It will have been 3 years since its last Drama series in East West 101 and you can tell that Tony Iffland, Director of Television and Online Content, is buoyed by returning the broadcaster to the space. The 4 part miniseries Better Man dramatises the story of Van Nguyen, the first Australian to be executed in 12 years.
Iffland recently visited the set with Bryan Brown, David Wenham, Claudia Karvan and newcomer Remy Hii and said the feeling amongst cast and crew for the magnitude of the story excited but also weighed heavily on them.
“They were effusive actually. They really loved the story and how it was shaping up. My Commissioning Editor Caterina de Nave has been very excited. We need to do a good job with this one,” he said.
Harrowing scenes of Nguyen’s final hours are said to have been emotional for everybody involved.
“They could really feel the tension building towards that. I think it will be a pretty powerful story.”
Better Man is due to air in the second half of the year and Iffland knows that such an important project, on many levels, needs every opportunity to reach the widest audience possible.
“There are no soft slots any more in this biz,” he concedes.
“The reality is SBS has to work harder to bring audiences to its programmes and we’re determined to make it a success. So we’ll give it the best possible chance in terms of schedule but also it’s about creating enough programming to give it momentum… amplification programming if you like, to raise the issues around capital punishment and drug running.
“We create some interest in the subject matter so that we bring audiences into SBS and then move them into the Drama. It’s about creating momentum.
“You can’t just leave a show in the schedule and expect it to draw an audience to it. You also have to take an audience to the programme.”
Other themed programming will screen ahead of Better Man including Werner Herzog’s On Death Row (first season replay, plus new season).
International dramas have recently emerged on Saturday nights including Hunted, Real Humans and Prisoners of War and there is more on the way, including a return to foreign language content.
“I’ve talked before about giving some more dynamics to SBS ONE with a bit more light and shade. The introduction of Drama such as Prisoners of War, Hunted, Lilyhammer and Borgen coming up, followed by feature films, is one of the ways I’ve tried to make the schedule more appealing to a bigger audience,” he says.
“I really want us to be able to claim some of the world’s best Drama, so yes you can say foreign language is coming back onto those slots, absolutely.”
Saturday night dramas will be followed by Sandy George hosting international feature films.
“Lilyhammer has Steve van Zandt who turns informant on the mob and goes into witness protection. And he remembers fondly the Winter Olympics. So when they say ‘Where do you want to go?’ he says ‘LilyHammer.’ But when he gets relocated there he can’t suppress his petty crim instincts and he gets involved in a few cons and various activites with his New York gangster ways –very subtly, not in a violent way.
“The mob try and track him down. It’s light-hearted, there’s comedy moments, it’s about half-English, half-Norwegian but it’s quite accessible.”
BAFTA and Monte Carlo winner Borgen comes from Denmark.
“Borgen is a Scandinavian drama with Birgitte Nyborg who becomes the first female prime minister of Denmark. When they talk about the rebirth of Scandi-drama it’s one of the titles that’s always included.”
Acclaimed Danish series The Bridge, which ran on SBS TWO last year, will also have an SBS ONE repeat.
“I also want to work Comedy back into the schedule in 2013 and we’ve picked up a few Comedies at MIPCOM that we’re working back into the schedule as Comedy destinations,” says Iffland.
In the second quarter will be Housos Series Two, currently in production, with 9 new episodes from Paul Fenech.
“It’s a controversial one but as you know we’ve never stepped away from controversy. When we create a Comedy destination for it, and Bullet in the Face and a few I have in development, there will be a lovely mix of acquired and Australian titles.
“I also said to Paul ‘Talk to me about what your new ideas are.’
We had a heritage of that sort of comedy and if we didn’t reclaim it, it would be lost to us. We remind the audience that we were the network that originally bought South Park and we commissioned Danger 5 and Wilfred and are willing to take creative risks.”
Anarchic Canadian series Bullet in the Face stars Eddie Izzard is described as a ‘viciously funny action, wildly violent, bloody and unabashedly politically incorrect comedy series.’
“Eddie Izzard is a great drawcard. It comes out of Canada and it’s very distinctive. It reminded me a little bit of Danger 5 in a sense,” says Iffland.
“It’s quite black and it won’t play on Monday nights.”
Mondays is to be realigned more broadly to 25-54s with a lighter feel than its former comedy shows.
“Monday has been my problem child so I have been working on some ideas,” he admits.
“Mythbusters will stay at 7:30. But I want to create a different feel for Mondays. It won’t be the alternative comedy that it’s been in the past.
“It’s a bit of a work in progress.”
What of cable dramas like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire? Iffland admits he is re-thinking their value and where best to play these.
“I worry about some of the lengths of hold-backs on some of those titles when they play on a Showcase or a Movie Extra. It’s a fairly long hold-back on a Free to Air window and there’s fairly extensive DVD sales. So I’m really looking at the strategy of whether it’s right to still be in that sort of drama,” he concedes.
In Factual there are two new seasons of Who Do You Think You Are? (one will play in 2014), for Tuesdays.
“I love the series. We bought it when I was at BBC Knowledge and it’s just a wonderful format. We also have Season 9 of the UK series with Annie Lennox and Patrick Stewart.”
Insight and Dateline remain on Tuesdays with, no mid year break.
“Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl is in production and it looks like it will be excellent. Then we have Once Upon a Time in Carlton almost side by side. So we’ve created a returning franchise and one of the things I want to do is have more consistency in the SBS schedule,” he says.
“Then we’ll look at where else we can take it as a franchise. What other stories of communities can we tell?
“It’s also very important to get outside of Sydney. It’s very easy for networks to become Sydney-centric.”
A Cronulla Riots project will also run online with Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl, but at this stage not on air.
“I think SBS is the best at considering ideas in their linear and digital space and how you engage with social media. But I’m not ruling out that it might appear on air at some stage.”
One off documentaries include The Network, a story about Afghanistan’s first independent network by Eva Orner; Sonya Pemberton has produced Jabbed about the controversy of immunisation; Welcome to Puntland will look at Abdirahman Farole, a Somalian refugee who returns to become the president of the semi-autonomous state of Puntland; Surgery Ship follows a ship of Australian doctors and nurses off the coast of West Africa.
There is also a 2 part doco on Rupert Murdoch as a co-production with the UK.
“It’s a seminal piece on Rupert,” he says. “It’s not muck-raking, it’s a very factual, profile piece.”
“There’s Ewan McGregor as a UN ambassador in Cold Chain Mission and more Stephen Hawking’s Brave New World.”
But what of hit doco series Go Back to Where You Came From? Surely it is a network-defining brand? Iffland says the team has been working on approaches to a third season, but does not promise anything for 2013.
“The guys have been working hard. They’ve got a couple of ideas that look very promising and I’ve sent them away just to have a bit more time to let that creative process flow,” he explains.
“It’s such a seminal piece that whatever we do has to be great. You look at where we’ve taken it so far, we managed to create a second season that was even better than the first season. Contrary to a lot of people’s expectations.”
More food titles include Gourmet Farmer 3, Food Safari, more Destination Flavour, Shane Delia’s Spice Journey, and more in development. From overseas there is Jerusalem on a Plate, Marco Pierre White’s Kitchen Wars, and Thai Street Food with Australian David Thompson.
“We have bigger, better plans. The team has been working on it, the guys here love it and I think you can see it on screen. It’s a real celebratory feel to the whole show. We have Julia and Sam again and they will do a Road to Eurovision again and host it over the Saturday and Sunday. And I think our social media overlay will be even better than last year with more activity. It’s ramping up already!”
RocKwiz S11 is now filming and due after Easter, with a bit of a ‘sprucing up.’
“We’re not going to change its DNA. We’ve been very careful with it and I think you will look at it and say ‘Brilliant it looks fantastic.’
“The guys are passionate about RocKwiz, we know our audience loves it. It’s really important for us.”
Alas there are no plans to resume Letters and Numbers, axed mostly for budgetary reasons. Its replacement is also getting moved.
“Countdown didn’t work as well as our expectations were for it. It will be returning in a different slot.”
Food Safari replays will lead into World News Australia.
In sport there is the 100th running of the Tour de France.
“It finishes at nighttime on the Champs-Elysees which will be pretty spectacular. And there’s a lot of planning for the World Cup in 2014 and we also have the A League one game a week,” he says.
“We do football and cycling very well.”
SBS yesterday announced a deal with Tropfest and new channel NITV has secured Marngrook Footy Show.
In all, there is plenty of new and returning content for viewers interested in alternative content in Drama, Comedy, Sport, Documentaries, Film, News and Entertainment.
And Iffland is also hinting at more announcements to come.
“We haven’t had the funding to do a lot of Drama and Comedy in the past and it takes time to bring those things together. But we will have more.”