ABC Commercial Brings an Australian Perspective to the World

Tony Iffland, the general manager of content sales at ABC Commercial, speaks with TV Real about the international appeal of factual programming, the expansion of the topics these types of titles address nowadays and their future in the digital space.

In a world in which TV viewers have a myriad of programs to choose from, factual continues to pique audiences’ interest internationally. “Factual is a plank of what we do as a public broadcaster,” says Tony Iffland, the general manager of content sales at ABC Commercial. “Factual is important to the audience at home, and it’s a very strong calling card for us in the international marketplace.”

***Image***He adds that the quality of ABC Commercial’s factual content is “high, so we don’t have to convince someone of the editorial values that sit behind a show. That means we can take any number of ABC programs to the international market.”

ABC Commercial’s factual offering runs the gamut. “Our documentary content can be anything from high-art right through to some very commercial pieces, including franchises,” Iffland says. One franchise with a commercial style is the 72 titles, which include 72 Dangerous Animals Australia and 72 Cutest Animals. “We’ve got lots of episodes. The franchise is made with a much more commercial eye, so that opens up some new opportunities for us in terms of sales, compared to a more traditionally structured documentary.”

Capitalizing on the appetite for true crime, there is also the new franchise 45 Serial Killers the World Would Like to Forget. Iffland describes the title as “quite a commercial piece that allows us to talk to a broad spectrum of ***Image***clients.” Another popular program is Top Jobs for Dogs, which explores the qualities that make a canine the right fit to fulfill a particular task.

Along with commercial content that reaches a broad audience, having an enthusiastic presenter helps programs travel internationally. “Having a passionate expert as the host helps a program to travel because the show is about their journey of discovery,” Iffland explains. “A generous host who allows the audience to see them discovering new things can translate because they have that appeal, that audience magic.” There can be challenges involved in taking shows to the global marketplace, including dubbing. “You’ve got to make sure you have all the materials to allow you to sell a program into non-English-language markets,” he says.

Iffland notes that ABC’s factual offering travels globally even if it is made from an Australian perspective. “The world is getting smaller and smaller, and while [a program may] look at something with an Australian lens, it is dealing with issues—whether they be climate change, sociological issues around domestic violence or depression—that resonate around the world. Climate change resonates around the globe, war resonates worldwide, as do history and archaeology. They’re big, global issues, so [programs about these topics] do tend to travel well.”

In fact, Iffland has noticed that topics previously considered taboo are now taking center stage in the factual programming space. “We are much more willing as a global community to talk about things that perhaps we haven’t in the past, including domestic violence and mental health. Those are issues that people are increasingly looking at, and as a public broadcaster, these are the issues that we need to deal with because it’s our charter to reflect the issues in society.”

Still, traditional genres such as natural history continue to find homes internationally. “High-quality natural history continues to be a valuable proposition,” Iffland says. Additionally, he reports that feature documentaries are currently drawing interest. “Longer-form fare, pieces that offer a more in-depth feature treatment of issues that are of concern in our world at the moment,” are on the menu, Iffland adds. “That’s encouraging because there are lots of great stories that need to unfold over a longer period of time than a traditional 45-minute documentary slot.” While it’s a known fact that nonlinear broadcasters can handle different durations, “some of the pay-TV broadcasters are now opening up slots that aren’t quite so heavily driven by the hour junction,” he says.

Alongside a rich programming offering, a pillar of success is remembering that this is a relationship-based business, and it behooves distributors to know what kinds of content their clients are looking to acquire. “First, it’s about listening to what the clients are looking for, what they want, finding out what works and what doesn’t, and then coming up with a targeted and curated list for them,” Iffland says. “It’s not about presenting a client with everything that we’ve got that is a documentary; it’s about listening to what their needs are and understanding what works in their territory.” Presenting clients with a handful of documentaries that suit their needs, rather than a full catalog, Iffland explains, is “more respectful and ultimately more successful. We like to talk to clients early, even before we take delivery of a show. We’ll talk to clients about their needs and themes that they’re looking for.”

Iffland has noticed that there is indeed a place for factual in the digital space. “There is a need to satisfy people’s desire to see factual, to see real life and to [watch] real stories rather than fictional ones. We have sold and continue to sell factual content to digital platforms, whether they be the broad platforms like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon, or specialist platforms like CuriosityStream, or even the specialist platforms that sit alongside their linear brands.” One area in particular that Iffland believes will become popular on digital platforms in the near future is the music and arts genre. “I suspect that’s the next area to develop much more depth in the digital space,” he says.

Over the next 6 to 12 months, ABC Commercial will be taking delivery of another hundred or so hours of factual content for distribution. “That gives a good indication of how important factual programming is to our catalog,” Iffland says. Continuing to monetize that content will also be a key focus as ABC Commercial moves forward.