Oz puts emphasis on drama co-productions

Appointment of Masters signals Ten's format direction

SYDNEY, Australia – On the surface, CanWest-backed Network Ten’s August poaching of coin-challenged local pubcaster ABC commissioning editor for drama Sue Masters seems like a simple matter.

The ABC is still reeling from funding cuts imposed by the conservative federal government and a management clean-out after the March appointment of former Thames TV deputy chief executive Jonathan Shier as topper.

Ten is now very profitable, so it has money for projects for Masters, who commissioned Granada’s drama “SeaChange,” which is the pubcaster’s highest rating program.

But beneath the surface, the appointment is a strong signal that, despite the continuation of Oz’s long-standing love affair with lifestyle, infotainment and gameshow formats, drama production is back on the agenda.

Only this time, having been badly battered in recent years by sagging Euro demand for imported drama, markets like Mipcom will be important venues for clinching drama co-production deals given that Oz network license fees never cover the costs.

“We see a need to develop our strength in local production and especially drama which required some attention and so we went for the No. 1 (Masters),” Ten program chief David Mott says, admitting the web hasn’t had much joy with dramas outside its longtime Grundy soap “Neighbors”

Late in August, Britain’s Channel 4 commissioned its first long-running Oz drama, “The Secret Life of Us,” from producer-distrib Southern Star, which will produce the series for the U.K. broadcaster with Ten and Cable & Wireless’ Oz feevee operator Optus.

At the same time, U.K. satcaster BSkyB commissioned its first Oz miniseries, the $4.8 million “Rubicon,” which Southern Star is producing with Britain’s Warner Sisters and Oz’s Seven.

Those deals speak volumes about Southern Star’s move away from risky deficit financing and the increasing involvement of cashed-up Europeans in Oz TV.

Many of Southern Star rival Beyond’s drama series are co-financed with Germany’s MBP, while Granada acquired production house Artist Services and made it Oz’s biggest producer by winning a tender to create content for Seven.

The deals also signify that despite another round of boardroom upheavals and lawsuits (this time over cable access), feevee players Foxtel and Optus are now players in co-financing drama with new compulsory rules that they spend 10% of their program budgets on local drama.

In terms of straight acquisitions, the increasingly cost-conscious Nine and Seven, both with bulging libraries from output deals with Hollywood majors and terrestrial Oz drama content quotas to fill, are very picky and formats will be key at Mipcom.

That’s because long before America discovered reality TV, Aussie primetime was cluttered with top-rating, homegrown real-life dramas of infotainment.

Lately, that’s metamorphosed from hosts turning Christmas wrapping into wallpaper to filming real people in such diverse situations as home makeovers and dieting.

“We’ll still be as aggressive as ever at Mipcom and, obviously, reality is the fascination at the moment and we’re snowed under format ideas right now,” says Mott, who has an output deal with Sony and a first-look deal with Paramount. “The good news is we have thirst for that product, especially in early evening where we just cannot continue re-running ‘The Nanny’ and ‘Seinfeld.'”

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