Ben Nguyen has been SBS Channel Manager since 2014, but part of SBS for 8.5 years, originally in Documentary commissions.
No wonder he is rather partial to the doco slate, which comprises a big part of SBS.
He is particularly excited about the upcoming Face Up to Racism week, consisting of 3 separate docos. Leading the charge is Is Australia Racist? presented by Ray Martin. It uses hidden camera experiments, to capture the experience of racism through the eyes of those who have suffered it. The doco is based on a Western Sydney University survey which found racism experienced in the workplace, public transport, sporting events or an educational facility.
“One thing I like about the season is it’s not just about overt racism and black and white takes on the issue. It’s also looking at the idea of cultural incompatibility that some people are putting out there,” says Nguyen.
“Date My Race looks at online rating from different cultural backgrounds, and The Truth About Racism, looking at the science of unconscious bias. The two presenters of those -Santilla Chingaipe & Yassmin Abdel-Magied- are really talented finds.
“All of these programmes attempt to get under the skin of the issue. They are not necessarily coming up with easy answers, but they are offering a perspective that I don’t think Australians have expected or be familiar with.”
Returning in 2017 is the controversial Struggle Street, currently filming in Queensland and Victoria. The 2015 look at poverty was amongst the highest rating titles SBS has ever had.
“We’re trying to build on the first season that was so successful and tell these stories from the perspective of people who were disadvantaged, and trying to overcome that. This time we are casting the net wider to tell them from even more perspectives,” he continues.
“It’s a very television idea.”
Also new is Filthy Rich and Homeless, presented by Indira Naidoo, with affluent Australians roughing it on the streets for 10 days.
‘Immersive’ storytelling, with individuals experiencing scenarios first-hand, has been very successful for SBS, none better than Go Back to Where You Came From.
“It has been interesting for us playing in that space, between genres, and trying to find new ways into these issues. If we are doing a documentary on homelessness, it can feel fresh and offers a new insight,” Nguyen explains.
Also coming is Look Me In the Eye, from Endemol Shine Australia, based on a German format.
“It’s a very television idea. It’s predominantly family stories, but for whatever reason there has been an estrangement in the family. But there is an opportunity for them to reconnect,” he says.
“You are just trying to read the reaction between two people who have history, and a challenged relationship. It will be tricky to get it right but the casting is mostly done now.”
Early evening documentaries such as Great Continental Railways are used strategically to draw in broad audiences to promote niche and bolder titles.
“When that slot works it allows us to take risks further in the evening.”
“The 7:30 documentary slot is an important timeslot for us and where we differentiate ourselves from the commercial reality franchises and current affairs on the ABC,” he continues.
“When that slot works it allows us to take risks further in the evening. It allows us to do the trickier subjects at 8:30 because we have an audience to expose that content to.”
This year SBS has three scripted local productions, Safe Harbour, Sunshine and the returning Family Law.
“Having gone from years where we had no local scripted in the schedule it’s really exciting for us,” Nguyen remarks.
Queensland-filmed Safe Harbour, from Matchbox Pictures, is a psychological thriller about a group of friends sailing who cross paths with a raft overloaded with asylum seekers.
“It’s is more about the decisions we make and how we live with those over time. So it has that political backdrop but it is more character-based (than action),” he explains.
Sunshine from producer Ian Collie at Essential Media (Rake, Doctor Doctor, Jack Irish) follows from their joint success with Alex Dimitriades in The Principal.
“We were really happy that Alex picked up the Logie last year and it’s great to work with Ian again on Sunshine. It’s a sympathetic portrait of the South Sudanese community in Melbourne, but telling the story of dreams and drama for a young man. The world is his oyster and all the opportunities look open to him, but they can turn around really quickly.”
Think The Night Of meets Friday Night Lights, perhaps….
A new season of Benjamin Law’s comedy The Family Law is due mid year.
“The key focus of this season is the family post-Divorce and what it means to start over. So there is more for Jenny Law, that character was a break-out character from the first season. Ben Law’s character has an unrealistic self-belief that he can solve all his family’s problems.”
But SBS also has a wealth of international dramas, some of which are first-run in Australia, including gay civil rights drama When We Rise during Mardi Gras season, Golden Globe winning Atlanta later this month, Jude Law in The Young Pope in Q2, and a third season of Fargo.
“I am really excited about Ewan McGregor playing 2 different characters,” Nguyen enthuses.
“(Showrunner) Noah Hawley is such a talent, juggling two series and he managed to put out a novel last year. That’s a guy with quite a work ethic.”
Also coming is Knightfall and Medici: Masters of Florence starring Dustin Hoffman and Richard Madden (Game of Thrones).
“It’s an Italian drama but shot in English. We have an audience with a real fascination with history and how those forces shaped the world we live in today. Medici tells the key story of Renaissance, which impacted all of Europe. There are beautiful sets and locations.
“Knightfall looks at the world through the prism of faith and power. It’s centred around the Knight’s Templar which is picked up in popular culture be it Indiana Jones or the Da Vinci Code.
“It’s big-budget, epic style with a Game of Thrones influence.”
There are also playouts of Deutschland ’83, The Night Manager, Outlander and Bosch.
“Ideally I’d like more contemporary drama in the mix, but it’s just about scouting the international market and trying to land the big titles.”
Sometimes the dramas will debut on SBS On Demand, and sometimes on air. Nguyen says there is no strict criteria for where each title debuts, as SBS seeks to remain platform agnostic.
“It’s about looking at where the best opportunity is. We’ve really ramped up SBS On Demand acquiring content and we want to acknowledge the ways audiences are accessing content now. There are audiences who prefer to binge-watch On Demand, audiences who prefer a weekly playout on air. So I guess we are in the privileged position to go either way, with audiences really being the beneficiary.”
“Things are taking a bit longer than anticipated.”
Australia will again compete at Eurovision, needing to qualify in the Semi Finals, but no hints yet on who will represent us.
“I think the announcement is not too far away about who that will be.”
And where are we at with plans for the Asia-Pacific Eurovision, announced for 2017?
“Things are looking positive but it there are ongoing discussions with (regional) broadcasters. I think things are taking a bit longer than anticipated. Blink TV are leading it and Paul Clarke has been a fantastic ambassador for us with Eurovision,” he explains.
“So we are still in the exploration stage, but making some progress.
“I’ve been astonished at how successful we’ve been to become a recurring entry at Eurovision. So at this stage I feel like anything could happen!”
No talk of SBS would be complete without its food titles. This year SBS promises an ambitious weeknight food show in the 6pm slot, The Chef’s Line from Eureka Productions.
Amateur cooks will compete against one another in world cuisines before facing off against a professional chef.
“It’s a big one! It’s a great opportunity to put our slant on the competitive food genre with great talent: Maeve O’Meara, who is a real hero for the channel, along with 3 relatively new faces, Dan Hong, Mark Olive & Melissa Leong.
“It’s part of growing our early evening and building the audience into SBS World News, which is having a good year.”
O’Meara will also feature in Food Safari Earth towards the end of the year.
“It has beautiful Tasmanian landscape and produce”
Gourmet Farmer returns in winter with Matthew Evans selling up and opening a restaurant.
“He’s saying goodbye to the farm but it has beautiful Tasmanian landscape and produce and it works as real winter comfort food.
Shane Delia’s Recipe for Life sees the Melbourne chef no longer abroad but at home.
“Think about Poh and Co’s personal stories about her food. It’s the kind of direction we’re exploring in more of our food.”
Two Masterchef alumni feature in Ben + Andy Eat Australia later this month, as the first locally-commisioned titled for SBS Food Network.
Next week sees the return of Dateline and Insight, complementing SBS World News.
“When there is a level of uncertainty around international politics this year, that’s an important role they play informing Australians about what’s happening and how different parts of the world are affected.”
Tour de France, 2017 Confederations Cup, UEFA Champions League and A-League season, until May, are amongst sporting highlights.
Nguyen said SBS VICELAND was travelling well so far in its early stages.
“The goal with VICELAND was to access all this fantastic content that Vice produces. It’s so aligned with the SBS Charter and Mission,” he states.
“It’s the edgy side of exploring other cultures.
“What’s exciting for us is that we are the only territory in the world that is doing a hybrid model, adding content.”
Monday: ABC’s Rebecca Heap