Programmer’s Wrap 2015: ABC

2015-02-03_2320No other Free to Air broadcaster offers as much diverse content as ABC. So asking ABC / ABC2 Head of Programming Brendan Dahill to talk through some of the year’s highlights is always a big ask.

ABC kicks off its year in Drama with witness protection drama Hiding tomorrow night, starring James Stewart and Kate Jenkinson.

Hiding is from a really interesting team that won the Indie of the Year last year − Playmaker − and they have a lot of quality drama across multiple broadcasters. They’re a team that I trust implicitly and The Code was obviously my pick for 2014. Hiding comes with unbridled quality around it and I think if you buy the ‘conceit’ then it’s utterly immersive,” he says.

“It seduces you in. You think you’re getting a Rafters with criminals and it’s not. There are layers and nuances to the drama that become apparent over time.

“It’s a quality cast. It’s a really interesting version on the Australian “fish out of water”. You don’t have to leave Australia to be a fish out of water. You can be a fish out of water just by moving from the Gold Coast to the Western suburbs of Sydney. And, I think some of the issues the kids face are universal issues for kids that change schools.”

Responding to some claims the ages of the cast as parents and teenagers are similar Dahill defends,  “James Stewart is old enough to have Lincoln Younes as his son but, if you don’t buy the ‘conceit,’ they can look relatively mates in terms of age.

“We talk a lot here about ways of engaging with the family and shows that every generation of the house can watch and I think this is one of those shows.”

Next week Craig MacLachlan returns for the third season of The Doctor Blake Mysteries, with Nadine Garner and an increased role for John Wood.

“There is a bit of change up in terms of the dynamics on screen so there’s a protagonist for Blake to act against. The police commissioner is now no longer his mate. Someone else has been brought in to try and reign in Doctor Blake’s excesses.

“For people who love Blake, and love their murder story of the week, it’s authentic although there is some real progression in terms of the character development for Doctor Blake. Nadine Garner will hopefully we’ll never do the Moonlighting thing where they actually hook up because that will ruin it!”

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One of the big drama prospects for 2015 is The Secret River miniseries based on Kate Grenville’s book.

“We know this is an Australian icon so there’s a huge responsibility on us to do it brilliantly. I haven’t seen the finished versions yet but I’ve seen rushes and grabs and it looks sensational. Sarah Snook who is rapidly emerging from the shadows as one of the greatest Australian actresses − the reviews for her in Predestination have been amazing- steals the screen in this as well, alongside British actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen. She’s going to be a massive star in 2015.”

After some campaigning by fans Miss Fisher returns for more murder mysteries.

“We’re delighted to have Essie (Davis) back reprising her gold Logie-nominated role. She’s an absolute star and she’s part of the Australian lexicon now,” Dahill insists.

“Obviously we’re now beyond the books that were written but (Kerry Greenwood) will be acting as a story consultant to make sure the authenticity of Miss Fisher stays there. And massive changes? No. It’s the core cast that you’ve got coming back, it’s story of the week. It’s a great conceit and we’re just delighted to have it back so, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Redfern Now returns with a telemovie, and while some creatives have moved on to Black Comedy Dahill is keeping his options open for more down the track.

“It’s one of the real success stories I think of Sally Riley’s department over the last 4 years, that we now have a hit show that has an indigenous cast and crew that are in demand absolutely everywhere, that we have a problem trying to get them back together again,” he says.

“We’re taking the positives out of that one in terms of one of our roles here in Australian TV is in terms of development and mentoring and I thinks that’s a real success story that our indigenous department has managed to create so many indigenous, Aboriginal Australian stars.

“I haven’t given up on Redfern Now. I think if there’s a way of keeping it going, then we will. The conversation I’ve had with Darren (Dale) is very much ‘We love it, when you’re ready to go, let’s talk about it.’”

Two other dramas, Glitch and A Beautiful Lie, are both modern relationship, slightly high-concept projects.

Glitch with Patrick Brammall in the lead role is a Tony Ayres-inspired show. This is the show that he’s wanted to make forever. And they’ve got a great team on that and they’re making that now. Glitch will be sensational when it arrives. At the moment, all I’ve seen are scripts so, on the basis of scripts, I think it’s going to be amazing.

“With the first script for A Beautiful Lie, I had goosebumps and a gulp and went, ‘Oh my God, that’s f***ing brilliant.’ It’s going to be amazing!” he declares.

“It’s a modern day tragic love story, Anna Karenina-style, and it is going to be amazing. John Edwards will have done it again. If you’re looking for a modern relationship drama with a twist, he has done it amazingly, time after time after time. Honestly, this script, written by Alice Bell, is just sensational. I read it and went, ‘Oh my God!’”

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ABC is now the proud home of Australian comedy. Utopia and Please Like Me both return while Shaun Micallef has both Mad as Hell and a new sitcom, The Ex PM.

“One of my proudest moments here at the ABC is managing to get Shaun to come back and work here and do Mad As Hell for us. We can bring more Shaun to our audience by making The Ex PM as well, which is one of the things that Shaun was really passionate about that he wanted to do this year,” he says.

“But he did have me at, ‘Hello.’ When he started talking about the bits of Ex-PMs that inspired him to create this character, it’s like: ‘Oh my God, this is going to go off, this is going to be huge.’”

Charlie Pickering joins ABC but his new vehicle, expected in Quarter 2, still doesn’t have a name.

“Charlie is a real coup for the network. I’m really pleased that he’s decided to come and make the ABC his home. I think he’s perfect for the ABC. I think our audience will love his intelligence and his humour and his view on the world and I think he will love the creative freedom that he gets to deliver his vision of the kind of show that he want to make,” Dahill says.

“There is a loose format to the show but, if he wants to he can ditch it and just do something special.

“We’re fortunate that we have a 20-week run with Charlie so that he can explore the different corners of what this show might be and see what works for him and what works for the audience.

“And with Charlie and with Shaun we are really lucky to have two of the premier commentators on Australian life on the ABC.”

New comedy Sammy J and Randy in Ricketts Lane is “probably the most out-there comedy of 2015.”

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Gruen is finally back, likely in the third quarter of the year.

“We can’t wait to have Wil and Russel and Todd back on screen again. I’d have loved to have had them back on screen last year but it just wasn’t achievable so I’m really, really pleased that we can bring them back. You can tell people have missed Gruen from the amount of correspondence I’ve had about it. I’ve missed Gruen too. I can’t wait to have it back,” he smiles.

“Wil was always firmly of the opinion that he wants to make this show for a long time. He wanted to have a year off and he wanted to do his stand-up thing in America but he loves this show. He’s EP of the show now, as well. He was really keen to creatively recharge so he can make this show for a long time. I’m hoping this is not us bringing it back, ‘one more time’, this is it ‘coming back.'”

ABC has plenty of factual content for 2015.

Redesign My Brain the second series will be amazing. I had lunch with Todd (Sampson) yesterday and he was showing me some of the GoPro footage that he’d filmed of him doing some mental stuff on his phone and it’s just sensational. He’s a huge network star and a really nice guy so I’m really excited about Redesign My Brain coming back,” Dahill insists.

Outback ER in Broken Hill begins next week.

“The team from Screentime have found some amazing people, as in the doctors and nurses who choose to work in one of the remotest hospitals in the world and bring emergency care out there right through to the locals who are a breed apart. They’re a special kind of people out there. I think it will be really revealing look into another slice of Australian life.

“It’s an amazing place, Broken Hill. It’s bright blue skies and that ochre earth and they kind of mix and meld and it’s just visually amazing out there.

“I got Richard Finlayson to watch the first episode the other day and he was tearing-up and he’s worked in TV for a long time. We’re all a bit cynical and he teared-up. I think that it will be moving for everyone who watches it. I obviously have high hopes for it.”

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Sarah Ferguson appears in 2 shows, Inside Labor and No Excuses while the team behind Kakadu has delivered Life On The Reef.

“Kakadu was a triumph and I think that they’ve done it again with Life On The Reef. When you think of an area that’s the size of Europe, and trying to find characters that epitomise what it’s like to work on the reef and trying to express the plight of the reef as well, I think it’s a really tough job. I think they’ve managed to find some really great narrative arcs that run you through the joy and the trepidation of the people who live and work on the reef and protect an Australian icon.”

Dahill also outlines why The Checkout is brand-defining television for the ABC.

“When you look at what boxes does a public service show need to tick − inform, educate and entertain − I think The Checkout does all of those in spades,” he continues.

“When we talked about investigative current affairs meets consumerism, only the ABC can make that show. In terms of distinctiveness, it ticks that box as well, and it comes from a great team who have the ABC DNA woven through them. They know our audience and our audience know them so Checkout for me is a brilliant, iconic ABC show.”

Conversations are continuing with The Chaser team about what else they want to do this year.

“Do they want to bring back the Media Circus? Do they want to do something else? They’re all in on-going conversations about what The Chaser for the end of the year but they’re kind of focussed at the moment on delivering The Checkout.”

Meanwhile ABC will mark Gallipoli commemorations with a week of programming, including on News 24, ABC 2 and on ABCKids, currently under the working title Gallipoli 100.

“The Gallipoli dramas on Foxtel and on Channel 9 will be huge and I hope they’re great,” he says.

“Our offering is factual and slightly more sombre and reflexive. Ours will be condensed into a big week, so we’re focussing on the week in the roll-up to ANZAC 100. We’ll have The Waler: Australia’s Great War Horse in there; The Crater, which is the new title for the David Bradbury film; The Waves of ANZAC Cove with Sam Neill;.

“And I’m hoping we’ll have a little comedy surprise of our own in there that we’re not ready to announce yet. Think of an Australian ‘’Allo ‘Allo.’ ….”

As to speculation about 7:30 on Friday nights, Dahill says conversations are still ongoing.

“We’ve had multiple conversations about the kind of show that we believe the audience would like − and it’s still a work in progress − would be the honest answer. We will continue with national 7.30 on a Friday night as we have done across the summer until we’re ready to unveil the new format, and it’s not ready yet.”

But he doubts a one hour edition would air due to costs, despite programming problems with Fridays 8:00 slot.

“That Friday 8pm slot has been a real problem for us since Collectors finished. We are looking at all options but obviously everything is run through the prism of affordability. I would love to have an hour. Whether we can afford to do an hour is a different question.”

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Lastly to international titles, Broadchurch and Fortitude begin mid-February, two big UK titles back to back.

“The first episode of the second series of Broadchurch, I was: ‘How are they going to do that again? Is it going to be like True Detective where it’s like the two of them investigating a completely different case?’ Then the first episode starts and you’re like, ‘Wow! Okay. It’s brilliant.’

Fortitude is set in the Arctic circle and it’s got a massive all-star cast and it’s a Scandi-noir, killing-type murder mystery.

“Then obviously we have Doc Martin coming back towards the end of the year for what we think will probably be the final series. We’ve got brand new Grand Designs again, and we’ve got ITV’s new smash hit detective series, Grantchester.”

How much has the BBC First deal impacted on ABC programming this year, given we are in the 12 month window before ABC can play some of those titles?

“We’re in a bit of a BBC Worldwide Distributed lull but I still think we’ve managed to pull off some of the best, most critically, well-reviewed shows. Some of those other shows that BBC First have currently got − that are great shows that have been really well reviewed and previewed − we will have those shortly, too,” he declares.

“I think we’ve ended up in a much, much better space than I thought we’d be when the BBC did that deal. I think my commissions team have done a miraculous job to pull off the array of gems that we have.”

13 Comments:

  1. Local stuff is looking good but the imports are a real mixed bag.

    With BBC First and UK TV, ABC has lost a lot of the top tier material from the UK. This means that they are getting some also-rans dressed up as must-see shows. Broadchurch2 is coming to the end of its run in the UK and has been one of the biggest critical and ratings flop ITV have had for years with half the audience abandoning it after only a couple of weeks. The cable operators might have had early word about how bad it was and passed to Aunty. I suspect ABC is going to flog this as quality drama when it’s a complete turkey IMHO. (I *may* have had a sneak look as I really liked the original. My word is don’t bother if you liked the first one as this one is just awful based on the first couple of episodes).

    Fortitude has got a better reception from critics and looks to be a likely hit but pairing it with…

  2. looking forward to more the Checkout & Mad As Hell. Black Comedy was mentioned but no actual confirmation it will be back on? I hope so, i was in tears of laughter from series 1.

    Having grown up white in the middle class burbs i was a little apprehensive watching an Indigenous comedy show, all that white mans guilt stuff ya know. But as usual humour breaks down the barriers & i felt pretty comfortable about it. Its a good talking point which can make us think about the issues from a different perspective.

  3. Secret Squirrel

    Wow, so much stuff to watch, so little time. Absolutely sh!ts over what the commercials have on offer.

    Great that Gruen is back along with The Checkout, and looking fwd to seeing Micallef’s new show. Really interested to see what Fortitude is like.

    Will reserve my judgment on the “Australian ‘Allo ‘Allo” – found the original to be cringeworthy. Prob would’ve been funny in 1975.

  4. Dr Blake and Miss Fisher, huge Aussie drama, looking forward to those two. Now this is intriguing.
    David wrote “One of the big drama prospects for 2015 is The Secret River miniseries based on Kate Grenville’s book” Let’s hope any sex related content is implied so as not to take too much away what happened to folks deported to Australia from the UK for theft etc. in the 1800’s. Fortitude, might be good might not depends on the first episode.

  5. The ABC cancelled Miss Fisher because it was just light and entertaining when it was their highest rating show and just as it was delivering sales in Europe and cable.

    It was cancelled to fund Secret River and restored when the revenue it generates will free up funds for make more stuff like Secret River.

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