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Part 4: interview with Jonathan Shiff

Producer Jonathan M Shiff explains why Mako Mermaids is a standout success internationally – and why the local production environment for children’s television has badly deteriorated.

Ask producer Jonathan Shiff about the overseas success of Mako Mermaids series 1 and he immediately talks about the big picture: he has, after all, made 28 seasons or 290 hours’ worth of 15 different high end live action children’s series with budgets totalling $221 million – and won many awards including two BAFTAs and two export honours.

“I was always of the view – no equivocation, absolute belief – that we (Australia) could make the best children’s television in the world, just as we can achieve in sport,” he says.

“The accent is the opposite of a liability and our talent is as good as any in the world. And chilling after school with an orange juice on a pier in Queensland: many children find that an aspirational lifestyle … Also, we’re Australian so there’s a freshness and an openness to what we create.”

Data shows (see Part 2) that the first series of Mako Mermaids, titled Mako: Island of Secrets locally, returned more net revenue to investors in calendar year 2017 than any other television drama made with Screen Australia investment. While it is the international poster child for investors right now, the H20: Just Add Water spin-off shares many characteristics with Jonathan’s other productions.

“There is nothing sloppy about these shows: they’ve got strong characters in central roles, quality storytelling and universal themes. They are quintessentially Australian but people from Buenos Aires to San Francisco can relate to them.

“They are fantasies, they are about mermaids, and the underwater part makes them special; but really they’re about friendship and fraternity. By and large my work has been about empowering young women because they deserve it and because 30 odd years ago I had a daughter. And the audience for young girls skews bigger than for young boys, who are often playing video games.”

SVODS HAVE REPLACED RELATIONSHIPS WITH ALGORITHMS

Jonathan says H20 went gangbusters on subscription video on demand (SVOD) platform Netflix and this lead to what was a landmark deal back in 2013: Mako Mermaids became the first live-action series to be simultaneously and exclusively released internationally by Netflix, rolling out in 50 territories initially then growing to 120 territories. At that time Netflix also committed to a second series.

“One of the things the SVODs have done is replace relationships with algorithms,” he says. “If something is not working, it’s not renewed. Kids are driving growth here, not impeding it.

“I see the slow metamorphosis into streaming, catch up services supplanting main channels and people watching on a range of devices. There’s limitless opportunity worldwide because optimistic story telling is part of human endeavour. It’s across every age group except perhaps the overcrowded preschool space.”

<h6>Jonathan M Shiff</h6>
Jonathan M Shiff

Jonathan says Ten’s Network Head of Children’s Television, Cherrie Bottger, “a huge believer in quality children’s television who urged me to do my best”, has been one of his key supporters for a long time. Distributor ZDF Enterprises was also fundamental to him being able to very deliberately build – and sustain – a business model. That relationship is nearly two decades old and was pre-dated by 12 years with Tele Images. ZDF and Ten are partners in his latest show, The Bureau of Magical Things, filmed last year in Queensland. The principal investors are Screen Australia and Screen Queensland.

But he also says that to make cut-through programming is no longer a matter of who you know or who trusts you or whether you have infrastructure or a big budget (the 26 x half-hour series Mako Mermaids series 1 cost about $12 million). Plenty of successful web series prove this.

KIDS’ TV HAS SUFFERED UNDER POLICY INERTIA

That’s the good news; the bad is that, in his opinion, Australia has shot itself in the foot.

To understand why requires an understanding of how the “C” (children’s) drama quotas fostered a critical mass of quality programs that entertained, educated and enriched young Australians for decades and, because of the admiration these shows attracted, how the quotas also created an export industry. (The C classification is part of the complex regulatory framework that applies to Australian commercial television. C programs must be specifically for children younger than 14 years of age who are not pre-schoolers and each network must screen at least 32 hours of Australian C drama, 26 hours of which must not have been seen previously.)

Jonathan compares the C classification to the National Heart Foundation’s tick logo that appears on food packaging to signify a healthy food choice: “They (buyers of C drama) didn’t have to vet episodes for a decapitation scene because they knew there wouldn’t be one.”

The networks have conditions on their licences because they utilise public spectrum but he argues that, in recent years, the government has failed to ensure that they live up to the spirit of these obligations – and it’s not been good for business or good for kids.

An example of this policy inertia is how animated co-productions – “that don’t have much that’s Australian about them and are more of benefit to India, Canada, Korea” – have been allowed to displace live action drama, he adds.

“Several generations can no longer see themselves on screen. They have lost their voice. This is not a trivial thing. There are no longer opportunities for social modelling, for building self-esteem, for fostering imagination.”

THE NETWORKS HAVE NOT EMBRACED YOUNG AUDIENCES

The networks have marginalised rather than embraced young audiences in favour of quick profits from sport, reality television and cheap drama, he says. Yes, they are subject to limits on how much advertising they can include during C programs, but this attitude reveals a lack of understanding about market opportunities, the power of kids and how building a strong television business requires branding that crosses generations.

“I value, rather than devalue the children’s audience. JK Rowling never wrote books thinking ‘This is never going to work’.”

Unlike some producers, he doesn’t see the networks moving their children’s programming off the primary channel and on to the multi-channels as necessarily problematic. Mako started on Ten and was then shifted to sister channel Eleven. Ratings fell but he saw the sense in trying to create a destination for children.

Now the networks are fighting to have the quotas abolished. Jonathan says that if the government allows this to happen the industry is doomed.

“All our series begin with a commission from an Australian commercial free-to-air broadcaster,” he said in a letter to the recent inquiry into the Australian film and television industry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts. “Without this, no series would be made.”

THE PRODUCER OFFSET IS UNCOMPETITIVE

The government could also help by fixing the uncompetitive nature of the Producer Offset (PO) – a tax rebate of up to 20% on the cost of making Australian drama – and abolish the rule that a program is no longer eligible for the PO once 65 hours are in the can, he says.

“You can get 40% in Singapore and NZ. Malaysia, Thailand, Fiji and Ireland are also attractive … We’re constantly asked by people throughout the world whether we should be doing what we do in Australia. They say ‘come and work here’.

“You can’t run an international export business turning over tens of millions of dollar with a weak government … It’s like talking to people with their backs to you.”

Jonathan says he’s been privileged to have accessed the PO and also direct taxpayer funding, and says it’s impossible to keep making new series without either public funding or venture capital that he doesn’t have. But each series, as well as nourishing young viewers, helps develop the industry as a whole.

He’s clearly proud of helping to launch careers on camera and off: Liam Hemsworth and Oscar-nominated Margot Robbie were both in The Elephant Princess; Jeffrey Walker worked with him first as an actor, then as a rookie director; and producer Joanna Werner, whose Dance Academy series also delivered substantial revenue to investors in 2017, was mentored by then worked alongside him.

If he does end up moving his operations abroad it will be an Irish person or a Thai person or some other non-Australian that benefits from his skill and experience.

“The world is your oyster if you’re unafraid to tell your own story and keep it universally appealing. But you have reason to be afraid of making live action children’s drama in Australia if the system is dismantled.”