SBS kicking goals in premium drama

The Handmaid's Tale, Fargo, The Good Fight -with such limited funds, how does SBS have some of the hottest titles in Drama?

In the last few weeks we’ve had The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, The Young Pope, Orphan Black….

Now Versailles, Cardinal, The Good Fight and more of Outlander are on the way.

SBS viewers have never had it so good.

So how does a broadcaster that is continually challenged with limited funds manage to nab some of the hottest titles in international drama right now?

Marshall Heald, SBS Director of Television and Online Content, acknowledges the broadcaster is enjoying good ‘cut-through’ with its suite of international dramas.

“We’re all about establishing a position with the world’s most distinctive drama. We’re very agile and fast-moving, we take more risks and we are far more flexible with the types of deals that we do,” he explains.

“We often buy second windows on titles (such as) Outlander, The Night Manager or Deutschland ’83.

“We are probably punching above our weight”

“We often buy at script stage, so we’re very, very early, often on the basis of one script, perhaps with an attached director and maybe a couple of cast. And not a lot of people are doing that.

“We’re in a period of peak drama and there is a lot being made worldwide. But as a largely acquisitions network we will naturally follow the ebbs and flows and overall shape of the market. More than 90% of our schedule is acquired, so with more Drama around we are naturally going to go there, assuming we can on a cost basis compared to other genres.

“We are probably punching above our weight in terms of perception around the offer.”

The Handmaid’s Tale starring Elisabeth Moss launched on SBS on Demand last Thursday and, along with its glowing reviews, is attracting plenty of buzz. So with a property that hot, why not premiere it on broadcast TV?

“Handmaid’s was made for Hulu, and in our view it was made to be binged”

Heald says SBS is experimenting with its platforms, having previously debuted Trapped and Midnight Sun online before on broadcast.

Handmaid’s was made for Hulu, and in our view it was made to be binged. We thought it would attract a passionate audience, so looking at it through those prisms we thought the best plan was to put it all out On Demand at one time,” he continues.

“We make individual decisions with every piece of content we make and license. Some we are happy (to premiere) On Demand. The trade-off is whether that will cannibalise a TV audience or will those viewers tell other people about it?

“There’s a general consumer trend towards binging and while SBS isn’t going to be a market maker we’re a follower of those trends. We are very small, with a small marketing budget, so at a practical level where we can grab people’s attention with something then it probably serves us better to super-serve them quickly, rather than try and compete over a longer period of time.”

In early August The Good Wife spin-off The Good Fight will debut, which SBS was able to acquire because it was produced for SVOD platform CBS All Access. But how does a broadly-appealing commercial drama fit the SBS Charter?

“When CBS came to us we thought it had a fantastic cast, a great situation with Christine Baranski losing her job and investments, and the only job she could find was in a black law firm. She spends all her time looking at police brutality cases and social causes. So it’s a nice fish-out-of-water story.

“But we also need a certain number of broadly appealing titles which we can use to bring audiences into the network to be across all of the other distinctive drama we have from around the rest of the world,” Heald maintains.

“Diversity on screen is important, but for us it’s not enough”

“Diversity on screen is important, but for us it’s not enough. There’s extraordinary diversity on screen in American television. Far more than in Australia.

“But we’re also looking for thematics. A show like The Good Fight, when you pick it apart, is about an affluent, white lawyer working in a black law firm and having to engage in a whole ecosystem that she has no experience with. So there’s a strong Charter alignment there.

“As an acquisitions network, and one of the few networks in the world with our kind of ‘purpose’, it’s very difficult for us to consistently acquire content that 100% meets our needs. We could really only do that if we had more local commissions.”

In local dramas SBS has two original titles on the way, Sunshine set in Melbourne’s Sudanese community and an asylum-seeker psychological thriller, Safe Harbour.

“We get good ‘cut-through’ with quite a small slate”

“People talk to me about being ‘back in Drama’ but we only have 12 (Australian) hours a year so it’s a very modest output. But the types of stories we are telling are very distinctive. There are a lot of thematics that others aren’t looking at and we have a good strategy in amplifying what we do. So we get good ‘cut-through’ with quite a small slate,” he continues.

“Our key creative challenge is to look at often quite-serious themes but turn them into getting broad cut-through. So you need to manage a mixture of light and shade.”

Still to come are the Scandinavian noir-thriller shot in Thailand, Farang, Norway’s Valkyrien, French drama Riviera, historical drama Knightfall, and crime thriller Below the Surface.

On Demand with its 900 titles, including 750+ movies, is doing so well commercial networks are beginning to raise eyebrows about a publicly-subsidised platform denting commercial business.

But Heald is confident the offering is on Charter.

“We often get out-muscled from a Live viewing perspective, so for us investing in On Demand and giving audiences a chance to catch-up on our content makes perfect sense,” Heald insists.

“I think the content we’re offering is typically not being offered anywhere else.”

23 Responses

  1. I personally wish they would have put The Handmaid’s Tale on broadcast TV in some capacity, even if it was in conjunction with On Demand, because I don’t have good enough internet to stream. It feels like a bit of a shame to put barriers in front of watching it.

    1. I don’t have “good enough internet” either to adequately stream SBS on demand or ABC iview but have no problems with a lot of overseas channels I’m not supposed to be watching.

  2. Much as I love the stuff SBS shows, it’s not exactly kicking goals. SBS are showing foreign shows and getting c. 100k viewers mostly in the AB demographic to generate a bit of extra advertising revenue. They can do this because they get $250m from the Government run the network and aren’t subject to local drama and content quotas, and since nobody else wants them they are cheap. FTA just don’t have the cash to buy up everything during peak TV anymore. And News Corp have forced out all the independant channels on Foxtel and signed up to exclusive deals with HBO, AMC, BBC, Showtime so aren’t interested either.

    The Handmaiden’s Tale is on On Demand because there SBS has an ID for you, and can sell targeted advertising that you can’t skip like on a DVR. It has 337 days to run on On Demand, if they haven’t broadcast it by then I might stream it in Summer (I’ve read the book)…

    1. If Seven, Nine & TEN don’t want Handmaid’s Tale & Fargo it’s their loss and SBS gain. I can’t imagine Foxtel were disinterested. But sure, let’s put a drama quota on them and boost the funding, no arguments there. Some On Demand titles have been on air within 6 weeks, others 6 months.

      1. I honestly think Foxtel aren’t interested. They’ve stopped paying attention to anything but big ticket US programming. It’s pretty disappointing really and I think this is how SBS are managing to pick up so much great, critically acclaimed content.

  3. I don’t think SBS really knows what to do with its drama…I think the first several seasons of Fargo ran at 9.30, too late…and The Handmaiden’s Tale seems perfect for a once a week event drama slot on the main channel.
    Why does a broadcaster want to pretend to be a streaming service with such a quality offering ? What a waste.
    Oh, and please explain how all those very British train series that are holding your schedule together are ” on Charter” ?

  4. I’m a late convert to SBS on Demand and must confess that it has taken the place of Netflix in total viewing time recently despite the advert imposts and buffering issues. I have always considered that the multiculturalism of the SBS was a positive example of how to do diverse TV programming, unlike commercial TV the SBS can explore controversial genres with less inhibition, it has also led the way in bringing the diverse cultures of the World and their languages to Australia.

  5. Yes, great job by SBS, managing to acquire so many top quality dramas.
    Even more impressive considering they have a much smaller budget than most of the other channels.
    Agree with others here that The Handmaid’s Tale is more suitable to be viewed an episode or two at a time. Excellent but so very solemn and really heavy going.
    ABC2 also used to be my “go to” channel for all the best dramas such as Breaking Bad, Being Human, Misfits, etc, but they’ve gone downhill the last few years.

  6. So they don’t lock themselves into the US-style of output deals that have hurt 10 badly (and, in the not-so-distant past, 7 & 9 as well), they’ve never chased the big fish but have a reputation for landing them when they’ve caught them by accident, they get in early with support for smaller productions both here & overseas that fit their niche, and all that has put them in good stead with the newer players entering the market with big money behind them (e.g. Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, etc).

    Just goes to show that a smart strategy plus a bit of luck can pay off handsomely. Although I watch very little SBS these days due to the in-programme ads in “natural breaks”, good on them…

  7. When I’m reading a book, I don’t put it down for a week before reading the next chapter, the same applies to my TV viewing. I’m a binger and I use a PVR.
    If SBS is experimenting with its platforms then it should try a pop-up channel for binge viewers. Viceland doesn’t need 2 channels, one of them could be temporarily switched to another feed without any retuning by viewers. The Binge Channel.
    If an SBS show is only available on-line then SBS should make it download-free.

  8. The handmaids tale is not binge television. The episodes are quite intense. I’ve watched two episodes so far because I feel the show requires a breather between episodes due to the subject matter.

    I strongly disagree with this statement.
    “Handmaid’s was made for Hulu, and in our view it was made to be binged”
    Just because a show was made by a streaming service doesn’t automatically mean its to be binged. There are also plenty of shows that are designed to air week by week that could easily be binged. How a show is to be watched should not be automatically assumed just because of the vehicle used to air it. What a streaming service offers is a choice of how to watch when they offer one or more seasons all once.

  9. SBS has some fantastic drama content, especially given their resources. I agree that The Handmaid’s Tale is prob better savoured in smaller doses and also that it deserves a weekly playout on TV

  10. It has to be said that ‘Good Wife’ was never a huge ratings puller for 10 especially in later seasons, and ‘Good Fight’ is more niche-subtitled series don’t really have any other place on FTA they would be shown as ABC did screen the odd subtitled film years ago but they don’t do that anymore! Most all of the SBS English language series wouldn’t be shown on commercial TV or would be put on very late due to limited appeal or adult content.

  11. I disagree that The Handmaid’s Tale is made for bingeing. I think it is a show that really benefits from a more considered style of viewing. It is a very good dramatisation of the book and I am ekeing it out to make it last as long as possible. There are all sorts of hidden treasures on SBS On Demand, but I do think THT should have been screen on real TV, not just online.

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