Coping with COVID-19: The ABC’s Sally Riley

Sally Riley takes a selfie while working from home.

ABC head of scripted production Sally Riley sheds light on her latest commissions, explains how the broadcaster is coping with the drama production shutdown and gives an update on her development slate.

Q: Last month you commissioned Entitled from Kitty Flanagan and Porclight Films and The Newsreader from Michael Lucas and Werner Film Productions. What grabbed you about both?

A: Both of these projects have relationships and family at their heart. With Entitled, Kitty Flanagan is a big draw for us and audiences love her and we are very happy that the ABC is her broadcaster of choice for her first narrative show. What grabbed me is how Entitled deals with families that are coping with grief and dealing with probate issues – which I know from personal experience is a very tricky time, when families can either come together or implode, and there is a lot of humour to be had, so I really loved that.

The Newsreader (working title) is beautifully conceived by Michael Lucas and his writing is a joy. It is a show about relationships but focussing on the work family that we all have. It’s emotional and funny and it uses real-life world events to anchor the themes of the drama.

Q: I assume you are thrilled with the ratings, reviews/responses and national conversation generated by Stateless? The catch-up numbers have been large?

A: I am thrilled with Stateless. I really love this show and believe we achieved a heartfelt and moving insight into the challenges faced by detainees. We set out to give the audience a way into the issues while not preaching and I think we achieved that. The performances and production values are amazing, the team did an incredible job and I’m so proud of it. The catch-up numbers are doing well and we’re very happy.

Q: I think Stateless was conceived as a self-contained work but I wonder if you are talking to Cate Blanchett, Andrew Upton and Matchbox about collaborating on another project?

A: Cate, Tony Ayres, Elise McCredie, Alastair McKinnon and the Matchbox team have been a joy to work with. Cate has been involved in every aspect of the show. She has shown great insight and passion into the world of detainees as a UNHCR Ambassador. Her instinct and drive were always about finding ways to interrogate the story and make it more complex and emotionally engaging. Of course, we would definitely love to work with this team again.

Q: Given the shutdown of Harrow 3 and Wakefield and with Yes, Chef! on hold that leaves the drama slate for 2021 rather threadbare?

A: It’s a challenging time but we’re doing all we can to keep delivering great content for our audiences. We are working with the production teams to be super prepared for when we can start shooting, once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

The ABC’s $5 million Fresh Start Fund, which we announced recently, will also supercharge development of new Australian content for our audiences. Applications are open until June 12 at

Q: I know the second series of Easy Tiger’s Jack Irish was in pre before the shutdown – can you please confirm?

A: Jack Irish was in early pre-production and we’re looking forward to getting it going again. It’s an audience favourite.

Q: Does the shutdown free up more funds for development?

A: With the Fresh Start Fund there are opportunities for people across a wide range of programs, including shows that we already have in development and new projects.

Q: Any progress with Merman Television and Guesswork Television on a second season of Frayed?

A: We are currently talking to all the partners and things are looking very positive.

Q: I think you are funding the development of a second season of Total Control with Blackfella Films?

A: Total Control was a standout for us last year and we have committed to development on season 2.

Q: Are you still discussing co-prods/collaborations with international partners or is that on hold for now?

A: We are definitely discussing co-productions and collaborations with international partners. We are considering new projects and projects we have in development and international partners are still pitching ideas to us, so nothing has changed in that regard.

Q: Still looking for a drama to fill the gap left by Glitch, as we discussed last year?

A: Genre shows in the style of Glitch are less of a focus for us at the moment. Given our budget restrictions, we have to focus more on projects that will attract a wide mainstream audience but we hope to be able to reconsider in the future.

Q: I assume you welcome the injection of more funds for development from Screen Australia and state agencies?

A: Yes. It is fantastic that all funding agencies are chipping in to keep our creatives and producers working and occupied while they are in shutdown.

Q: On a personal note, how are you doing? Still in the office or working remotely? How are you filling in the downtime?

A: I’m working remotely along with my team. At first, I was really zonked out by all the Zoom meetings but now I am getting used to them and have camera-free days. I really miss having face-to-face meetings because I like to interact and read people’s faces and body language and that’s pretty difficult on a Zoom meeting.

But I am really loving spending more time at home with my son Eli and that’s been one of the great pleasures of isolation. My downtime is usually spent catching up on shows and a bit of gardening. Eli has got me doing some weight training in the backyard which is a great distraction and I’m enjoying it. I have actually started cooking more, getting recipes from Instagram. Dan Hong is a favourite to check out.