SBS commissioning team grilled by ‘mystery’ interviewer

A somewhat flummoxed John Godfrey took a grilling from ‘mystery’ interviewer Tony Jackson during the session ‘SBS in the Spotlight’ held at Net-Work-Play on Tuesday.

Godfrey, Head of Documentary at SBS, opened the session stating “We had a few complaints last year from producers saying that we give the same presentation every year and that our message is always the same.

“Tony was one of those who complained the loudest. So, basically, I said ‘Alright, you interview us, you make it fun. So if this is really tedious you know who to blame.’”

Jackson was listed as a mystery interviewer in the AIDC program.

Having worked in factual television for 25 years and now with his own company, Chemical Media Productions, Jackson took the opportunity to ask Godfrey and members of the SBS commissioning team some hard-hitting questions, as well as accuse Godfrey of being allergic to anything he or his company pitched.

“Why they’ve asked me here is, well, we started Chemical Media three years ago, and we’ve been doing alright,” he said. “It’s been challenging times, as everybody knows, slash exciting apparently.

“We’ve done alright. We’ve done a couple of big series….all international commissions, but locally we have had a few pops at SBS and hit brick walls every time. I’m here I guess to highlight why I haven’t been able to get these two [Godfrey and Head of Documentary Commissioning Joseph Maxwell] in the sack.”

“I have a history of not getting jobs off John because he turned me down for a job for Eurotrash in London in the ‘90s. I am beginning to take it personally.”

Jokes aside, the discussion quickly moved onto exactly what the SBS factual commissioning team were looking for, as well as new opportunities opened by their digital team.

“I’m going to do exactly what you don’t want me to do and repeat what we say every year,” said Godfrey. “Our whole editorial strategy is based on distinctiveness. No surprises there. One of the main reasons for that is that we want to be distinct from the ABC. It’s a very simple formula.

"Everything has to explore our multicultural charter and then has to tick our four commissioning values, which are to push boundaries, provoke debate, inspire change and surprise audiences.

“We provoke debate, quite obviously we want to create national discussions about values that are key to our charter. Go Back to Where You Came From and First Contact are obviously two good examples of that.

“We have a new series called Struggle Street which we hope will do a similar job for another issue.”

Jackson likened the formats of these series to reality television, which Godfrey vehemently denied.

“You’ve mentioned Go Back – great program – but you’ve been using that as a reference for the last three or four years now,” he said. “This year we have had First Contact and both of them borrow heavily from mainstream reality TV grammar.”

“I am going to have to disagree with you there, probably not for the last time,” said Godfrey. “This is not reality TV grammar. It’s modern factual program making. I just want to make it clear, we are not reality TV.”

“Pushing boundaries is a key value to us in terms of an approach to a subject matter and I think in order to engage a wider audience with difficult subject matter – this is refugees, indigenous issues or issues of poverty – you need a way to engage with people who do not normally watch SBS. It’s as simple as that.”

On that note, SBS is ramping up its digital offering and looking to commission a variety of unique projects, both stand-alone and digital support for television projects.

“The strategy for us is to amplify where we can and amplify the underlying themes of the programs,” says John-Paul Marin, Manager of Multiplatform & Interactive. “We look for innovation. We have a clear innovation agenda, we tend to do things a bit differently. We are always looking for ways to engage audiences new ways.”

“We have a constant slate. We are always commissioning. We are not so caught up in the format of what your piece is, we are looking for good stories and for ways to innovate using the medium.

“We are not looking for things in particular, we share the same commissioning values as the doco guys do but it’s an open door from our perspective.”

Kylie Boltin, Senior Content Producer, went onto point out the advantages that online has in terms of flexibility.

“It’s a scale thing as well,” she says. “We can do projects with a very quick turnaround, so we are interested in photo essays or mini-docs, multimedia pieces…. all the way to big, interactive documentary pieces.”

They listed their slate as ranging from projects that could turn around in three days, such as a photo essay (which Marin stated could fetch a budget of anything from $5,000-$10,000) to large scale, immersive documentary projects such as last year's The Cronulla Riots: The Day That Shocked the Nation.

Rounding up the session, Godfrey invited producers to put forward ideas that pushed the envelope, though acknowledging pitching to SBS can be challenging.

“I know that we are a difficult network to please,” he said. “We have a very narrow charter and have to work very hard to find content that punches through while still working for us and our values.

“But we do want people with creatively ambitious ideas that, frankly, will scare us. If we’re not taking risks, we’re not doing our jobs properly.”

Net-Work-Play is held in Adelaide from 23-25 February.