The small screen is big business and the networks are always on the lookout for talented producers with a knack for keeping viewer’s channel surfing thumbs at bay. Anthill sought insight from four entrepreneurs who’ve set up shop in every living room across Australia.
What makes a successful children’s television program?
“We listen and keep in touch with our audience as much as possible. We keep our radar out for everything that is happening in the child’s world – jokes in the playground, films, other television shows, songs, changes in curriculum.
We like to make everything that we’re doing positive, so the child always has a positive and safe experience when they’re watching, and the parents can be very confident that that is the case.
I didn’t actually get into children’s television until I had young children of my own. There really wasn’t much around – there was Playschool and Sesame Street, and that was about it. I’d already been working in television as a primetime drama director and I wanted to be able to use my skills to entertain my own children in the most positive way possible.
I worked at the children’s department at the ABC and the Australian Children’s Television Foundation – the best children’s television producers in the country, if not the world. So I learnt from all the experts.
We always intended to sell this program overseas, as it’s very difficult to sustain a program without the revenue from international sales.
We really expected that this would become much more of a format show. You create a local cast, and then another cast that speaks the particular language or accent of the region can be plugged in using the same scripts, songs, sets and animations. As it happens, the Australian cast is so strong that we send the Australian program to 79 countries. So far, America is the only version that we needed to sell as format.
I think other programs have had to lift their production values to compete. Several programs in Australia and overseas have tried to emulate Hi-5. So far, none of them have been as good and they have either not made it to air or not stayed on air for very long. Except, of course, The Wiggles, who preceded us. We target the same market but I think the market has proven that it is big enough for both of us. The chances of being the sole child favourite for many years is quite slim. Children like to go from one thing to another and they also want variety.”
Helena Harris co-founded Hi-5 in 1998 with Posie Graeme- Evans. The program is now syndicated to 79 countries and has also generated a lucrative music and merchandise stream for her production company, Kids Like Us.
McElroy All Media
From a business perspective, what’s the difference between producing film and television in Australia?
“Television is more of a business. In Australia alone, there are over 60 non-stop (24/7) channels each broadcasting 8,736 hours a year. If you can create intellectual property that appeals in this territory, and then around the world, the rewards are considerable.
By comparison, film is very much boutique. The demand is not continuous. In fact, in a way, there’s no demand. No one is sitting anywhere in the world saying, “Give me the next Australian movie.” You really have to make it to prove that it’s brilliant. Then they might buy it.
Expectations for film are dramatically increased. If you’re paying $15 to see something, you want to be entertained. People are satisfied with television as long as it can help them smile, or learn something, or switch off a bit.
If a television show rates well, almost without exception, the producer of the content does not benefit, because all of the licensing arrangements are made prior to it going to air. Any benefits of increased audience or large audience accrue to the broadcaster. Conversely, the more people that see a movie, the more money the producer can make. It’s a very different business model.
The Australian film industry is competing on an extremely uneven playing field. On top of the mountain are the giants; the big movies with multi-million dollar marketing budgets. People go and watch these films just to see how they could possibly spend $200 million. Australian film budgets are generally about one percent of this – say $1-4 million. It’s one of the reasons why I tend to focus on television.
I don’t necessarily think I’m making art. At best I’d describe it as popular art. You need a lot of passion and determination to get a television show made. You face walls of indifference, negativity and competition. There’s something special about a successful television show, and that comes from the creators and executors of the show, who are driven by more than dollars.
The networks are the gatekeeper to the larger audience. Our experiences with networks have been very positive. They are not the enemy.
Our profits almost always come from overseas, but unless a show is a success in Australia first, it’s highly unlikely that it will become a success internationally. You have to keep the home fires burning. On commercial television, if you’re not getting a million viewers, you’re a failure.”
Hal McElroy is Australia’s most prolific producer, with over a thousand hours of films and television to his credit. His hits include Blue Heelers, Water Rats, Murder Call and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
He co-runs his production company, McElroy All Media (formally McElroy Television), with his wife and creative partner, Di.
Managing Director, WTFN Entertainment
What’s in a name?
“I think everyone in television has the ambition of running their own independent company. Even before my days at Channel Nine I wanted to be in control of my own destiny. Nine was great about supporting their shows with resources, but I had also been through three or four culls where whole shows were axed. I’d seen plenty of extremely professional people lose their jobs because of cutbacks. I had confidence in my own ability and the job I was doing, but I was never under the illusion that it was a secure job for life.
I began talking about starting an independent TV production company with Steve Oemcke, who was working with me on Postcards at Nine. I roped in another friend of mine, Frank Dunphy, and we began our first project (A Pub Too Far). We tried unsuccessfully to raise sponsorship dollars to make a pilot. Frank and I were having a beer at a pub in Sydney, and we said, “Why don’t we just put the money in ourselves and give this a fl y? We know what we want to do. Let’s back ourselves and have a crack. Why the f— not?” The company ethos became the company name – WTFN.
In Australian commercial television, the networks really don’t want to pay to produce shows that fill slots outside primetime – which is our target timeslot. Our business model is based on being able to raise sponsorship to back any of the project ideas we have. We go to the networks with a good idea, a reputation for making good quality television and a proven plan to attract sponsorship for production. So it’s very difficult for them to say no. We micro-manage each of our programs with an aim to make a profit. It’s a model for sustained business growth.
Focusing exclusively on producing primetime programs is usually feast or famine. There are companies all over the world vying for those zone one spots. If one of the networks buys it, it runs for a year and you make lots of money. But what do you do next year? We can produce content consistently for the networks for as long as we keep coming up with good ideas and attracting the right sponsors to back each project.”
Daryl Talbot worked as a reporter, producer and chief of staff for National Nine News before moving to Nine’s documentary unit to produce Postards, among other shows. Programs currently produced by WTFN include Coxy’s Big Break, MW and Wilde About Golf.
Co-founder & Joint MD,
Is brand important to television production?
“The brand of a show is extremely important. I started Visual Playground, with my business partner David De Guio, nearly three years ago. We specialise in opening title sequences and graphics packages for television programs. It is our job to create an individual identity. The logo, the opening titles and motion graphics all contribute to the overall ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of a television show.
My first full-time job was working at Channel Nine, where I was employed as a court-room artist. My formal education, however, was a degree in Fine Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), followed by post-graduate studies in computer animation. Television. Fine Arts. Computer animation. It is not hard to see how I arrived at this career path – creating identities, among other things, for television programs. Our first major client was Roving Enterprises. Creating graphics packages for top-rating shows, such as Rove Live and the ARIA Music awards, increased our profile and, as a result, we have since worked with all the major television networks and many of the production houses in Australia, including Simpson Le Mesurier, Grundys and Southern Star.
We create an identity for each individual television program. This is the framework for the presentation of the show. The graphics create a brand before the show even starts. One example of this is in the cube concept used by the Big Brother program, which aired on Channel Ten earlier this year. The producers continued this theme into the design of the house and the set. It was probably one of the largest jobs we have undertaken, as the Big Brother franchise airs multiple spinoff shows in any given week, and each show is distinguishable by a different colour and different set of graphics. Each spin-off requires its own identity and its own brand. The likely convergence of the internet and television will create some interesting times for television production. Interactivity and web delivery of television programs will definitely change the way we currently view television. Plus, the technology is getting better all the time, which allows us to push the boundaries of what is possible.”
Emily Harridge is Co-Founder and Joint Managing Director of Visual Playground, a broadcast television; advertising and film production company that provides visual effects and animation services to some of Australia’s highest rating television programs – from Rove Live and Big Brother to the ARIA Music Awards.