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Part 3: Insight from broadcasters and platforms

The number of people watching film, TV and other content online is growing exponentially. Data shows that 63% of Australians gobbled up stories this way in 2016*.

With this demand, streaming platforms and broadcasters are on the hunt for original digital stories and Australian voices to tell it. And it’s presenting new opportunities for emerging Australian voices.

Part #1 delved into the cost of making online content – both personal and financial – and in Part #2 digital marketing strategies were discussed. The focus of each was on new players. Now, with Part #3, broadcasters and other platforms discuss what exclusive original digital content they want to commission.

There are ABC iview and SBS On Demand, which began as a means to catch-up on missed television but have become destinations for streaming must-see original content.

Meanwhile online streaming platform YouTube, which was bought by Google in 2006, joined forces with Screen Australia through the Skip Ahead initiative, and is the platform of choice for full-time Australian YouTubers such as Natalie Tran.

And Stan has been working with emerging Australian voices that began in the online space to create original new concepts for their platform. They commissioned a pilot episode called Chaperones from comedy troupe and YouTubers Aunty Donna. And a new series The Other Guy is being directed by Kacie Anning, who helmed the Screen Australia-supported web series Fragments of Friday.

All four are reprented here.

The major international streaming platforms of Netflix and Amazon haven’t to date shown interest in emerging Australian voices that got their start online but they may. (See here for information on Netflix’s first exclusive Australian commission, Tidelands, from established production company Hoodlum.)

Some international SVOD services, however, do look online for talent and intellectual property, an example being BlackPills in France, which commissioned Event Zero by Australian Enzo Tedeschi. And it’s not uncommon overseas. Hit US series Broad City began life as a web series that was independently produced between 2009 and 2011, before it was picked up by Comedy Central and Amy Poehler came on board to executive produce.

For readers new to the multiplatform space, these four titles are examples of content developed for online:

  1. 1999 (YouTube) – 10-part comedy series with episodes ranging from two-and-a-half to five-and-a-half minutes. Before 1999, Aunty Donna had 65,000 subscribers on YouTube. They released 1999 over a three-month period and by the end had 108,000 subscribers. As of May 2017 they had 152,000.
  2. The Katering Show season two (ABC) – Eight-part series with episodes of eight to 12 minutes. It was commissioned off the back of the success of season one, which launched on YouTube. Season two became the most-watched ABC iview original series and also aired on ABC TV.
  3. The Wizards of Aus (SBS) – Six-part web series with episodes ranging from 12 to 18 minutes. Supported by Screen Australia, SBS topped up funding after filming wrapped and had the web series exclusively for a month on SBS On Demand. They also packaged the 15-minute episodes into half-hours to air on SBS 2 (now Viceland) over three nights.
  4. No Activity season one and two (Stan) – Six-part long-form comedy series, with episodes of around 23-24 minutes. This show about cops on a stake-out where nothing happens had no script and was made up of scenes improvised around loose story points.

Online is not just about short-form:

All durations and types of format are now being considered by commissioners as more consumers watch online content on their big-screen TVs at home.

All parties suggest online is a place of experimentation and, as such, there are no hard or fast rules. When making a feature or a TV series, there are accepted parameters (e.g. feature films have a runtime of generally 85-120 minutes, while television episodes are 42-45 minutes for a one-hour timeslot, or 24-27 minutes for a half hour). Such criteria doesn’t apply in online. The length of each episode and the length of the web series itself, is dictated by the story, budget, and the platform/service.

And in a space that’s constantly evolving, every idea is looked at on a case-by-case basis – because a game-changing series or idea can arrive out of the blue. However these comments are relevant as of early 2017 and grouped under the following headings:

  • Budgets
  • Interests
  • Rights
  • Genre
  • Episode/series length
  • Pitching

Some quick takeaways from these interviews include:

  • The ballpark benchmark for commissioned content with ABC iview sits around the $2000-$3000 a minute range for series ranging from five to eight episodes, with a runtime of five to 12 minutes per episode. ABC would consider fully funding web series within this budget.
  • Acquisitions are “significantly less”.
  • Content creators need to identify why their content would suit the brand/charter of a particular organisation. This is particularly significant for Stan and SBS.
  • Factors that can make a pitch attractive include: a pre-existing audience, recognisable talent, support from government agencies that brings down the ask on the platform, the affordability of the budget.
  • The likelihood of a series selling overseas can play a factor in commissioning for Stan.
  • Representatives of SVOD platforms and broadcasters look at online content as a way of identifying and creating a relationship with promising talent.
  • Creators can and should negotiate the exclusive windows.
  • Creators should understand that YouTube is not now only for short-form.

Thanks to the representatives from ABC, SBS, YouTube and Stan who offered up their time and expertise for this article.

Fragments of Friday series two

BUDGETS

Alastair McKinnon, ABC Television Deputy Head of Production

<h6>Alastair McKinnon</h6><p>ABC Television Deputy Head of Production</p>
Alastair McKinnon

ABC Television Deputy Head of Production

Alastair McKinnon has an over-arching view of financing and commissioning content at the public broadcaster.

He says iview is a terrific avenue to discover emerging talent, however established faces also work, and it’s a great platform to experiment generally. Either way, the budgets need to be at a manageable level.

“Where the cost starts to rise is when people start having elaborate set pieces or unwieldy locations,” he says.

“What works really well are very contained worlds. They enable you to deliver it in a cost-effective way and means all the pressure is on the writing, the performances and the idea itself. And that’s the most important thing. There’s no point having big bells-and-whistles productions if the underlying idea and the writing isn’t sufficient to engage.

“Our ball-park benchmark aspiration for iview is in the $2000-3000 a minute range. [That’s] something we could entertain fully funding. If it was more than that it would have to be a case-by-case basis and generally would be a co-production scenario (e.g. approaching Screen Australia or the state screen agencies for funding).

“[But] $2000-$3000 per minute is a sustainable for us in regard to the content and the reach of the platform. That’s not to say some things don’t cost more than that. We would consider it depending on the nature of the project, the talent involved, and also if there is genuine TV potential (such as with The Katering Show which was an iview commission, but also broadcast on the main channel).

“Acquisitions we pay less. It’s significantly less than that.”

Chris Irvine, Head of Commercial & Production at SBS television

<h6>Chris Irvine</h6><p>Head of Commercial and Production at SBS Television</p>
Chris Irvine

Head of Commercial and Production at SBS Television

“[We want] to reinforce the message that SBS On Demand is a destination in its own right. It was born as a catch-up player, but it’s evolved into something that’s positioned as a genuine alternative to Netflix,” Irvine says.

“We’re putting more energy and more resources into making sure it is fuelled with original content you can only see on SBS On Demand.”

And a big part of that push is getting diverse Australian voices on that platform. But Irvine doesn’t want to limit these content creators and says the story will dictate the budget.

“There is no cookie cutter approach in terms of how we’re licencing content for the platform and nor do we necessarily want to import one. For the platform to be successful we’re looking at a variety of offerings. We don’t want to paint ourselves into any corners.”

He says SBS On Demand now houses 6,000 hours of content, almost all of which has been “acquired as finished tape in the traditional sense”.

“In terms of an acquisition strategy going forward, I would like to see more Australian stories on SBS On Demand and if one of the mechanisms to get those Australian voices SBS On Demand is to acquire Australian ‘finished tape’: great.”

The Katering Show series two

INTERESTS

Sally O’Donoghue, ABC iview Manager

<h6>Sally O'Donoghue</h6><p>ABC iview Manager</p>
Sally O'Donoghue

ABC iview Manager

ABC iview Manager Sally O’Donoghue says the broadcaster has been commissioning digital-first programs at an exponential rate since late 2015.

“We really started ramping that up in 2016 with a full year of commissions. We made more than 100 hours of programming across nearly 20 programs – all made for a digital-first window,” she says.

While the ABC has loyal viewers in the 50+ demographic and popular children’s content, this was a chance to “make content for the segments of the audience who are among the biggest consumers of internet TV, so 18-34 year olds.”

“We were also commissioning more targeted content for the ABC Arts digital channel on iview,” she says – a strategy that has been paying off and they will continue to focus on.

“Since we’ve launched the Arts channel on iview, the iview plays of Arts programming have increased year-on-year by 65%. And visits to those sections of the iview website and app have doubled.

"I’d even go so far as to say, I’m pretty certain that we will be doing more of those niche and targeted spaces within iview.”

She says other projects they think work well are those that are topical such as Sammy J’s Playground Politics or have recognisable talent.

“The two Kates from The Katering Show brought their own following and made the show instantly recognisable – that’s really important when you’ve got a digital show. Because often you’ve only got the program image and title of the show to market it online, so to be able to have recognisable faces is helpful, or a head-start anyway.”

Chris Irvine, Head of Commercial & Production at SBS television

Irvine says they are always looking for a stand-out idea, but their digital strategy has a “laser focus on charter”.

“By that I mean the SBS commissioning charter already has a bespoke agenda to promote debate, to push boundaries, to surprise audiences, inspire change,” he says.

Their focus for SBS On Demand would be to further the Diversity Talent Escalator they launched with the state screen agencies in November 2016, which Irvine says aims to find opportunities for practitioners with diverse backgrounds.

“What we want to do [with SBS On Demand] is develop that focus, but this strategy would be about the shows that those practitioners create and give a platform to that content,” he says.

“That’s fundamental to what we’d like to do – to grow a pool of behind-the-camera talent from those underrepresented backgrounds.”

He says beyond demonstrating diversity, if you come to SBS with an idea, “every other filmmaking trope applies”.

“Of course we’d rather a proof of concept, of course we’d rather a treatment and script sitting behind these sorts of pitches,” he says.

But because they see SBS On Demand as an opportunity to nurture emerging talent, they do not expect content creators to come armed with a long list of credits.

“It will be a slightly different focus from our commissioning team. It will not be ‘do you have the requisite credits to attract traditional finance?’; it will be ‘do you have a great idea and do you have the commitment to see it through?’”

Nick Forward, Stan Chief Content Officer

<h6>Nick Forward</h6><p>Stan Chief Content Officer</p>
Nick Forward

Stan Chief Content Officer

As the Chief Content Officer of SVOD platform Stan, Nick Forward says they are looking for long-form, premium projects, unique to their brand. But where they find those stories and content creators can vary.

“We look everywhere for development and for talent, whether that’s identifying IP from books and TV or online,” he says.

“But what’s important is that although short-form, bitesize content is very much suited to a YouTube environment, it’s not awfully well suited to an SVOD environment. So if you find talent online, you want to do something very, very different with them, which is what we’re trying to do with Aunty Donna.”

Last year Stan announced comedy troupe Aunty Donna had been approved to develop and shoot the TV pilot Chaperones for the SVOD platform. The aim is to get Aunty Donna, who have a 130K+ subscriber base on YouTube (partly thanks to the Skip Ahead series 1999), to tackle something new. With Chaperones they will be delving into longer-form content (see “Episode Length” for more).

“We will look at what we think is a great show, that we think will find an audience – and an audience who will be prepared to subscribe,” he says.

AND REMEMBER

Check if there are any initiatives or funding that match up with your idea. Screen Australia has partnered with a number of organisations in the past to provide funding for new concepts, talent, or burgeoning careers.

Current and past Screen Australia initiatives include:

Screen Australia also offers up to $500,000 in funding through Multiplatform Drama Production. There are also state government-supported initiatives such as the SAFC TV LABS iview Originals.

The Glass Bedroom

RIGHTS

Sally O’Donoghue, ABC iview Manager

“More and more we’re trying to make iview a long-tail catalogue for ABC TV, so regardless of when the show aired, ideally you’d be able to find that show on iview,” O’Donoghue says.

“Obviously that’s subject to rights but more and more we’re pushing into making programs available for longer on iview.”

Chris Irvine, Head of Commercial & Production at SBS television

“If we’re going to embrace an SBS On Demand strategy it’s going to be about first-run exclusive content,” Irvine says.

“If we’re talking to practitioners who want to get a chance to get original content on SBS I would say it would be counter-productive, almost counter-intuitive for that content to have already played somewhere else.”

Bruce

GENRE

Sally O’Donoghue, ABC iview Manager

The two most-viewed shows on ABC iview in 2016 were both iview digital firsts that then aired on ABC TV, but couldn’t be more different, O’Donoghue says.

“The Katering Show was our most viewed non-children’s show on iview last year, but interestingly the next most popular show on iview was You Can’t Ask That,” she says.

“They’re completely different – You Can’t Ask That is factual, and The Katering Show is scripted comedy. We’re looking for scripted and non-scripted, and programs that we can adapt to social media, iview and broadcast. We’re not so concerned about episode lengths. It just depends on how strong the story is and on how well the story’s told.”

Chris Irvine, Head of Commercial & Production at SBS television

Irvine says SBS On Demand is taking a “cross-genre approach” – meaning that they are more concerned whether the original Australian content resonates with their charter message in promoting diversity.

“That’s a much bigger focus than genre,” he says.

There is interest in factual and scripted content.

“Of course the funding model is somewhat disparate in terms of how you would pay for drama content vs factual content from the production context, so it may be informed by the financing model and what level of support we can hope for from the screen agencies, but as far as SBS On Demand is concerned it’s completely agnostic in terms of genre.”

Nick Forward, Stan Chief Content Officer

Stan’s commissions have ranged from comedy (Chaperones, No Activity, One Night Stan, The Other Guy) to thrillers (Wolf Creek Seasons 1 & 2, which Screen Australia also funded). Forward says what’s important is that the show resonates not just locally, but internationally.

“It’s really crucial to create shows that can also find distribution overseas, by focusing on stories that we believe will travel,” he says.

Wolf Creek for example, sold to the major territories, including Pop TV in the US and Fox UK, after premiering on Stan.

Kristen Bowen, YouTube Asia Pacific's Head of 'Top Creators'

Bowen says the beauty of YouTube is that “it’s totally limitless” in terms of what genres work.

“YouTube is a vehicle for these sub-communities of passionate people to connect with each other,” she says.

“The recipe for success is probably more to see what people are not doing and try something new rather than to imitate something that’s already popular. Because you start to see some categories becoming really popular and it’s harder to break through.

“If you can find something new that no one’s done before then it can really take off.”

Wolf Creek series

EPISODE/SERIES LENGTH

Alastair McKinnon, ABC Television Deputy Head of Production

“It’s not fixed but a range of between five to 12 minutes is what we tend to get pitched and what has worked well to date. And they tend to be anything from five to eight episodes,” says McKinnon.

“That said, we are open to longer form and if a brilliant idea came in with 30 minute episodes and the economics worked then we’d be very open to that.”

He says if someone came in with a long-running series or a second series, they might consider it depending on the budget and funds available.

“And it’s not like it is with conventional timeslots, where it’s a 30-minute slot or an hour slot, so everything is very fixed and ideas have to fit that framework. The great thing about iview-only commissions is that they can be whatever length suits the idea, both in minutes but also number of episodes.”

Sally O’Donoghue, ABC iview Manager

“We’re happy to be flexible about the durations. It should be as long as it needs to be,” O’Donoghue says.

“When we first started down this road, making content for iview, we were thinking exclusively short-form, smartphone consumption. But one of our biggest areas of growth is watching internet TV on your big-screen at home. So we’re not just looking for short-form. We’re looking for all durations, all different types of format, and thinking about how it can live on any screen, whether it’s in the living room or on the go. I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more longer-form content made for any screen.”

Chris Irvine, Head of Commercial & Production at SBS television

Irvine says the beauty of commissioning for SBS On Demand is that you’re liberated when it comes to format – there is no definitive episode or series length.

“We wouldn’t prescribe a TV-centric format to make sure you come in at 24 minutes or 25 minutes,” he says. “But if the content lends itself to being scheduled in a TV way, and we’re confident we can find an audience, there’s always the opportunity to repackage it.”

However, he says that, inevitably, “the cost base” will dictate that episodes are shorter form. And while they are “not going to turn our back on any formats” they are more likely to look at episodic series because they provide a learning tool for emerging practitioners.

“I think there’s a real skill to episodic storytelling and in terms of the upskilling agenda it would be useful from both perspectives – the audience, but also the practitioner’s development to think episodically.”

Nick Forward, Stan Chief Content Officer

Forward says the SVOD service commissions long-form concepts. It’s one of the reasons why Aunty Donna’s pitch to develop a pilot episode of Chaperones was appealing when the YouTube comedy troupe approached Stan with the idea.

“We are huge fans of their anarchic, weird, surreal short-form videos, but for me, what interested us was moving beyond that… for them to spread their wings into long-form narrative content,” he says.

“I think it will be something fairly unique for Stan viewers. Obviously I would hope that their fans will subscribe to see it, but I think it will feel like something very fresh and original for these guys.”

Kristen Bowen, YouTube Asia Pacific's Head of 'Top Creators'

While some in Australia might think YouTube is about short-form videos and web-series, it’s not the case everywhere.

“In some countries it’s much more of an established behaviour to watch long-form content on YouTube. It really varies from country to country.”

In Australia, four top creators including RackaRacka are already expanding into longer-form projects through the Google/Screen Australia initiative Skip Ahead. It awarded four groups funding from a total pool of $725,000 to realise their projects.

“It’s definitely a step up for them. A lot of them are teaming up with experienced producers they’ll be able to learn from as they branch into this long-form content,” Bowen says.

“There’s content of all different lengths on YouTube but for most of the 2016 Skip Ahead recipients, this is a bit longer than they’re used to writing, producing and shooting for.”

The announcement YouTube would be funding 40 original shows and movies in the next year, as well as the launch of YouTube Red locally in May 2016 could also change how much long-form content Australians view on the platform.  

YouTube Red is a paid membership that gives subscribers ad-free viewing across YouTube, YouTube Music, and YouTube Gaming, with access to exclusive content.

“With YouTube Red we will continue to see new viewing habits, the length of content and ways of watching content evolve, but the core and heart of YouTube will be the same,” she says.

“It’s where anyone can find a community and a passionate fanbase and connect with them through video.”

No Activity series one

PITCHING

Alastair McKinnon, ABC Television Deputy Head of Production

“The best idea always rises to the top, but with that said, if somebody had a significant YouTube following or demonstrated success on YouTube, that obviously helps the overall pitch to us because there’s proof of concept and we already know they are a solid talent,” McKinnon says.

ABC “would fully fund things and have”, but they are also keen to work with the federal and state screen agencies.

When that happens, McKinnon says you get almost a semi-conventional funding model, with ABC, Screen Australia and one of the state funding bodies chipping in money.

But you don’t necessarily need to find that support before approaching the ABC. In fact, McKinnon says if you come to the ABC first and they like your idea, they can go in and support you in those conversations.

“(And) if your budget is too high, we could look at ways of getting it down, at which point it might fall into an initiative that’s going on at the time and we might encourage you to apply for that,” he says.

“But maybe if you are emerging talent a state agency might want to support you and that’s a conversation we can have with the agency. Like the platform itself, there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of delivery length, how people go about it, how they come to us and how they get it funded.”

Chris Irvine, Head of Commercial & Production at SBS television

When it comes to pitching to SBS On Demand, Irvine says: “We’re going to be putting some more detail around pitching so that we can be a little bit more prescriptive in terms of what it is we’ll be asking people to do.”

However, as he has noted, applicants will need to be able to demonstrate their team comes from an underrepresented background.

“Beyond that, I would recommend people pick up the telephone and talk to one of our genre heads about any idea regardless of the format and see whether the idea resonates,” he says.

For more information on pitching to SBS, click here.

Nick Forward, Stan Chief Content Officer

Forward says content creators should think of pitching to Stan in the same way they would pitch to Pay TV network.

“Because even though we go down a wire, that’s pretty much all we share in similarities with a free ad-funded platform or one of the catch-up services. We produce high-budget premium scripted shows and I would consider absolutely everything we make needs to fall within that,” he says.

“But our brief is going to be a little bit different than what you would normally get from broadcast and network channels.”

Forward says content for Stan can be narrower in its audience focus, because they don’t rely on ratings or advertising revenue.

“For something like Stan and pretty much all SVOD services it’s really important you engage more deeply. It’s better to find a targeted audience who absolutely adore the show and genuinely can’t live without it,” he says, because then there is reason for them to subscribe.

“So it’s about making content that is identifiably and uniquely for Stan. No Activity is a show that I can’t imagine anyone else in this territory having commissioned but I think that’s because it feels very much in line with our audience and our brand.”

*[1] ACMA’s 2015-16 Communications Report

A WORD FROM SCREEN AUSTRALIA

Mike Cowap, Investment Manager for Interactive and Multiplatform

These are some rich insights directly from the marketplace on who is interested in what type of content, and what financial value it can hope to raise. There has also been an explosion in international opportunities with the rapid expansion in the number of cash-rich video-on-demand services seeking to build competitive libraries of content, many of whom have shown an interest in Australia, such as Fullscreen, Canal Play and BlackPills.

There are many benefits to working with a broadcaster beyond their contribution to your budget: you get access to their platforms and audience and their marketing and publicity teams, you get the experience of collaborating with professional expertise, and you get the career prestige of being acknowledged by mainstream media. However, it’s also critical not to lose sight of the power and opportunity of self-releasing your content, where you can access a global audience through open platforms, and with a tireless campaign and a keen understanding of your audience then the sky’s the limit when it comes to the reach and depth of engagement you can achieve with your material. And then pitching to a broadcaster once you have amassed that audience will make you more appealing and give you much greater leverage. There’s a lot of talk about retaining some digital rights.

One of the critical elements here is about how long the broadcaster has exclusivity (if at all) and at what point you will be able to release the content on your own channels during its online lifespan, so that you can reap the resulting likes and subscribers, and continue to build the loyal audience and leverage that will protect you from the changing tastes and resources of broadcasters, and be empowered to drive your own career.

Learn more about the Screen Australia multiplatform drama production funding here