Programmer’s Wrap 2017: Foxtel
Brian Walsh talks NRL, Top of the Lake, Wentworth and a whole new deal with HBO.
There are 5 strands of content that are the pillars for Foxtel content, Executive Director of TV Brian Walsh says: Sport, Movies, Premium Drama, Australian Stories and Lifestyle.
“Clearly for us Sport is the jewel in the crown. It is the single differentiator between Foxtel and other Pay TV providers. If you want to enjoy Sport you simply have to have a set-top box that delivers beautiful High Definition pictures in the way that customers now expect,” he says.
“We have invested heavily in all major Australian Sports, and this year will be a watershed year for FOX Sports, marking the launch of a brand new 24 / 7 Rugby League channel in March. It has a comprehensive programming slate of magazine shows and insightful programming looking at rugby league, plus every game uninterrupted in High Definition.
“It’s a great complement to the great to the FOX Footy channel and when you add then with the V8 Supercars, Formula One and all of the other great sports under our belt, it’s a competitive advantage –not just over other Pay TV services, but over Free to Air.”
Amongst its other sporting highlights, three English football club channels from Chelsea, Liverpool FC and Manchester United broadcasting plus programming blocks from Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur and Live coverage of every match of the A-League competition.
But it’s premium drama that viewers have come to love from Foxtel, thanks to deals with HBO, AMC and BBC. This year there is plenty more -all you need to find is time to watch it all.
“If there is one complaint I hear all the time it’s that people don’t have enough time to watch all the great stuff that’s on Foxtel,” Walsh suggests.
This year marks the start of a new long-term deal with HBO with every title it distributes available On Demand.
“It goes way back to Oz, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Boardwalk Empire, right through to Game of Thrones, Westworld (S2 in 2018),” he continues.
“The year kicks off with Big Little Lies with Nicole Kidman & Reece Witherspoon, (and we have) Game of Thrones, Insecure, The Leftovers.”
Ray Donovan, Orange is the New Black, VEEP, Girls, The Exorcist, The Americans, Nashville, Shameless and Outlander are amongst other returning highlights.
Top of the Lake: China Girl sees Elisabeth Moss joined by Gwendoline Christie and Nicole Kidman.
“The performances are sublime. I’ve seen 2 episodes of it. In the same way that Nicole Kidman blew people away with The Hours, her performance will have that kind of reaction. It’s such a brilliant performance from her. Elisabeth Moss is terrific too, but it marks Nicole’s first television role in Australia since Bangkok Hilton in the late 80s.”
Also new is the feature Australia Day starring Bryan Brown, Shari Sebbens and Matthew Le Nevez, which will have a cinema release ahead of its Pay TV broadcast a few weeks later.
Picnic at Hanging Rock goes back to Joan Lindsay’s source material to reimagine a classic Australian tale. Despite some industry concerns over choice of director, Walsh says it is full steam ahead on production now.
“Picnic will have 2 Australian directors, 1 Canadian director, and through Film Victoria it will provide and opportunity for 2 aspiring female directors to shadow the principal directors during the shoot. So it’s a great outcome for the creative community,” he insists.
“It’s been completely re-written for the 2017 production with a television audience in mind, and a television broadcast pattern in mind.
“It’s truthful to the original work, so it is much darker than the 1975 film.”
Fan favourites A Place to Call Home and Wentworth are both back, with fans in for a high-stakes ride even without Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack).
“I’m still asked by people whether she really died! People couldn’t believe that Bea would not be part of the show,” he continues. “Some shows don’t survive when you kill off the main character but I’ve seen many episodes of the new season and I think it comes back stronger than ever.
“Pamela Rabe, Tammy McIntosh, Celia Ireland, Kate Atkinson –they all give amazing performances.
“A Place to Call Home had its best season in 2016 and it’s great to have Bevan Lee back at the helm.
“It’s got to be the most expensive drama series on Australian television. Doing a period piece costs money. Just ask Netflix!
“But it has been an incredible success story for us. I knew that it had a loyal audience but I never expected it would do the sort of business it has done for us.”
BBC First will also deliver more high-end dramas, notably SS-GB with Kate Bosworth and Sam Riley, and Taboo with Tom Hardy.
Walsh says movies have been a resurgent success for Foxtel, the only platform that can boast having every Hollywood studio supply content.
“We had enormous success with our pop-up movie channels, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Star Trek, action heroes, so there will be more in 2017. Of all the genres in 2016 movies increased more than any other genre. So movies are back with a punch for Foxtel.”
But Foxtel has also copped criticism for shutting the TCM channel.
“As of March 1 we are adding another 3 features a day on FOX Classics so that we will have classic movies running from 10am – 4pm and 8:30pm to the early hours of the morning. We have acquired 190 new titles from studios such as MGM,” Walsh remarks.
LifeStyle channels will see more of Selling Houses Australia, Grand Designs Australia, The Great Australian Bake Off, two Gogglebox seasons, and new productions Love It or List It, The Great Australian Cook Book, and Common Sense.
Elsewhere Mike Munro joins for Lawless, a series on Australian bushrangers, and Matt Doran hosts Crimes that Shook Australia.
Amongst the new factual & observational titles are Demolition Man, about a Melbourne-based multimillionaire who makes his fortune out of demolishing properties and the CJZ-produced Court Justice.
“I’ve watched the first 2 episodes of it and it is pretty compelling stuff. It’s the first time cameras have been allowed into the Downing Centre courts in Sydney, which is Australia’s busiest court.
“It’s real life Judge Judy. These are people facing charges from violence to drink driving, and more. I think it will be a real noisemaker.
And then there are six new noisy ladies from the Harbour city, The Real Housewives of Sydney. Not to be upstaged, The Real Housewives of Melbourne will also be back in 2017.
Australia’s Next Top Model is poised for production in late 2017, with changes, but The Recruit and River Cottage Australia are not returning.
For fans of The Kettering Incident wondering about the availability of Elizabeth Debicki, Walsh promises, “We’ve got development money already with Vincent (Sheehan) and Vicki (Madden) to develop Kettering 2 and we also have Secret City 2 in development with Matchbox. Kettering won’t happen this year but in the same way that we took a break between Top of the Lake series, we will look at Kettering in the same fashion.”
Offline viewing will also roll-out this year, with technology high on Foxtel’s priority list.
“We absolutely acknowledge that the business is dynamic and changing very quickly, and accordingly we are changing the Foxtel product so it meets the ever-changing demands of the consumer. It’s often been said in our business that the customer is in control of programming but I don’t think that’s ever been truer than currently,” he explains.
“There is such an explosion of choice now and people are discovering lots of different ways to consume entertainment. It’s important that Foxtel remains at the forefront of technology as much as content. The changes we are making to changes to products like Foxtel Play and on the technology front with the development of new devices, to enable Foxtel to be a more affordable product to a number of different sectors, is imperative to ensure we are successful this year.
“The teething issues we had with IQ3 are behind us. We’re very proud of the product now. It’s a terrific box with a lot of functionality, and a terrific consumer experience. We will be absolutely continuing to promote IQ3, Foxtel Go, and Foxtel Play which is our streaming product. It will effectively replace Presto for us as a business unit and we’re very confident of the pricing we launched in December that Foxtel Play will reach a large sector of people who have previously rejected Foxtel on the basis of affordability and portability.
“People expect the likes of Foxtel, Netflix and Amazon to be the provider of high quality Drama. Sport will be an absolute strength of Foxtel.
“Noisy shows like Real Housewives, Gogglebox, Common Sense, Court Justice will help us to make inroads. Free to Air networks have to live in a world of Live, News or competition Reality. Their business model demands it. They have to have audiences tune in Live, it’s the only way they can sustain their business viability,” he suggests.
“2017 is going to be a great year for the viewer. All of us, be it in the Pay sector or the Free sector, are on notice that there is a lot more choice. We have to ensure that we just keep raising the bar.”
Tomorrow: SBS’ Ben Nguyen