How Andrew Denton is shaking up Australian TV

Programming guru is setting his sights on the global market

It's midday and Australian tv legend Andrew Denton and his producing partner Anita Jacoby are locked in a cell.

There are bars on the one external window, the floors and ceilings are reinforced steel and only two other people besides Denton and Jacoby know the codes to get into the small room. To be here Denton and Jacoby have been granted top secret security clearance.

Andrew Denton
But this is not an episode of the Aussie version of "Lockup." It's actually an edit suite for Denton and Jacoby's new observational documentary series, "AFP" (Australian Federal Police), which follows the inner-workings of Australia's equivalent of the FBI.

The 16-part series, filmed all over the world, is the most ambitious show in Denton's slate of original hit TV shows, and comes as he begins to increasingly eye global markets for his formats.

It's four hours into a 14-hour day for Denton at his production company Zapruder's Other Films, named for Abraham Zapruder, the man who shot the grainy super-8 footage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It's a typically quirky moniker for one of Australia's most successful TV producers.

Denton's unique sensibility has been a fixture on Aussie TV for nearly 25 years. After becoming a household name in the 1990s as the host and presenter of the comedy shows "Blah, Blah, Blah" and "Money or the Gun," Denton became producer and star of the iconic talk show "Enough Rope," scooping leading Australian journalists by landing revealing interviews with the likes of Cate Blanchett, Bono and Bill Clinton.

After four seasons of "Enough Rope" he decided to work exclusively behind the camera, building up a slate of wide-ranging programs like his top-rated panel show "The Gruen Transfer," the news satire series "CNNNN," the feature documentary "God on My Side" and "AFP."

But the body of work barely skims the surface of Denton, whose iconoclastic character and willingness to take risks sets him apart in a world where playing it safe is all too common. As a comedian, he retains the ability to drop a relentless string of one-liners during a grueling 14-hour day. As a producer he looks for the ideas that are left of field but is meticulous about how his shows are planned. As an entrepreneur he's water tight in his control over his projects, and as a cultural critic he's outspoken about the banal.

"I would not want to do a hit show which I didn't like," he once said. "I would rather do a failure which I was really proud of."

Now, at age 50, he's ready to introduce that unique sensibility to the rest of the world: Friend and fellow Aussie TV mogul David Lyle, under the new Fox Look distribution banner, will offer "The Gruen Transfer" format as "The Big Sell" on the international market at MIPCOM.

Denton's programs are "the working definition of witty, rather then just straight funny," Lyle says. "As an interviewer, Denton was one of the best in the world and I've seen some. As program creators, they [Zapruders] do fantastic stuff. 'Gruen' is a smart, witty, contemporary show that deserves to be an international hit."

While the past five years have seen all the key Australian independent production houses become part or fully acquired by foreign "super indies," Zapruder is one of a handful of midrange production companies that remain fiercely independent. But it's not in the producer-for-hire business, instead focusing on developing and making original formats. As a result, Denton and his partners -- Jacoby and managing director Peter Thompson -- tightly control the company's intellectual property, from program inception through to spin-off merchandising, in partnership with their broadcasters.

Denton's typical morning is marked by a nonstop series of production meetings which run from refining the pitch for a new show to a two-hour weekly meeting with the full Zapruder's team. Peppered with Denton's razor-sharp jokes, the meeting goes through the status of each of the company's projects, their funding and resources.

Zarpuder's current slate of original programming, managed by a core team of eight, includes two shows in various stages of production -- "Gruen" and "AFP" -- several pilots, and five others in development. They cover a range of genres but all are nonscripted shows.

They all bear the company's hallmark: A great idea, backed by meticulous research, with the ability to find humor -- light or dark -- in any situation. The company's mantra is, "the best idea wins," but at the same time, Denton says their problem is that they often have too many good ideas.

"We're a tight knit group of people and have been close for seven or eight years now," Denton says. "This has been a great year and the results are why we do it. We don't want to be a factory."

Famously disillusioned by TV at the height of the "Big Brother" phenomenon a decade ago, Denton nearly walked away from the industry all together. Relieved that the "Brother" era has finally passed, he can't help but toss out an acerbic barb about pandering to viewers.

"Our audiences have always been smart and it's the view of some that audiences aren't," he contends, adding that shows like "Gruen" and "MasterChef" succeed because the audience always comes away a bit smarter. "If you entertain and the audience walks away knowing something more you're on a winner."

"Gruen" has successfully mined that formula with a format that takes an entertaining look at the advertising industry. As one of the 10 highest-rated programs on Aussie TV, it gives the Australian Broadcasting Corp. its highest audiences each week, and ad agencies are lining up to be part of "The Pitch" segment in which two agencies a week are challenged to create a 30-second spot that sells the unsellable, such as holidays in Iraq or euthanasia and polygamy.

Tinkering with his new iPad during a break in rehearsal for "Gruen," the normally ebullient Denton admits to growing weary as the broadcast business meets new challenges.

In Australia, the one- to two-year development cycle and the constant struggle to fit funding pieces together for a new show looks like it will only get harder with the rise of new platforms, multichannels and the Internet.

"As a producer, I don't want to be making sausage factory stuff for an audience of 50 to make $1.50," he says. "I wonder what the broadcasting universe will look like five to 10 years from now?"

In the meantime, Denton will continue to do what he's always done -- chase down the next best idea.

"What I find exciting," he says, "is that new platforms can break the sometimes tired and dead hand of network television, where nobody wants to take the risk, nobody wants to back new talent, and every idea looks scary unless its been test run and succeeded somewhere else. So it is possible to see genuinely new ideas and people and give them a place to show what they can do."