ABC’s Jennifer Collins

Jennifer Collins, acting director of entertainment and specialist at ABC in Australia, talks track records, time slots, wish lists and more with TV Formats.

As the national broadcaster of Australia, ABC’s entertainment slate is carefully curated with adaptations of international formats that are purpose-driven and have the potential to kickstart larger national conversations.

***Image***TV FORMATS: What role do formats play on the ABC schedule?
COLLINS: In the unscripted space, ABC has had major success with engaging audiences through creating local versions of international formats. While we only commission a few formats each year, they have consistently performed well.

International formats are an important but not a massive part of the schedule. For example, we have only two adaptations for 2022: Old People’s Home for Teenagers (we are, in fact, the very first country to produce this spin-off from Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds) and Back in Time for the Corner Shop. In 2021, we had two—Old People’s Home and The School That Tried to End Racism—and in 2020, one format—Back in Time for Dinner.

While worldwide, many broadcasters commission formats that come with a proven track record to minimize risk, we are really only interested in formats that work well as public-broadcast television and those that, in addition to informing and entertaining, have the potential to kickstart larger national conversations. For example, Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds explored loneliness and health issues of our older Australians and how intergenerational interactions can have such positive outcomes. The School That Tried to End Racism was a social experiment whereby the aim of the series was to provide greater empathy for students by offering tools for breaking down our social divides and unconscious racial bias. So we have found that international formats can lead to real-world change and terrific impact. Other adaptations like War on Waste have also had impact campaigns and excellent community results.

We find that the social media engagement is very high on these series. It’s a win for public broadcasting if we can reach broad audiences through these series while addressing challenging subjects like aged care, the environment, racism and marginalized communities.

TV FORMATS: What’s guiding ABC’s entertainment strategy at present?
COLLINS: When assessing international formats, we interrogate the idea based on the following strategic questions: Does the format look at a subject that a broad range of Australians can identify with and engage with? Does the format speak to diversity and inclusion on- and offscreen? Does the format offer solutions to problems that may be in society? (Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, War on Waste, The School That Tried to End Racism.) The world is weary from a global pandemic and craving positivity: Does the idea have warmth, heart and provide hope? Is it returnable across multiple series? Will it drive audiences to iview? From narrative and creative execution perspectives, does the idea reveal our world in surprising ways? Can it kickstart a national conversation? How original is it? It needs to be more than a fascinating topic. If it isn’t served up in an accessible and interesting way, commissioners won’t get hooked and nor will audiences. Can the idea be made bigger by utilizing the ABC’s various channels (across radio, news, digital, television, etc.). How does the show use digital platforms to find new audiences and extend their reach? Every show we commission must convincingly answer the question “why now?”.

TV FORMATS: What have been some of the most successful adaptations of international formats, historically, for ABC?
COLLINS: Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds has reached huge audiences for ABC, winning its overnight time slot and consolidating well above other ABC factual offerings. The social media and iview engagement have been impressive, and the series reached both young and old viewers. It also rates high on our quality and distinctiveness scores. It’s picked up a swag of awards, culminating in winning an International Emmy! The associated impact campaign that ABC ran produced real-world change, demonstrated by the number of intergenerational playgroups that resulted off the back of the series, and the impact videos had over 12 million plays on social media.

Back in Time for Dinner achieved similar outstanding results in terms of reach and engagement and was an excellent vehicle to explore Australian history.

War on Waste had a phenomenal impact. The series reached over 3 million viewers and had real-world impact, with an ABC/UTS (University of Technology Sydney) report highlighting that 452 high-impact waste-reducing initiatives across businesses, schools, universities, government and community organizations in which the series played an important role. Following season two, 68 percent of viewers reported behavioral change. Paul Klymenko, CEO of Planet Ark, said: “I have been working in waste prevention and reduction for 25 years, and War on Waste is the best thing that’s happened in that time.”

TV FORMATS: Do you require a solid track record before you’ll evaluate a format for adaptation on ABC?
COLLINS: Yes; they can be expensive, so we prefer a proven track record. International formats can definitely indicate an audience appetite for a subject. But if an idea has really strong public-service-broadcasting value but the execution is not particularly strong, we can always adapt the production manual/bible or work with the local company to develop it for the Australian market.

Having said all this, our preference is always to work with local Australian producers to create their own formats that can then be sent out into the global industry for adaptation. Love on the Spectrum, for example—an Australian homegrown original format—is one of our most successful formats. As well as delivering huge audiences across all of our platforms, it has been nominated for and won numerous local and international awards including: Rose D’Or, New York Festival TV and Film, Venice TV, BANFF Rockie, SPA, AACTA and AIDC. It has been adapted for the U.S. market.

ABC has also had huge success with the local format You Can’t Ask That.

TV FORMATS: What’s on your wish list for entertainment and format acquisitions?
COLLINS: The world is weary from a global pandemic and craving positivity. We’ve seen an increase in demand for deep, heartfelt content such as Love on the Spectrum and Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds.

We would like prime-time series for 8 p.m. (half-hour duration) and also 8:30 p.m. (one-hour duration).

TV FORMATS: Anything you’re not seeing enough of in the market that you’d like to see more of?
COLLINS: Innovative ideas that offer audiences a unique way into specialist subjects (arts, history, science) without relying on soft competition. Also, entertaining and inclusive storytelling in the disability space.