EXCLUSIVE: Free to Air audiences may be slipping across the board, but ABC Director of TV David Anderson remains an optimist.
Previously ABC’s Director of Digital Network and Director of Corporate Strategy & Planning, he has been in the role since March, succeeding Richard Finlayson. Under Michelle Guthrie’s new restructure he will become Director of Entertainment & Specialty, largely responsible for the same productions currently under his domain.
Lengthy titles aside, one of his biggest stamps on the role will come to realisation next week when ABC2 is rebranded as ABC Comedy. Without divulging details, he tells TV Tonight he knocked back one proposal for a new-look channel before settling on Comedy, saying the idea was too hard to explain.
“I didn’t take to it. I wanted to go for something the ABC was well-known for and easy to understand,” he says.
“ABC Comedy has been a real strength for the ABC over the years and it’s stronger than ever. Not only do they do well in this country, but they travel the globe. So to brand ABC2 as ABC Comedy made a whole lot of sense.
“People need a laugh.”
From next Monday ABC Kids will extend to 7:30pm followed by a mix of first-run Australian comedy, reruns and international titles. Largely skewing to younger audiences, the centrepiece is the weeknight Tonightly with Tom Ballard.
“I’m hard-wired for hope. I think the Australian public will enjoy it,” Anderson says of the channel.
“There’s actually no requirement anywhere to have Australian content on a multichannel. I feel that Australians want to see Australian stories.
“We’re not aiming for Colbert or Fallon. What we’re aiming for is Tom Ballard to host a half programme that is cheeky, witty, intelligent comedy. I think you can expect a monologue at the beginning or at some point.
The show will also feature exterior segments with field reporters Greta Lee-Jackson (SkitBox), Greg Larsen (Fancy Boy) and Bridie Connell (Whose Line Is It Anyway? Australia).
“We use that as a platform to launch new things”
ABC has already revealed its 2018 highlights in Comedy, Arts & Children with more to come.
“We are planning Factual, Entertainment & Drama early next year. There might be some things we reveal around New Year’s Eve,” Anderson continues.
“It’s our last year of the City of Sydney contract. We’d like to keep doing it, but this is the last year.
“It’s one of those rare moments, particularly for the ABC, where you have a lot of people coming to you across all demographics from all around the country and your shots will go all over the world. So we use that as a platform to launch new things for the year.”
Amongst the new dramas already announced for 2018 is Pine Gap, a join production with Netflix. But ABC has come under fire from commercial rivals for “subsidising” the international streaming giant. Anderson rejects the criticism.
“Effectively they are partnering with Screentime in a finance plan. We are commissioning on license, which is a package of rights,” he assures.
“It has Australian voices, Australian faces, Australian culture being reflected back to the country, and with a financier like Netflix the show will get made. It wouldn’t have got made without Netflix money. They don’t have editorial influence over the producer.
“I see benefits for everybody.”
“So you still have the same package of rights you would have for any other drama. It will still play on the main channel, you still have the same access, the same amount of runs.
“When the circumstances are right I see benefits for everybody. Benefits for the independent sector, independent producer, jobs being created and contributing to the culture.”
But one Drama decision, made prior to his appointment, has triggered an emotional response from ABC’s audience: the axing of The Doctor Blake Mysteries.
“It’s not a commercial decision, it’s an editorial decision we’re making,” he defends.
“You’d like all of them to succeed but when you have successful returning series, you still want the ability to invest in new Australian drama.
“We thought 5 series was a good run.”
“The amount of money we invested above license was not returned by commercial sales. The question was put to me, ‘Would you have got commercial sales that exceeded your investment?’ And the answer is no.
“If you want to do something new, and everything is successful, there has to be one that you’re not going to go with. We thought 5 series was a good run.”
ABC is yet to reveal its position regarding new dramas Newton’s Law & Pulse.
“I liked both of those shows.
“When we reveal our slate early next year, and there are some we have (already) announced but not all of them, it will become apparent then.”
Not exactly a vote of confidence? But the role he has inherited requires hard decisions which sometimes get under the skin of commercial rivals, or send fans to online petitions.
“It is falling at an exponential rate”
Anderson remains pragmatic about numbers but upbeat where some may see grey clouds.
“There’s a large broadcasting audience but there’s no doubt it is falling at an exponential rate. If you look at the broadcast Reach from 2015 to 2016 across all networks, it dropped a few points. But if I look at it from 2016 to 2017 it is two to three times that drop,” he admits.
“It’s accelerating –but it’s still a big number, of over 80% (watching). While it’s still that high it’s still important to look at where the audience goes for your programming and content and think about introducing new content.”