Programmer’s Wrap 2020: ABC

Exclusive: The Australian voice is shining through on ABC, but budget concerns are also biting.

EXCLUSIVE: As he looks over a jam-packed year of Australian originals, Michael Carrington, ABC Director of Entertainment and Specialist, is proud of a diversity of stories and genres as only ABC can do.

They include Drama, Comedy, Entertainment, Documentary, Children, News and more. Yet this year he is also mindful that a broadcaster funding freeze is impacting on new & returning commissions. Despite this, viewers are still promised a wealth of engaging content.

Sunday nights will remain the home of premium dramas on ABC. The first of these for 2020 will be asylum-seeker drama Stateless from March 1st.

“Sunday night is probably the best opportunity for us to reach our widest audiences and being able to shout about our uniqueness through Drama is the perfect opportunity. So Sunday night remains very kind of family-oriented as the night progresses towards sophisticated drama content,” he says.

Stateless is a very strong and complex, motivating story inspired by real events.

“We’re thrilled to have, complimentary to our wonderful Australian performers, Dominic West, who is obviously a very famous British actor. And of course our own Cate Blanchett appears in the show, as well as executive producing and helping create the story itself.

“I think in the vein of Total Control, it will have audiences hooked.”

“So it’s a really stellar cast, writing team and production team behind that one. It looks beautiful, it’s amazing. It’s very engaging and surprising at times. So I think in the vein of Total Control, it will have audiences hooked.”

The series, which also features Yvonne Strahovski, Jai Courtney, Asher Keddie & Marta Dusseldorp, even built its own detention centre set from the ground up.

“There was the opportunity to go to the real thing, but it was just too far to get to and I think the time of year, the weather was pushing 45 degree temperatures, so just not practical. So they ended up having to build the whole thing from scratch. They use the mixture of places, with South Australia being the primary location.”

A second season of Mystery Road sees Aaron Pedersen joined by The Bridge’s Sofia Helin and is due towards Q2.

“I can’t confirm anything on that because they’re out in the field filming. But that is going to be very strong indeed and we’re thrilled it is part of the Berlinale, which is the German Film Festival.”

Also coming is Fallout set against the backdrop of British atomic bomb tests at Maralinga with Ewen Leslie, Jessica De Gouw & James Cromwell.

“Again it has a stellar cast, writing team and directing team. Again they are amazing sets built from scratch. Bizarrely part of it was shot in a former reservoir in Bankstown in Sydney, which is just this amazing piece of land …an extraordinary environment that just absolutely looks like the outback.”

But not all dramas will sit on Sundays with Harrow back for a third season on Friday nights in 2020. Diverse serial The Heights also gets a new timeslot, with a weekly episode at 8pm Thursdays. It will run for 15 weeks once Doctor Who concludes.

Carrington says of ABC Drama, “ABC is finding its voice in a world, where it’s so competitive. The Australian voice is shining through and not to labor the point that it’s Australian, but it is a slightly unique voice to other parts of the world. So I’m really pleased that we’re backing it and that it’s working. Those shows are not only being launched on the world stage of various film festivals, but they’re also being sold to international broadcasters.”

“There are some really strong sketches in there that are really well-observed.”

On the Comedy front, Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell is back from Wednesday (it isn’t clear if we get two seasons this year), followed by the final season of Black Comedy. Or is it?

“We say that, but it may not be,” he teases. “I love that show. There are some really strong sketches in there that are really well-observed.”

The show also upgrades to a 9pm slot.

“Australian audiences I’ve found are going to bed or switching over to Video on Demand. So rather than have it out there late at night when audiences aren’t necessarily available anymore, let’s bring it into where we have more people watching.”

Also returning are Sammy J. and Rosehaven, joined by newcomer Why Are You Like This which follows best friends Mia and Penny as they navigate their 20s in Melbourne, along with housemate, Austin. Guided by their own modern day moral code, they confront complex social issues in an outrage driven world, leaving a path of destruction in their wake.

“This was part of our Fresh Blood season and has been commissioned on the back of its pilot success. It’s a targeted commission for the under-50s audience – we know comedy resonates particularly well with this demo.”

Other new and returning comedies are expected to be confirmed, with Carrington stressing funding pressures at the broadcaster.

“As we enter this year, we’re just finalising the development on each one and then choose which ones we can commission this year.”

On the Entertainment front Hard Quiz is back next Wednesday and Logie winner Tom Gleeson has been busy churning out a stockpile of episodes to be seen across much of 2020.

“It might go all year, or it might have a break in between. We haven’t quite worked out. I know it’s ever-popular with the audience, we just have to manage our resources from a cash perspective,” he explains.

There is more of Anh’s Brush with Fame, Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery, The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, Gruen and three Spicks & Specks specials -the first themed around 1990s music will screen in late February.

“They’re a very lovely, brave family”

Annabel Crabb is back with Further Back in Time for Dinner with the Ferrone family again hands on with history.

“In the first series they had to do without their devices but they still had modern conveniences. Now that they’re going further back in time…. the loo is in the garden, with spiders and animal husbandry, it all comes to the fore. They’re a very lovely, brave family,” says Carrington.

“That format works beautifully and we will absolutely be keeping our mind out for other versions of it.”

ABC always has a comprehensive Documentary and Factual slate and 2020 is no exception.

Carrington names Miriam Margolyes: Almost Australian as one of his personal favourites.

“It’s a beautifully observed piece of content. Being a very famous British lady, Miriam Margolyes is also Australian and lives here. I think she has a very unique perspective on Australian life and the way that she’s able to ask questions about lifestyle and culture is just beautifully observed. Belly laughs, at times,” he says.

“I think it’ll be very powerful and create a dynamic conversation.”

Revelation from Sarah Ferguson is a 3 part doco on the Catholic Church and child abusers, including footage in court rooms and behind bars.

“It will be a very hard watch, but a very necessary story to bring to the Australian public. I think it’ll be very powerful and create a dynamic conversation. While it’s a tough subject, it’s something only we can do, really.”

It is expected to attract headlines, including for having a sting in the tail…

“I think the hint is in the title. I think there are some revelatory moments that could well spark some conversations.”

Shaun Micallef: On the Sauce looks at how alcohol has shaped who we are.

“It’s Shaun’s take on being a teetotaller and why Australians have this obsession with alcohol. That might be an interesting take.”

The Australian Dream is one of several Indigenous themed titles this year, looking at the Adam Goodes story, race and identity in late February. Also coming mid-year is 2 part doco Dark Emu with author Bruce Pascoe presenting his fresh perspective on Indigenous history.

Craig Reucassel fronts two 3 part docos, Fight for Planet A, due mid-year with Big Weather expected towards Q4.

“One is more practical about what you can do to help save the planet and the other one explores the link between those huge weather events and the way that we behave as a people, essentially,” he continues.

“We’re really hoping that those two points are going to anchor the conversation around the way that we approach the planet. Not in an awful climate change / investigative way but in a much more practical sense -a more emotionally engaging, narrative sense, really- that helps inspire the conversation. As opposed to saying that we’re terrible people, that we should be doing something about the planet.

“The majority of people felt that climate change and the planet was the most important issue facing us”

“One of the questions in Australia Talks alluded to this: the majority of people felt that climate change and the planet was the most important issue facing us, particularly for young people.”

Bluechip nature series Australia’s Ocean Highway from Wild Pacific Media captures the East Australian Current, that stretches the length of Australia’s East Coast -an area 3000 kilometres long, 100 kilometres wide and hundreds of metres deep.

“It’s following the current down the east coast of Australia from the top to the bottom and the migration of the various sea life that rely on that current, like whales and dolphins and other types of marine life.”

“It’s kind of like our version of the Wild West”

Outback Ringer is filmed in Central Queensland, the NT and the top of Western Australia.

“It’s potentially iconic in terms of a very unique aspect of Australian life out in the bush. It is looking at local landowners sharing property, herding cattle, performing very dangerous tasks to corral them. It’s kind of like our version of the Wild West and it comes with a lot of drama.”

Around Q3 comes a new factual entertainment from CJZ, Reputation Rehab with Kirsten Drysdale and Zoe Norton Lodge.

“Is social media is taking over our lives?” Carrington asks. “We’re very quick to comment on people and situations. That in itself generates this dynamic situation that can overtake and actually destroy somebody’s reputation very quickly. Sometimes that has merit and sometimes it doesn’t. Does it mean that somebody who’s been affected by social media should suffer for the rest of their lives? Is there a chance that actually, you could rehabilitate them back into society?”

Other docos include Australian Remastered,  Backburning Midnight Oil, Firestarter: The Story Of Bangarra, How Food Works: A Catalyst Special, Maralinga (working title), Backburning Midnight Oil, Firestarter: The Story Of Bangarra, How Food Works: A Catalyst Special, Maralinga (working title), Richard Leplastrier (working title), Road To Now, Searching For Superhuman, The Great Acceleration and Wanita: Heart of the Queen.

David Speers hosts Insiders from February 9 but don’t rule him out for other roles with the broadcaster.

“I think once he’s got his feet under the table he’ll be popping up in all sorts of places. So he could very well pop up on The Drum or Q&A or any of our current affairs platforms. It’ll just depend on his schedule,” he suggests.

Q&A comes with a new executive producer, new set. and new host in Hamish Macdonald.

2020 marks the end of Giggle & Hoot after 10 years.

“All credit to Jimmy’s dedication to it. He hasn’t left it completely because he’s still going to do live shows and various G&H related content,” he confirms.

“The show itself won’t be in production this year. Of course, it will just play out and repeat constantly because there are new audiences which will come and find it.”

There will be new Bluey episodes, although not a full series due to the length of production time. But Carrington, who previously oversaw the Children’s slate, nominates Kangaroo Beach as a new highlight.

“It’s coming to us from Cheeky Little Media an Australian animation studio in New South Wales, and creator, Tim Bain. It’s another show that I think will really resonate with audiences.

“The underlying message here is around water safety”

“It’s Australian native animals as a kind of community and group. I guess the underlying message here is around water safety and our relationship with water as children all wrapped up in a narrative story.

Fireman Sam is overtly about teaching children how to respect fire. This is a water safety lesson wrapped up in an entertainment show. I think there will definitely be international interest on this one.”

He also notes Are You Tougher than your Ancestors? from Sticky Pictures Flying Kite.

“It plays into that Back in Time for Dinner history framework. We’re asking contemporary kids to leave all of their comforts behind and spend 24 hours in the life of a child from another era. Whether that’s a prehistoric child or an 18th or 19th century child.”

Of the international highlights including Doc Martin, Agatha Raisin, Endeavour, Grand Designs Australia and Vera, Carrington is looking forward to Killing Eve.

Killing Eve has got to be the stand out. Even though it is now in its third season it’s still very surprising, still very fresh. Not to say that the others aren’t but they are what they are.”

But while the ABC slate is dense there is a long list of shows yet to be confirmed for more: Les Norton, Diary of an Uber Driver, The Recording Studio, The Letdown, Squinters, Employable Me, Love on the Spectrum, Frayed.

I ask about a select few:

Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds

“I’m willing, waiting and wanting the development team to create something that will continue that story. I mean, it’s a tricky thing to replicate. So they’ll have to think about it very carefully but I’m definitely pushing them to develop something.”

Total Control

“It hasn’t been commissioned but they are in the writers room and they are developing season two. With a good wind, finding the right budget, I think that’s a no-brainer.”


“That would be a very positive conversation when those guys are ready.”

“Having Australian music back on TV is one of the things that I’m really a champion of.”

The Set

“That’s another show that is dear to my heart … having Australian music back on TV is one of the things that I’m really a champion of. I’m really struggling to get the budget together to create more. Chris Scadden who is the head of music development is desperately trying to find a way of bringing it back in some format. Whether that is a shorter format for television or a bigger format for online is the stuff that we’re working on right now.”

Carrington is blunt that funding pressures are biting.

“It is having an effect on what I can put into production now or later and some of some of those wonderful shows like Les Norton and Uber Driver – which did very well and are well-crafted shows- are having to stand aside for these new pieces of content, so that shows as strong as Total Control can get up.

“I’m betting on both sides of the moment, but we’ll see where we get to.”

Next week: Ben Nguyen, SBS.

12 Responses

  1. It seems that the ABC has trouble making drama that just tells a story. Instead it has to have a theme to preach, to influence social attitudes. It is a trend that has been growing each year.

    Thank goodness for most of the comedy, the kids’ content, overseas dramas/thrillers and lifestyle shows. And thank goodness for variety in channels so that we can switch to commercial to avoid preaching.

  2. Stop paying for the sports broadcasting and let the commercial stations do the sport. The codes if they want to do television let them pay the ABC. It’s about time that the codes stopped expecting millions for broadcast rights so that they can pay the football stars millions of dollars which they don’t need.

    1. If the ABC is meant to represent the “voice” of Australia, doesn’t that include sport? One could argue that the voice of sport in the community is much louder than much of the other ABC content.

      Certainly, the amount of sport should not overwhelm other programming, but I love that the ABC will pick up sports that are important to Australians, but not able to meet the huge financial demands of the commercial networks. I also love shows like Outsiders, where knowledgable sports commentators discuss both the popular and the lesser known sports in which Aussies participate.

      Is it a problem to have two games of soccer on weekend afternoons, when no sport is shown in the evening viewing times?

  3. Again, ABC delivers the goods. Hoping for more The Recording Studio, Love On The Spectrum, Employable Me, Old People’s Home…

    Looking forward to the Miriam Margolyes show. That photo of her friend and herself there is wonderful.

  4. So 4 hours of entertainment in Rosehaven, thanks to Sundance. And thousands of hours of the usual stuff on climate change, refugees and Aboriginal politics. At least it’s so predictable that there is no need to waste a minute watching it. And at least Reucassel will be banging on about other things, as well as the evils of plastic.

  5. There is a lot of programming here that appeals to me. Not much to be found in the programming wraps for 7,9 and 10. All I can say is, thank God for the ABC.

  6. Budget concerns. Lol. They have 4 channels. Why? They pay money for the broadcast rights for soccer. Why?

    Maybe reduce the channels and stop paying for crap.

  7. p.s ..Thank goodness for Our ABC, real, quality Drama on Sunday nights, as opposed to the banal Reality crap on some of the Commercial Networks (DWTS on 10 being the glaring exception, although that belongs to the Entertainment genre, not Reality imo)

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