On Tuesday September 26th Chris Oliver-Taylor – since July 1st the ABC’s Chief Content Officer – was our guest at an exclusive webinar hosted by Gael Jennings.
Chris has a huge job. He’s responsible for all ABC content that is not produced by the News Division. As Gael put it: “that’s all commissioning, in-house production, drama, entertainment, arts, science, children’s, factual, the national radio networks, Radio National, all the metro radio stations, ABC Listen, ABC iview, and all of this is in the context of moving towards an ABC digital future.”
Chris is a lively and engaging speaker, and he didn’t duck the questions. To get the flavour of these webinars, you need to be there (and be an Alumni subscriber). But here’s a summary of the ground he and Gael covered in a fascinating hour.
Chris began his career with the BBC and joined the ABC in in 2001. In 2005, then Director of Television Sandra Levy promoted Chris to head of TV production, then head of TV business operations and the ABC’s main channel controller in 2008. “She gave me a chance when she didn’t have to”. Chris left the ABC in 2011 to become Managing Director of Matchbox Pictures – “a juggernaut production company”; then CEO of Fremantle, which is even bigger; and finally boss of Netflix Australia, “learning from the inside about streaming from one of the biggest international distributors in the world”.
HOW WILL THE NEW STRUCTURE WORK? WHAT WILL THE ABC LOOK LIKE IN 5 YEARS?
With limited resources, said Chris, the ABC needs to be clear about what it’s doing. He said that he didn’t understand the logic of splitting up the Television and Radio Divisions. We need “to put the bits back together: one of the first things we did is put TV in one line of command, Radio in another and Digital in a third.”
If you ask people how they consume media, most don’t watch as much live TV or listen to as much live radio. Nearly everyone has Netflix and Spotify, everyone has a phone.
“If we think our audiences will turn on the TV or turn on the radio in 5 years’ time as their main way of accessing ABC content … it simply won’t be. It’s not an age thing any more, it used to be, it’s now not. It’s ubiquitous.”
He said he wouldn’t use the term ‘digital’ so much as ‘on demand’. The ABC needs to increase the use of ABC iview and ABC Listen by 40% in 5 years. iview has 2 million active users, ABC Listen between 450,000 and 750,000. That’s not enough.(Netflix, Chris pointed out, has significantly more active users)
IS THE ABC TARGETING THE YOUNG AT THE EXPENSE OF ITS OLDER CONSUMERS?
The ABC has always wanted a younger audience than it has, said Chris. But it has to be smarter about what programming it targets at what age group, so that there is something for everyone, but not everything for everyone.
“For younger people TikTok and YouTube and Instagram and whatever comes next are vital for ABC audiences. For my 17-year-old daughter that is her life… When I asked her about triple J, she had never heard of it. That’s the challenge that I’ve got to grapple with.
“The ABC has to find a way of being relevant to 30-year-olds, 40-year-olds, and then we can start working on the 20-year-olds, who the ABC has limited impact on.”
But, said Chris, the ABC has sometimes made the mistake of trying to make everything for younger audiences. He cited Back Roads’ attempt to produce content for Tik Tok, for young audiences. It doesn’t work, says Chris.
“The right thing with Back Roads is a considered slot in the TV schedule so it stays the same all year round, with more episodes. It’s an older play, it’s a regional play, it’s a female play, and it’s brilliant, and we will do more in the next few years, but I don’t expect to see Heather [Ewart] on TikTok.”
The same, said Chris, with local radio.
“The ABC decided it had to be younger, we forgot who we were talking to, our audience for local radio is 50+. It is very hard to program for 80-year-olds and 30- year-olds at the same time. Our older audience is our biggest audience and always will be.”
WHAT’S THE FUTURE OF RADIO NATIONAL?
“I hope, a long and healthy one,” says Chris. If the ABC was only here to attract young and massive audiences, RN wouldn’t be there. But he keeps asking “What does success look like? What are we trying to achieve? If we’re facilitating vital conversations, education, inspiration, then that’s success? So that’s the thing, define success on Radio National.”
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be evolution. RN’s current share of the national radio audience is 1.4% and dropping. A lot of our current share is with Breakfast and Drive. But as podcasts, individual RN content has big numbers. Conversations has been downloaded 35 million times already this year.
Most of RN’s content is also available as podcasts, and indeed often the podcasts get bigger audiences. So the ABC will continue to invest in RN story-telling, but has to make sure it is available on platforms people use. AM radio is on the way out – you can’t get it in electric vehicles that you buy today. “But RN as a brand, its output and what it stands for, are fundamental to the ABC”.
Chris did not make clear whether RN as a continuous, curated stream of programming would continue somewhere, if not on AM radio.
SCREEN DRAMA AND COMEDY: WITH FUNDING AT ABOUT TWO THIRDS OF WHAT IT WAS IN THE 1980s, HOW CAN THE ABC COMPETE WITH THE INTERNATIONAL STREAMERS?
There are broadcasters that have pulled out of drama altogether, for example in Germany, because of competition and rising costs.
“Under my watch we are not getting out of drama, drama is my passion; if we stop, then we risk the commercials stopping, and then we are relying entirely on our streaming friends, and it could destroy the sector.”
The challenge, said Chris, is the incredible increase in supply of English-language drama. In the last 6-7 years it has doubled, driven by the streamers. Everyone should understand that ABC drama is dependent on demand from international distributors and has been since the 1980s. They fund around a quarter of the budget of every drama series.
There is still a strong enough market globally for Australian stories to allow us to produce them at a level we can afford.
“We’ll make somewhere between 8 and 10 comedy/drama series a year, that’s our aim, I’d love to get to 12, I’d love to get to one a month, we may not get there … but drama is our pressure point, drama will always be a priority and we’ll keep making drama.”
The ABC has co-produced drama with streamers like Netflix in the past. But if you watch Fisk on Netflix, you’ll see ‘Australian Broadcasting Corporation’ at the head of the first ep, but then it will go straight to the start of following eps, cutting out the opening credits. So no one would know it’s an ABC show.
The other problem, said Chris, is that Netflix wants to buy our product not so much for its international audience as for Australian subscribers, and it wants to show it as soon as it can, so it’s in direct competition with ABC iview. He would be happy to co-produce with the streamers if there was, say, a 5-year window where they couldn’t stream it in Australia. We haven’t got that quite right at the moment.
The ABC is also looking for significant money from international distributors that are NOT streamers, or not in Australia anyway.
WHY HAVE YOU CUT BACK ON THE ARTS, AND BROKEN UP THE ARTS COMMISSIONING TEAM?
The ABC has NOT cut back on arts coverage, said Chris. Two people left, three people joined,
We have a new program on the way presented by Virginia Trioli. Arts is a core area. We are spending more on the arts, more on classical music, we’ve just commissioned eight new classical concerts.
WHAT ABOUT SCIENCE? IT’S GOOD ON RADIO, BUT WHAT THERE IS NOW ON SCREEN IS LIGHT AND FROTHY AND NOT IDENTIFIABLE AS SCIENCE.
Chris said he believes science is really important. With the demise of Catalyst as a 38-program-a-year strand, the brand has changed and lost visibility. We have a bunch of good shows, mostly on Tuesdays, but the audience can’t find them. So it’s about the branding of ABC science and how we can bring in an audience that knows what it is. What’s our equivalent to David Attenborough, a presenter or host that our audience would trust to take them on a journey? Work is under way on that.
A PARTICIPANT ASKED WHY MORE MONEY WASN’T INVESTED IN HIGH-QUALITY PODCAST PRODUCTION
Chris said he was putting significant money into audio. “But we have a fixed budget, we can’t spend it twice. Podcasts are amazing but we need to understand what we are doing and who we are doing it for. And to work out how we are going to cope with the demise of AM radio in years to come. We will still have to reach everyone, that’s a very clear remit.
WE ARE DOING TOO MUCH
Several times in the hour, Chris emphasised that in his view, the ABC was trying to do too much with its limited funds. [Director of News Justin Stevens has made the same point to ABC Alumni.] In Chris’s words:
“We are doing too much, being blunt we are doing too much. We have so much output. We made around 180 podcasts last year, we have multiple national radio networks, we have 8 breakfast shows on local radio plus all the regionals, it’s too much. Netflix in Australia promotes only 12 shows, that’s it, and 4 of them will be Australian, 8 will be international… so we end up doing everything in a way that’s a bit underwhelming, I’d rather do 20 things that are big, really big, and people will go ‘look at the ABC it’s amazing!’ So that’s what we must get smarter at.
“We can’t do it all. The most anyone can do is look forward and not back, that’s all we can do. We don’t have enough money, we’ll never have enough money, but we have hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money to do some amazing things.”
“I’M DETERMINED NOT TO STUFF IT UP”
Chris ended by saying how much he appreciated the work of ABC Alumni:
“I’m so thankful and grateful that we have people who’ve been through the ABC and know the ABC and are passionate for the ABC because we need you; and hopefully in time I’ll join you and we’ll carry on the fight from the other side.”
“I see this job as the biggest privilege that I will ever have in my career, and I’m determined not to stuff it up.”