EXCLUSIVE: 2020 marks a milestone for the Special Broadcasting Service, as it reaches its 40th anniversary in October.
As Ben Nguyen, Channel Manager of SBS, reflects on the year ahead he acknowledges the broadcaster is considering how best to celebrate.
“We’re thinking about how we could potentially mark that. You don’t want to be too navel-gazing, but we do have 40 years of different generations forming an emotional connection with SBS,” he tells TV Tonight.
Indeed. SBS is much-loved for everything from Documentary, Drama, Food, Sport and more.
SBS now produces an average of two local miniseries a year. The first, Hungry Ghosts from Matchbox Pictures, is due mid year and centres around supernatural themes in a Vietnamese Australian community in Melbourne.
“It’s is an extraordinary ensemble show with Shawn Seet directing, Bryan Brown, Ryan Corr, Susie Porter, Justine Clark, along with a slew of relatively new Vietnamese Australian faces, which is fantastic.
“This is much more genre and supernatural horror than anything we’ve done before”
“The recent success of our dramas, both critically and with audiences with shows like Dead Lucky and The Hunting has given us the confidence to step into some new spaces. This is much more genre and supernatural horror than anything we’ve done before, which is an exciting place to play in.
“It’s a family drama, a story about grief and about coming to terms with the past.”
For Nguyen there is also a personal connection to the community at the heart of this drama.
“My dad came to Australia as a student ahead of the Vietnam War. With the outbreak of the war he was forced to stay in this country but obviously put down roots here and, and fell in love with this country.
“It’s told from different generations who came to call Australia their home and and also people like Bryan Brown’s character who was a photojournalist during the war. All of them bear these scars from their experience that conflict.”
Filming is yet to begin in regional Victoria on New Gold Mountain from Goalpost Pictures, due to screen towards the end of the year.
This is a period drama set the height of the Australian gold rush with Anna Kokkinos (The Hunting) directing.
“For us it’s a very exciting step into period drama, telling the story of the gold rush through the perspective of the Chinese experience. It’s sort of a revisionist take on the history of that period.”
“Obviously we would love to do more Drama than we’re doing”
Nguyen also expands on why SBS dramas are presented as stand-alone miniseries rather than returning dramas.
“We’re working with a finite budget, and obviously would love to do more Drama than we’re doing. But given that we do around two mini series a year, rather than stepping back into a world that we’ve already been, the desire is to explore something new every time.
“But I don’t think that question will ever fully go away. I think that if there’s a way that we could have a recurring character, that takes us down different stories and different communities, there would be an appeal to that. And not having to start from scratch every time.”
International dramas are always a feature of the multicultural broadcaster. UK thriller Dublin Murders launches on February 19, based on novels by Sarah Phelps.
“You can tell by watching it, the influence that Nordic noir has had in terms of the tone,” he continues.
“I think that it should prove fairly accessible, it’s obviously in English, and set in Ireland. For the detectives it’s about two cases that become very personal for them.”
War of the Worlds in Q2, starring Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern, is a modern take on the book by H.G Wells.
“I’ve seen the first two episodes and I think it is very strong. It’s a quiet, sobering approach to science fiction. It’s very realistic and made me think of films like Arrival.
“It’s a French UK co production and inevitably as a result of that, the story’s told between the UK and France -one being a refugee who was in the midst of trying to cross the border into the UK.”
“In the office it’s very highly anticipated!”
Also coming in Q2 is season 4 of the acclaimed Fargo.
“It’s set in the 1950s in Kansas City and I think Noah Hawley, the creator, has talked about the cost of this production and the degree of difficulty to pull it all together is about twice as much as the previous season. In the office it’s very highly anticipated!”
Vikings will conclude with 10 more episodes possibly later in the year. There are also no dates yet for new seasons of The Good Fight or The Handmaid’s Tale.
Local documentaries are an SBS highlight and the year begins with the long-awaited Great Australian Railway Journeys from tonight.
“The railway fans will love it,” Nguyen declares. “It’s a very nuanced telling of Australian history stories through the program. There’s a lot of indigenous stories in there, and we recently reached out through the producers and got a personal statement from Michael Portillo, which we’ll add in, about the bushfires, because he does visit places and koala sanctuaries that have been heavily affected. So we just thought it was important to have a statement from him recognising the challenges.”
“It’s telling a family story without a reliance on having celebrities”
The second season of Secrets of our Cities is launching next month with presenter Greig Pickhaver.
“It’s taking you through suburbs or a town and giving you the history of the location. And then later in the year we’re coming back again with Every Family has a Secret, which is sort of similar mould. What was exciting about that show was telling a family story without a reliance on having celebrities, in order to get an audience.”
Filthy, Rich and Homeless from Blackfella Films returns later this year. So far only Dr. Andrew Rochford has been confirmed as a participant. But Nguyen looks to its focus on poverty and homelessness as a true experiment, which leads to change.
“There’s a lot of shows these days that use the ‘social experiment’ banner”
“There’s a lot of shows these days that use the ‘social experiment’ banner. But I think that very few of them show us someone really changing how they feel about an issue, through their experiences. Filthy Rich & Homeless does that every time and I think it’s very much about the emotional connection that the participants form with the people that they meet.
“As much as Married at First Sight is a very, very successful, entertaining series…. you’re not really seeing those people change as a result of their experience. I think that’s where I would draw the distinction.”
Also coming from Blackfella Films is 3 part doco series Addicted which is expected to look at all kinds of personal addictions other than just substance abuse.
‘They all have a story to tell.”
The big questions keep coming with Who Gets To Stay In Australia? from ITV Studios Australia.
“It’s a way of asking a tough question around our immigration laws, but it’s not a political series. It’s a show about people who would like to call Australia their home and, sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they’re not. But they all have a story to tell.”
Top director Rachel Perkins (Total Control) will present First Wars, which takes a new look at the frontier conflict that has often been buried, whitewashed, or ignored. It is due in Q3 or Q4.
See What You Made Me Do from Northern Pictures is an investigative look at domestic violence in this country.
“It’s a very challenging subject, but something that is really important.”
But Come Fly with Me takes a lighter approach, with Justine Clarke presenting a social history of Australia, through the lens of aviation.
SBS favourite Who Do You Think You Are? is back for Season 11 mid year with Lisa Wilkinson, Bert Newton, and Troy Cassar-Daley.
International docos include The Clinton Affair, the first time that Monica Lewinsky has told her story in such detail and new John Pilger documentary, The Dirty War on the NHS, screening in two week’s time.
“Saturday nights was always the home of RocKwiz“
SBS is also adding more Entertainment to its schedule, notably on Saturday nights with Celebrity Mastermind in February with first contestants Courtney Act, Jessica Rowe, Adam Liaw, Adam Spencer, Marc Fennell, Alex Lee, Sam Simmons and Nazeem Hussain. It will be paired with Ken Burns documentary series, Country Music. Mastermind also returns to 6pm weekdays later this month. 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown also gets an upgrade from VICELAND to the primary channel as part of a Saturday overhaul.
“Saturday nights was always the home of RocKwiz over many years and we haven’t really had an entertainment property to take its place,” Nguyen suggests.
“We’re exploring options in terms of what we could do locally in that space, but we’re not going to rush into anything. We’ll obviously have Eurovision: Australia Decides and Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras with coverage going live for the first time.”
Brooklyn Nine-Nine also gets an upgrade to SBS to be fast-tracked to Friday nights.
“We are broadening the mix on the main channels. (Multichannels have) allowed us to include more comedy and entertainment alongside the drama and documentary and cater for a wider cross section.”
A number of shows are not confirmed to return: Struggle Street, Medicine or Myth and Child Genius. And Robbie Hood? “It was always intended to be self-contained, but it’s done so well, so never say never.”
“It’s great to be able to put them on our biggest platform”
Another change in the schedule sees The Feed moved to 10pm Tuesdays, following from Insight and Dateline.
“I was involved when we launched it on SBS2 seven years ago. When things really showcase what SBS can do, it’s great to be able to put them on our biggest platform.
“We want to work really hard on pulling audiences through the night, from one to the other, and so introducing audiences that maybe hadn’t thought that The Feed was something for them is something we’re conscious about.
“We’ll take a break mid-year for the Tour de France, but otherwise it runs through the year.”
Other multichannel highlights include Homeland on VICELAND next week, Shrill and reruns of The X-Files.
SBS Food is now the priority for new local food productions, while NITV highlights include Faboriginal, Family Rules, extended Going Places with Ernie Dingo and The Beach from renowned director Warwick Thornton.
NB: Foxtel was unavailable for Programming Wrap 2020.