Aussie broadcast ties that bind

Producers say setting up shop Down Under a good move

The Australian market is increasingly becoming the focus of foreign production and distribution entities wanting to set up shop Down Under to feed the growing global demand for entertainment programming and formats.

In April, Dutch producer and distributor Eyeworks was the latest in a string of foreign-owned companies to announce it is setting up a production office in Sydney.

Eyeworks' entry into Australia follows that of the BBC's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, which took a 25% stake in Freehand Group earlier this year. And Fremantle Media merged its two Australian production arms — Grundy Television and Crackerjack Prods. — under the Fremantle Media Australia banner this year.

They join other local offshoots of global production companies including Granada Australia, Endemol Southern Star, Fox World Australia and EMTV's Flying Bark Prods. in seeking local formats and programs to export to other markets while forging closer working relationships with Australian broadcasters.

According to Simon Spalding, Fremantle Media's director of operations, Asia Pacific, the moves are essentially about control of the format as well as getting more upside at the production end of a business whose margins are getting squeezed tighter.

Having a production presence in a local market "is about how your format gets made, and as margins get squeezed, format owners want a bigger piece of the value chain," Spalding says.

That's one reason Dutch production company Eyeworks set up shop here and snared former Endemol Southern Star creative director Stephen Peters to head up its development division.

Says Reinout Oerlemans, CEO and founder of Eyeworks: "We are very pleased to now have a presence in Australia as the eighth country in Eyeworks' international network. Adding a new English-speaking territory to our group is of great value."

Its format, "Lost Tribes," recently aired on the Nine Network to about 1 million viewers.

In addition, as an "increasingly visible" English-speaking and highly competitive broadcast market, Australia is becoming a testing and breeding ground for formats, Spalding contends.

"If you get a format up and running in Australia, you've got a better chance of getting it up in other markets," he says. "In addition, the Australian market has great production values, and programs are made at a standard that works well elsewhere."

To that end, Fremantle Media Australia has developed two of its own properties that it is taking into other markets. Having a base in Australia also helped in Fremantle's acquisition of Australian indie Working Dog's comedy format "Thank God You're Here," which became a hit on Network Ten last year. Fremantle has since sold the format to NBC in the U.S. and to channels in Belgium, Portugal, Sweden, the U.K., Israel, Denmark and Russia.

This year, Fremantle Media Australia has developed the factual program "Choir of Hard Knocks," which aired to more than 1 million viewers on pubcaster the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and this month finished production on "The Gift," a hospital-based factual series looking at Australian organ donors and transplant patients and recipients. That series will air on the Nine Network later this year. The company will take both formats to the MIPCOM TV market later this year.

Spalding acknowledges that the volume of good ideas for export coming out of Australia is still just a "trickle."

David Vine, managing director of BBC Worldwide Asia Pacific, says the trend for the BBC is to "invest in localized productions more and more around the world."

"We are building up our assets to make us more relevant to local markets as well as developing formats in markets to make in others," Vine says. "Australia is attractive as it's a key producer and acquirer of English-language product."

Vine says Freehand, which has produced "Missing Persons Unit" for the Nine Network and created the "Great BBQ Challenge" for pay TV's Lifestyle Food channel, was the "best fit" for us. "Their goals aligned with us in terms of production formats that have a broader market potential," he says.

Screen Producers Association of Australia executive director Geoff Brown welcomes the growing list of foreign distributors and production companies in the Australian sector.

"The moves provide guaranteed distribution outlets for Australian companies overseas, which wasn't happening," he says. "It also capitalizes the base of Australian production companies," making businesses more sustainable.