Australian TV indies defy economy

Power subtly shifts to local programmers

SYDNEY Aussie viewers’ insatiable appetite for local programming in recent years is causing a subtle power shift in network boardrooms.

Producers of local shows, the hitherto minnows of the Oz TV biz, are gaining clout.

The networks have seen their power eroded by the weak ad market, by the eyeball shift to new media and by new cost-conscious network owners.

But auds want local shows, and given that most broadcasters have dismantled their inhouse production arms, they have little choice but to commission them from indie producers.

“It is a good time to be a producer,” says Geoff Brown, executive director of the Screen Producers’ Assn. of Australia. “The broadcaster-producer model is gone.”

Pubcaster the ABC, Ten and to a lesser degree the Nine Network now outsource most local programming, except for news and sports. Seven has kept its studio infrastructure and still produces many of its own local programs.

This year ratings are strong for Granada’s quizzer “Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation” and Fremantle Media’s “Masterchef,” all on Ten; “Underbelly,” produced by Screentime for Nine; and Seven’s “Find My Family” from Quail TV and Working Dog’s “Thank God You’re Here.”

The ABC’s controversial comedy sketch show “The Chaser’s War on Everything,” co-produced by Chaser Broadcasting, and “The Gruen Transfer,” produced by chatshow host Andrew Denton’s Zapruder’s Other Films, are water-cooler hits.

Major feevee platforms Foxtel and Austar have figured out that unique, publicity-generating programming is the key to growing subscribers.

Given that the networks pick the best programming from abroad, they have been investing in prestige homegrown series.

“Australia’s Next Top Model” produced by Granada; “Love My Way” produced by Southern Star, “Satisfaction” produced by Lone Hand Productions; and Movie Network’s “Chandon Pictures” are the highest-profile examples.

Elisabeth Murdoch has sniffed opportunity in the land of her birth. In October, the Brit-based producer will open a Sydney office for her production company Shine.

Rove McManus hosts and produces chatshow “Rove Live” and “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” for Network Ten via his 10-year-old Roving Prods., which has another two shows in production for Ten. Starting in July, Roving Prods. will supply at least four hours of programming a week to Ten, including a soon-to-be-announced 7 p.m. half-hour strip.

Over at the ABC, Denton has built Zapruder’s Other Films into a substantial company in just six years. The company, whose name refers to Abraham Zapruder, the man who filmed the the assassination of President Kennedy, has five programs either in production or ready to go before the cameras. It has just retired its flagship “Enough Rope With Andrew Denton” after six seasons in which it claimed some of the pubcaster’s highest ratings.

Zapruder’s development topper Anita Jacoby says times are good for indies, and the networks are paying fair prices.

“It opens doors” to have a famous name (Denton) running the company, she says, “but the product (still) has to be good.”