 10%~15% of households, 20%~30% of STBs, and about 40%~60% of second sets aren’t capable of receiving HD broadcasts.

    But, honestly, from reading the ABC’s submissions to various ACMA enquiries the impression is that the ABC wants to go HD on their primary channel – and would be the first to jump if money & the legislation allowed.

  9. “The challenge for us is, if we did make that move, that we didn’t disenfranchise a whole lot of people who don’t have HD televisions as their second and third TVs,” he says

    What!! pray tell how many is a whole lot ? in other words we would like to split up the HD channel into three other SD channels that’s what he is really saying

  10. The ABC have a big challenge with drama, do they continue down the path of Redfern Now which tackles contemporary issues and is highly ctritically acclaimed….but fails in the ratings….so no big national concersation there. Or. Go fater more Rake style drama with better ratings but less conversation. Touch job to bring off both their aims….The Slap was the closest

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