Commissioners ponder the post-COVID future

Marshall Heald, Adrian Swift, Tanya Denning Orman, Dan Monaghan and Michael Carrington.

The future of the TV landscape remains difficult to predict, but commercial networks expect to feel the impact of coronavirus on commissioning budgets well into 2021, and many broadcasters are concerned about scheduling into next year and extra costs associated with restarting production.

These are some of the insights from a panel of commissioners speaking on the most recent session of Running Free Live, a webinar hosted by Denise Eriksen and presented by ACMI, Film Victoria and Media Mentors Australia.

Nine Network head of production and development Adrian Swift said revenues were “fundamentally” down at all three commercial networks.

“The reality is it’s completely screwed us for this financial year, and probably most of next financial year,” Swift said.

“That changes what you can commission. Our commissioning budgets have been completely revised as a result of what’s happened.”

Into the future, Nine’s schedule will continue to be built around big franchise shows like Married at First Sight, Lego Warriors and The Voice, and further commissions will then sit around them.

“One of the things that COVID has taught us, is that whatever we do off the back of that is probably now significantly cheaper than it was six months ago,” Swift said.

For Nine, the focus through the past few months has been on “recutting the cloth”, and working with suppliers to try to keep people employed. Wins have included getting shows like The Voice back up and running.

“I don’t think the government has been great at protecting our industry, so we’ve had to work doubly hard to make sure there’s some continuity of employment through all of this,” Swift said.

While other broadcasters like ABC have made commissions themed around the pandemic, such as comedies At Home Alone Together and Retrograde, Nine isn’t looking to go down that path.

“What we can do is use what’s happened to tell a story. For instance The Block, that’s actually a wonderful social document about how coronavirus has changed our lives, masquerading as a reality renovation show.”

Early on in the pandemic Network 10 lost overseas-shot franchises Amazing Race and Australian Survivor for the back half the year. Initially, it was ‘naively’ thought that money could be utilised elsewhere, but then the advertising market began to flatline.

“How much of that money do you then reinvest in the schedule, and how much drops in the bottom line? Well I can tell you most of it drops in the bottom line in a pandemic,” said Network 10 head of programming Dan Monaghan.

“That has been very difficult, and it’s made us be very nimble in what we were able to both commission short-term and acquire.”

Like Swift, Monaghan expects budgets to be tight into next year. “It’s not going to wrap up at the end of the year and we roll back in with our 2020 slate in 2021; it’s not going to resolve itself quickly for us.”

In that sense, he predicts the network will be looking for “stocking fillers”, that is: “Shows you can have in the bank. I don’t mean huge franchises, I mean 8 x 1’s , and 10 x 1’s.”

While the executive says 10 is “sorted” in terms of multi-night franchises, it is “always” looking for comedy, both in scripted and light entertainment, as well as popular factual and drama.

“If anything, I hope we have healthy development budget moving forward, which is our plan, because… we need to become less reliant on huge volume shows, that a) are expensive, and b) have the option to fall over.”

For the ABC, the biggest challenges of the pandemic have been in the delivery of programs, the costs associated with having to shutdown production and pivoting its live studio shows.

Into the longer-term, director of entertainment and specialist Michael Carrington predicts further costs with kickstarting production, and flagged concerns for the future with regards to high-end drama and factual, and children’s content.

However, the ABC has repurposed internal funds into $5 million Fresh Start Fund, a development fund launched in April in response to the impact of the pandemic on the independent production sector.

The broadcaster received around 4,300 pitches for the initiative, 800 of which came in on the last night of submissions. All of the funding has now been earmarked.

For Carrington, the volume of applications speaks to to the vibrancy of the Australian industry – an industry he recognises has been in a fragile position the last few months. Pitches came from everyone from experienced professionals to uni students.

“Through the Fresh Start Fund we have identified new talent, creative ideas, different production models, and different formats. That’s taught us a bit of a lesson: that we need to open our doors a bit more often,” he said.

SBS has been in a relatively lucky position in that so far, commissioning budgets have been quarantined due to internal savings.

“So far we’ve managed to offset the underages in advertising, so the commissioning slate remains intact,” said director TV and online content Marshall Heald.

“All the shows that are delayed we have effectively carried forward into the future. We’re looking to resuming all of those and looking for new ideas for the future.”

However, Heald pointed out it is still difficult to predict what costs will be in resuming production. “There’s cost differences on shows and getting them back up and running. Those may very well vary over time. So the question is: When do you resume production on some shows from a health and safety perspective, feasibility perspective, talent perspective and cost perspective?”

SBS is looking for more four-part dramas like The Hunting or short-form dramas like Robbie Hood; cut-through, flagship factual and low-cost, high volume food shows.

Yet looking to the future, Heald says the pandemic still has a long way to play out. “We are an acquisitions-led networks primarily, and I have no idea when a huge amount of shows I’ve bought are coming to the network… because everyone makes shows in advance, so far TV audiences have had a pretty seamless experience. But I do not think we should assume that 2021 will be so smooth.”

At NITV, production has actually increased during the pandemic, particularly news and current affairs, in efforts to bring information into Indigenous communities.

“It was really important for us to keep as many Indigenous production companies in operation [as possible], and we were able to think differently with our productions in order to do that. Particularly we did more animation,” said channel manager Tanya Denning Orman, who is also now director of SBS Indigenous content.

NITV is looking for projects that demonstrate Indigenous authorship across a range of genres, particularly female-led projects. A big focus at the moment is on children’s content, and projects that speak to the contemporary Indigenous experience.