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Podcast – Hear from the ABC

Director Entertainment and Specialist at the ABC - Michael Carrington - discusses the ABC's priorities, the significance of iview, and opportunities for Australian creatives.

Michael Carrington sitting at desk

Michael Carrington

Find this episode of the Screen Australia Podcast on iTunes, SpotifyStitcher or Pocket Casts

Michael Carrington, the Director Entertainment and Specialist at the ABC, draws on his wealth of knowledge from three decades working in the industry here and abroad to discuss the ABC in 2020.

Throughout the podcast, Michael talks about what content ABC are looking for across drama, children’s and factual; balancing acquisitions and commissions; their approach to ‘bingeing’ content; challenges for the public broadcaster; and opportunities for creatives such as the one-off Development Fund Fresh Start, which runs until June 12, 2020. You can find a link to apply to the fund here

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AUDIO TRANSCRIPT

[00:00:05] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. I'm Caris Bizzaca, a journalist with Screen Australia's online publication Screen News. On this episode of the podcast, we're joined by Michael Carrington, the Director Entertainment and Specialist at the ABC, who draws on his wealth of knowledge from three decades working in the industry both here and abroad to discuss the focus of the ABC going forward. Michael also talks about the significance of iview, what content ABC are looking for and advice for getting in touch, and opportunities such as the one-off development fund Fresh Start, which runs until June 12, 2020. And you can find a link to that fund in the show notes as well. But a bit of background about Michael first. After starting out in Australian radio, he worked in children's television for Channel Ten before moving to the UK in 1990 and beginning work at the BBC. For the next 20 years Michael worked on and off at the BBC in children's television working between the US, Europe and the UK as well as Australia, particularly as the BBC began to expand into the digital realm and launched dedicated children's channels. During this period, Michael also worked at Lego Media, Zodiac Media and HIT Entertainment, who are famous for Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine. Michael then returned to Australia in 2016 and became Head of Children's and Education at the ABC, then took on the acting Director of Entertainment and Specialist role there before stepping into the position permanently in 2019. Now we'll get to that chat shortly but before we do remember you can find the Screen Australia podcast through iTunes, Stitcher and Spotify and you can also get all the latest episodes along with updates from the local screen industry by subscribing to Screen Australia's newsletter which is delivered every fortnight. For feedback about this episode, please feel free to email [email protected] Now without further ado, here's the chat with Michael Carrington, Director Entertainment and Specialist at the ABC.

[00:02:13] Caris Bizzaca And so in terms of the focus for the ABC and 2020 and beyond, potentially there was a different focus at the beginning of 2020 to what there is now. But can you talk through that a little bit? 

[00:02:25] Michael Carrington Absolutely. I think for the last couple of years we've been struggling at the ABC to define ourselves. What are we? Who are we? What's our purpose? Notwithstanding that we have a charter and you know, the things that we do - entertain, inform, educate – are enshrined in that charter. But in a fragmented world, huge competition from the outside coming in has really kind of disrupted our purpose and we've really focused on the audience. I think that's the key for us. We got a little bit lost in the technology. We got a little lost in the volume of content required, the genres, the money coming in from outside Australia, trying to attract that money. Things start to get a little bit bland, not to take away from any of that content because you know it's created beautifully, well crafted, beautifully written and performed. But I think we were in danger of losing that essence of being Australian and being relevant to Australians, our audiences particularly. And we've spent a lot of time in the last 12 months really focusing on the audience. The ABC audience is traditionally older than the commercial network audiences. They're traditionally slower to adopt new ways of connecting with content. So even though iview has been around for about 12 years, we saw very little growth in iview. It started off as a catch-up service. We realised that, you know, with the streamers coming in, that it needed to be richer. So we've really entered this year thinking about new ways of connecting with audiences through new platforms. 

[00:04:13] Caris Bizzaca Is that including new audiences? 

[00:04:16] Michael Carrington Yes. Yeah. We traditionally, as I mentioned you know, older audiences, but those older audiences are getting older. Not a bad thing. We're all getting older. We're living longer. So, you know, we need to retain those audiences and they deserve entertainment and other forms of content just as much as young people. But I guess, you know, losing connection to young people means that we won't be as relevant in the future. So it's been a lot of time thinking about people under 55. They're young to us. I don't mean youth audiences. We do very very well with Triple J and they speak for that very young audience extremely well, as does our children's channels. But that sort of middle audience – once you leave university if you do go to university and you start a job and you get married and you have children, those are the audiences that we haven't been very good at attracting. You know, there are pockets of it. We have some amazing comedy, narrative comedy and non-scripted comedy that does connect with those audiences. But we found that not concentrating on audience behaviour, what audiences are interested in, what audiences are doing, we were losing sight a little bit. So we've refocused that now. And iview is the future for us. We're not about to turn off ABC main channel or the Comedy Channel or our children's channels tomorrow. But you can see a future without linear television. And so unless we grow audiences to our digital platforms, we just lose them to the competition. 

[00:05:53] Caris Bizzaca And you were saying how iview was originally a catch up service, so ABC never really envisioned it to being what it is today. I mean, it would have been hard to. You said it's twelve years old and, you know, Netflix, nothing like it was in Australia at the time. But in terms of being an early adopter in that streaming, what has that then allowed ABC to do with iview?

[00:06:18] Michael Carrington As a catch up service, it was absolutely the right thing at the right time. Iview, there are disadvantages and advantages to being first at market and iview was the first. Even iPlayer at the BBC didn't come until after iview. So it was doing very well as a catch-up service, number one in the market, no competition. It was a great way to encore our content, to introduce our content to audiences at a different time at their leisure when they wanted to reach it. But we didn't continue to invest. We lost sight of it a bit and we continued to focus on linear. And why wouldn't you? You know we're the public service broadcaster. We've got a big remit. We produce huge numbers of hours of content in multiple genres. And so there's a big focus on that and hard to be distracted by other things like iview. But the competition came along and it quickly overtook. Even our commercial network friends who were a bit slow to the market as well, got their act together and they launched channels and they launched their own digital services. So the competition hotted up.  When there's a lot of competition your mind focuses and so that has refocused the ABC on, you know, what is possible for iview. The terrific thing is that it's there and we can quickly pivot, as we did in the COVID-19 restrictions. We introduced a huge package of educational content to help parents school their kids at home. We introduced more than 200 hours of Australian content that we relicensed to give a richer narrative experience. We bought a lot of arts content, mainly performance based content, to help people who weren't able to go to the theatre or the cinema. So I think we've proved that iview is a really important thing and that we can shift to it very, very quickly and when we concentrate on iview, the experience for the audience is greater and richer. 

[00:08:26] Caris Bizzaca And coming back then to some of the things that ABC is looking for when it is commissioning content. So in terms of audience or genre, budget, number of eps, potential for overseas sales, are there key things that ABC looks for? 

[00:08:43] Michael Carrington Yes, outside of a great idea, we do have some particular format requirements around for example narrative drama between six and 10 episodes usually of up to an hour. Our Sunday night primetime drama slot has proved very, very successful in recent times. That slot has enjoyed huge audiences to programs like Total Control and Stateless and Mystery Road. Now, I'm always hopeful that a great story will continue. So while we commission a series of 10 episodes, for example, I would always hope that the stories are rich enough to go into a season two. A couple of reasons. Audiences, once they've seen a season, they want more generally. And so in order to give them more, we need to commission a second season, but it also helps us leverage international funding. The ABC actually doesn't one hundred percent commission or fund some of the high-end content that we create, like drama and high-end factual. We rely on a number of sources. Our screen agencies are extremely helpful and friendly and wonderful partners, but we need some international funding on those big high end dramas. They cost a lot of money and in order to secure and seduce people into investing in Australian content, volume is key to them. And so we're always hopeful that we can commission two or three seasons of a particular idea. 

[00:10:19] Michael Carrington So in terms of other genres, factual content is really important to us. We've had some terrific success with natural history. The Magical Land of Oz was a huge hit for us. We've also had some success with some observational documentaries. Old People's Home for 4 Year Olds for example, has been a huge success. We're looking at a second season, how we might do that. We've had some terrific success with. You Can't Ask That which is an original format. But also, you know, in terms of children's content, we're doing some fantastic things. You know, I come from a children's background. It's interesting that even industry people think that if you work in children's television, you must be a child or act like a child and it's all those cartoon things. But actually, children's content in most places around the world produce drama, produce factual content, produce animation, produce entertainment formats. So there's a very wide list of programs that the ABC does in terms of children's programs as well. Itch is a fantastic drama that we did in Western Australia. There's an amazing animated series called Bluey, which has had a little impact around the world. 

[00:11:31] Caris Bizzaca Yeah I'm not sure I've heard of that one from every child/parent. 

[00:11:36] Michael Carrington Yeah, exactly. It's doing extremely well in the US. There's also Strange Chores, which is an animated series which is being produced in Victoria and Melbourne through Media World, which is a collaboration with Ludo's studios again. So I mean, we truly are a multi-genre commissioner, which is a fantastic and privileged position to be in - to bring stories of all kinds to audiences of all kinds is a wonderful thing. 

[00:12:06] Caris Bizzaca And when you mentioned children's content, so Screen Australia releases a Drama Report every year that looks at production activity throughout that financial year. And ABC was involved in nearly half of the children's TV series that went into production in 2018/2019. So is children's content a priority for ABC? If so, why is that? 

[00:12:33] Michael Carrington Yes. Children's content is a priority for the ABC and has been for very many years. You know, one of our first programs, Play School, is still running extraordinarily after more than 50 years. Children are important to public broadcasters, in particular. They're audiences of the future but they're also people. They also deserve content in the same way that adults deserve to sit back and relax and enjoy and laugh. So do children and children's experiences, you know, they're insatiable, they want to learn, they're curious, they want to laugh. And so by providing them with that content, you're making a real connection. You're helping them explore their world but even wider, you're helping them explore the outer world, which is, you know, other countries around the world, other cultures, other peoples. And so children's television is incredibly important to us. We have a dedicated pre-school channel ABC Kids, which also has an audio outlet ABC Kids Listen which is available on the app. And we have a primary school focused channel called ABC ME, which again is a multi-genre channel. It has factual content, comedy content, drama, et cetera. And that is really targeted at children up to around the age of 14 years. 

[00:13:52] Caris Bizzaca And we talked a little bit about factual documentary, but what is the focus specifically for that area, for anyone that's listening that is in that space. 

[00:14:01] Michael Carrington Factual content, particularly feature documentaries, have had a really hard time in recent years. It's really difficult on a traditional broadcast channel to transmit or play in any particular slot a feature length documentary these days. Audiences are so fickle, they're so deprived of time that they find it difficult to concentrate for, you know, a feature length, documentary style program on traditional television. So we are trying to find new ways of telling those stories and we're looking for all sorts of ideas. And I guess one of the things that we're keen to do is to get better at bringing that content to our platform, like iview. We have an arts tab, we have renewed interest in content for iview. And so while I don't have the answer today, I'm really keen to find a way of ensuring that those big, bold stories continue to be told and continue to have access to a wide variety of people. What we found on linear television is that you need to be much broader, much more inclusive and less didactic and so I guess that's what we're looking for. It's not to say that we're dumbing down whatsoever because I'm not interested in, you know, silly, frivolous documentaries. I'm interested in the things that we've always done, but need to find a new way of telling those stories, you know, potentially in a different production model or different format. And iview will help us, I'm sure. 

[00:15:38] Caris Bizzaca Great. And we were talking about acquisitions a little bit before. And I just wanted to check in, are there any difficulties in balancing those international acquisitions that bring in new audiences, you know something like Killing Eve, while also ensuring that there is those quality Australian stories that are coming through? 

[00:16:00] Michael Carrington In terms of production, I know what I need every year, whether it's drama or factual content. We can only do so much with the amount of money that we are privileged to have access to. So I don't have a huge amount of money to create a huge volume of content. So I need to fill the gap to enrich the experience for our audience by acquiring other content. And traditionally, we've looked abroad. We have a lot of British content, a lot of American comedy content in order to stimulate iview. I've been particularly focused on finding high end surprising content, like Killing Eve to connect with audiences in a different way. So we premiered that on iview. It did extremely well. We brought it to linear television and that's a kind of consistency, that we're getting into that flow now. Our acquired content has to do a big job in shouting out to our audiences that there's something new, something interesting, something surprising to engage with and then use that to draw them to the Australian content that we produce, and we've been very successful with that. Mystery Road is probably still the biggest drama series on iview ever. Although Total Control is sort of creeping its way up. So, you know, it's not a cynical trick because the content that we acquire is really high-end. We've spent a lot of time evaluating content from around the world and we'll only choose the best from around the world. But it is a good way of leveraging the very small number of hours that we're able to produce against having an enriched experience for our audiences. 

[00:17:53] Caris Bizzaca And, you know, something like Netflix has really made this concept of bingeing very popular, whereas a lot of streamers have adopted kind of a week-to-week release of episodes. And that definitely seems to be ABC's approach majority of the time, there are exceptions like I think Barracuda a couple of years ago had all four episodes drop. But what's the choice behind doing the week to week? And do you find that people are coming in the fifth, sixth week and doing a binge watch? 

[00:18:26] Michael Carrington It absolutely terrified me when I saw audiences go into Netflix and bingeing $400 million in one weekend because, you know, that's my entire annual budget for all genres. It's not quite $400 million, I wish. But the point being that when you have money, you can do whatever you like to do. I can't compete with Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and those big studio streamers from America. All I can do is try and give my audience an experience that is enriching and stimulating. And so we've found a way of bingeing. We've introduced kind of event programs or specific times during the year, like a winter binge and a summer binge, where we'll be able to curate a terrific collection of content, drama and factual content and enable audiences to binge it whenever they want to binge it. In terms of the investment that we make into Australian content, I'm really proud of that. And I want to carefully manage it so that audiences are having the experience and getting the value that we invest in it. And so I'm very keen that Australian content has a premiere on television, so it kind of can get out to the widest possible audiences and then drop once a week on iview. I know it's frustrating for some people, but as it builds across the six-week period of time. Six episodes, you know, they can either follow it week-to-week or binge it at the end of all of that. Six weeks is not too long to wait. 

[00:20:05] Caris Bizzaca And they get a choice. They can binge it at the end if they really want to. 

[00:20:08] Michael Carrington Exactly. Of course, you know, we'll continue to do binges. And I think I referred earlier to our acquired content. I'm happier to binge an entire season of something that I've acquired as opposed to something that I've spent a lot of time and money on that's been carefully and beautifully crafted by Australian producers in Australia for Australian audiences. 

[00:20:33] Caris Bizzaca And just in terms of the international sales and things of Australian content, is there any trickiness involved with, you know, iview, people wanting things premiering on YouTube, where if you do that, suddenly geo blocking becomes an issue. Could you talk through that a little bit? 

[00:20:54] Michael Carrington There are always challenges around who owns what, where and how in a piece of content. So the rights are incredibly important to us. When we invest in Australian content, we obviously want an Australian premiere. I'm less worried about international premieres these days, but we certainly want Australian audiences who have essentially paid for it to see it first. So there's a little bit of tension when we partner with maybe a streamer or a big company, another broadcaster that has access to the platform here. But I think in most cases, we've found a way through. You know, there are compromises in terms of exclusivity, the windowing arrangement, whether somebody has a premiere or somebody has a second window. So I think what I would say to that is that sometimes it's a challenge, but it's never a closed door. We're always happy to talk. You know, our whole purpose is to bring Australian ideas to Australian audiences. And how we make that happen has got to be a discussion between a whole range of people because we can't fund 100 percent of our content. 

[00:22:11] Caris Bizzaca Which I suppose leads nicely into my next question, which is, what do you feel are the biggest challenges for the ABC at this point in time? 

[00:22:21] Michael Carrington Our biggest challenge at the ABC is really ensuring that we retain our existing audiences who watch us through linear television and grow new audiences who are connecting through other streams. And I don't mean the streamers, but I mean other platforms, digital platforms, whether it's internet or whether it's a VOD service. There's so much content and so much competition. Our challenge is to remain relevant to Australians and we can only do that with Australian stories. That's what makes us distinctive as opposed to our friends who are coming into the market and doing extremely well. We're giving the voice to Australians wherever they are, you know, whatever their cultural background, whatever their day job is. We're trying to reflect them and ensure that they see themselves on our air in a way that others just can't do that. Besides the audience challenge, the money is a big challenge. The ABC is facing an indexation pause. It's meant a lot less money invested in content, although our Managing Director is very keen to ensure that we continue to make as much content as we possibly can. But it means looking at other things that we do that we may not be able to do going forward. So money is an issue and we try to leverage as much as possible. The money that we have by selling our content abroad, by co-producing, by helping others come to the understanding that Australian content is punching above its weight, it's high quality, it's world class and that they should invest in it. 

[00:24:04] Caris Bizzaca And we'll come back to some more overview stuff in a moment. But for anyone that's listening. We are currently recording this in May 2020. And so it is in the middle of COVID-19, there are restrictions still and things like that and it is worth mentioning that the ABC, in an attempt to help the industry, the screen industry and the wider industry, has a new development fund. Could you talk through that a little bit? Because if you're listening to this as the episode releases, there's still a few weeks to get your submissions/applications in. 

[00:24:42] Michael Carrington That's right. Here we are in May. And, you know, six or seven weeks ago, we had an amazing slate of production. Almost overnight, it completely ground to a halt. I think we had one, maybe two things in studio that were quickly adapting to the new way of physical distancing. Less people in the studio, no studio audience. Our location shoots were stopped and then a couple of weeks went past. During those two weeks, we were working very quickly and reacting to the coronavirus incident by moving people home very quickly from the ABC office, wherever that was in any state or territory. And those two weeks were spent really developing a system of keeping broadcasting going from people's living rooms and bedrooms. We proved that we could do it because the ABC is still broadcasting, we then realised the impact was going to be long term. You know, those productions that were meant to be delivering later in the year were no longer going to be able to do that. That would have a knock on effect and the gaps would start to appear in the schedule. So the immediate impact to audiences is little in that sense because we work a year in advance on most things. And so we have programs delivering and they were in the can and they're on air now. But early in the New Year, we're expecting, I think, three or four major drama series, two or three major high-end factual pieces and various other shows that weren't going to deliver. Then, of course, the realisation that all of those people who work in our industry no longer had jobs and they were sitting at home and they didn't know what would happen next, we just still even don't know how long the impact of coronavirus will have on us that I suddenly thought, wow, this is really scary. It was a moment that I thought, gosh, if we don't do something, the industry is in danger of just faltering and stalling and going to be very, very difficult to reboot when we get through this. So as I was talking to the Managing Director of the ABC, we identified some funds, some cash that wasn't going out the door because of the stopped filming. And, you know, there were bits and pieces – we weren't travelling as much anymore. So we reprioritised some of that cash and I was able to extraordinarily in a very quick amount of time, pull together five million dollars, and that five million dollars is really focused on helping people through the crisis. It's there and designed to make sure that the productions that we need to get back to, can do that very quickly. So we'll continue scripting, for example, on the productions that we were on location in, but also to ensure that the slate continues to develop. We'll need more programs. You know, it's proved through this period that audiences have an insatiable desire for content. And so we'll always need content. So we're also ensuring that we're developing new shows with our existing partners. So people who have worked with the ABC before. But I was also keen and very aware that, you know, there are some people who've never worked with the ABC but have a desire to do so. There are some people who don't want to work with us but aren't doing anything and have great ideas. So I put out the five million dollar call really to fund all of that, both existing partnerships and new partnerships. So ideas that we don't know we want essentially. 

[00:28:27] Caris Bizzaca And is the aim - because, you know, this is one-off - is the aim then to transfer a lot of this into production? And is that then impacting the kinds of things that you're looking at funding? 

[00:28:40] Michael Carrington The desire is really to find great ideas that of course, we would love to execute. Now, I can't fund and put into commission everything that comes through the door. It's the usual scenario. You develop 100 ideas, you build them down to 10, and there may be one of those will be a hit. So that's my hope, is that out of all of these ideas, I hope that we'll be able to produce some of them in the near future. 

[00:29:08] Caris Bizzaca And just to clarify, with this development fund, it is not just for screen works, it's not just for drama if there's anyone listening that's in documentary and factual. What does it encompass? 

[00:29:21] Michael Carrington The fund is really wide. We're trying to stimulate the wider industry of the creative industries. So we're looking at new people. We're looking at documentary makers. We're looking at music artists. We're looking at writers. We're looking at performers. We're trying to ensure that we don't lose momentum within the creative industries. And so we have very specific things that we're looking for, for Triple J, for example, or ABC Classic. As much as we might be looking for new content for iview, or we might be looking for new short form content in the arts or science. So it's really multi-genre. The content that the ABC generally commissions has wide scope, and this fund is meant to stimulate that too. 

[00:30:10] Caris Bizzaca Okay. And just to clarify, when is the closing date for applications? 

[00:30:16] Michael Carrington We're now in May 2020 and applications will close on the 12th of June. 

[00:30:21] Caris Bizzaca And something you mentioned a bit earlier with, you know, the reason why the new development fund was coming around was particularly because looking ahead, you can see that there might be some gaps. How is the ABC… you know things are going into development, but in a year's time, what are the thoughts around what will happen? Is it more acquisitions for that period or…? 

[00:30:44] Michael Carrington We're approaching it with a positive attitude. We're hoping that once we get through COVID, that we'll get back into production pretty quickly and start delivering programs again to the schedule. I really hope we can avoid too many repeats and too many acquisitions and that we're able to maintain the number of Australian hours that we have on any given night. That's the idea. Whether the reality that we will have enough hours, I'm not quite sure at this moment in time. We'll just have to wait and see. But the whole idea of this Fresh Start fund is to continue to stimulate ideas and to bring new ideas to us that we can get into production as quickly as possible. 

[00:31:29] Caris Bizzaca ABC also has a new series that's kind of already been put together in response to, you know, staying at home and things like that. So there are some people that are very agile and able to still create content within these limitations. 

[00:31:43] Michael Carrington I don't know why I'm so surprised, but we're broadcasting, we're creating content in a very, very strange period. At Home Alone Together, which stars Ray Martin, launched on the ABC to great critical acclaim. And audiences love it. It's above its slot average. It's making people smile. It's reflecting their own situations. It's doing it brilliantly and it's doing it brilliantly well in no particular studio, no particular location. It's set around Australia in people's living rooms. So it's reinvigorated the idea of comedy, comedy writing and how you can do that at home. 

[00:32:24] Caris Bizzaca And so, you know, as you've seen the industry evolve and adapt over your career - we are in this period and like you said, people are adapting. But what are some of your key takeaways, do you think? 

[00:32:37] Michael Carrington In my experience, living through the transition from traditional television to cable television to satellite television to internet television. 

[00:32:49] Caris Bizzaca What a journey. 

[00:32:50] Michael Carrington It has been a journey. It's interesting that it's slow, slow, slow, and then it's go faster very, very quickly. So, you know, when in the early days of cable television, people in traditional linear television say, oh, it'll never work. Why would people want to go and watch a themed shark channel? And of course, you know, within a year, that themed shark channel had more audience than many of the other channels combined. So it was then go faster. We now all have to have cable channels. Then satellite subscription came in. It was, oh, nobody will want to pay for satellite television. Suddenly that's the new model. So I think, you know, you can never rest on your laurels. You have to adapt. Okay. It might take some time, but be prepared that once something comes along, you'll have to move very quickly if you haven't already to embrace it, to connect with audiences because it's audience driven. You know, stories never go away. Audience behaviour changes and they just want loads of content and they want it when and how and wherever they can get it. 

[00:34:01] Caris Bizzaca Fantastic. Well, was there anything else that you wanted to add that we haven't talked about? 

[00:34:06] Michael Carrington The ABC can't do what it does without the independent production community. And I've been struck by how brilliantly they've pivoted to still continue to develop shows with the idea that we'll be back into production, producing more world class programs. And it's a true partnership. You know, we have to work with the Australian independent community in order to get all of this amazing storytelling to Australian audiences. And I just I feel very proud of an industry that is actually quite small, but so well crafted, so well put together, so enthusiastic, so passionate about what they do. Long may it last. 

[00:34:54] Caris Bizzaca Agreed! Fantastic. Thank you so much for coming in and talking to us all about the ABC and sharing your experiences. Really appreciate it. 

[00:34:59] Michael Carrington It's a pleasure. 

[00:35:01] Caris Bizzaca That was Michael Carrington from the ABC. And remember, you can catch any of the content discussed throughout this episode on ABC iview. Don't forget as well to subscribe to the Screen Australia newsletter for all the latest updates from the local screen industry. And remember, you can support Australian content by buying it, renting it and streaming it at home. Stay safe. And thanks for listening.