Why Foxtel in 2018: Brian Walsh

Foxtel’s executive director of TV Brian Walsh is of course much more than a programmer, overseeing the Foxtel channels and the local and international programming that viewers see across the Foxtel platform.

In an in-depth interview with MediaWeek Brian talks about what a successful programming strategy looks like for Foxtel in 2018 and how Foxtel is going to excite audiences this year. He covers some of the big Foxtel growth initiatives being rolled out over the next 12 months and most importantly, gives us the 411 on Picnic At Hanging Rock launching on 6 May.

Give it a read below.

Viewers’ choices, marketing and publicity

Competition is a good thing for the industry. It is a good thing for consumers. I think the current environment in Australian media is incredibly competitive right now, particularly in the case of our business, which is video.

That competition brings out the best entrepreneurial ideas and strong marketing that connects and it forces us to think differently.

We are living in an age of enormous change and the key is to always look at the way we do things with a view to how consumer behaviour is changing.

Punching above our weight in terms of marketing and publicity is vital.

People are getting information about television from a number of different sources and we have to hit all those touchpoints if we want our programming to get attention.

What we did in Victoria for Picnic At Hanging Rock was a great old-fashioned launch. We had a fabulous location where the series was shot, we got to climb Hanging Rock, we had 13 different cast members with us and we got to see the first episode.

We are going to do more of that. We will hit the road and be very visible.

Catering for the Foxtel audience

We always have to be conscious of who our audience is and what is the heartland of a Foxtel home. We are unapologetic about catering to middle Australia and family entertainment. Senior Australia often gets forgotten by television broadcasters and we have very loyal customers who have had 20-year tenure with Foxtel. They are important customers to cater for in terms of commissioning and acquisitions strategy. Equally important though are younger members of the household.

There is an expression I learnt in another role at another company, but we almost need to be taking a “cradle to the grave” approach where we have to have something that caters for everyone.

When you look at the canvas we provide, we like to think we are catering for the younger members of the household with our kids’ offering, that we are catering for millennials, that we are absolutely catering for people who are time-poor – which our on-demand proposition serves – and we are catering for senior Australia.

The [FTA] networks have abandoned older people. It is understandable because much of the advertising dollars sit with a younger demographic, but we are not driven solely by an advertising model.

Commissioning strategy

I would argue that Picnic At Hanging Rock is very contemporary, very edgy and it’s not just a remake of the Peter Weir film. It is a completely new approach to the story, looking at it from a director’s point of view through a female lens.

The female characters, particularly the schoolgirls, are front and centre of the story, whereas they weren’t so much in the original film.

This plays significantly into the #MeToo movement and the promotion of stronger female characters on film and television.

That is no coincidence. It has been something we have been looking at doing for some time.

If you look at Foxtel’s overall drama strategy, you would say that we absolutely dial up stories that feature strong female characters.

It is time to be commissioning more drama?

No question now is an opportunity for us. The commercial networks struggle with drama because the pay services, Foxtel, Netflix and Amazon, have conditioned people to watching drama in a binge environment where they can watch multiple episodes and they can watch scripted programming commercial-free.

Audiences have now been conditioned to expect that when they watch drama.

If you were Seven, Nine or Ten, it can be a real challenge to justify that investment and to monetise it in a commercial environment when people simply are watching most of those shows live.

Although ad revenue is important to Foxtel, we are not driven only by that model. We are driven by the subscription model and we run all of our signature dramas commercial-free.

In the on-demand environment we allow people to watch multiple episodes of those shows.

Drama is a great opportunity for us and Australian stories are something we are very committed to. I expect that is an area that will receive a significant uplift in terms of our commissioning strategy.

Foxtel’s recent drama success

Biopics work well for commercial networks, but it is not where we are.

Our ambition is to have at least two successful returning series – currently that is A Place To Call Home and Wentworth.

Then we would love to have multiple limited series that give us licence to be provocative, risky and bold in the subject matter we tackle. Whether that is something like The Devil’s Playground, which touched on a lot of issues in the news about the church, or The Kettering Incident, which was a story quite unique to Australian television with its touch of other-worldly phenomena – not something Australian television had done a lot of.

Picnic At Hanging Rock again has that hint of something other than the world we live in, done with a contemporary fresh approach.

When you look at the slate of projects we either have in development or in commission they are all quite different stories from those you see on network commercial television.

I have concerns for Australian drama. As an industry we need to ensure we protect our local industry and we need to advocate for telling Australian stories. Foxtel is committed to that. I hope we don’t see drama disappear from commercial television – that would be a shame for the industry.

How Foxtel measures success

We never look at overnight ratings figures. It is all about how the consolidated ratings look. We haven’t had a drama show that has underperformed for some time.

It has been gratifying that the stories we make are also finding audiences internationally, which is great for us commercially. That allows us to reinvest in even more Australian drama.

Stronger Foxtel channel line-up

We recognise that, increasingly, Australians are moving to an on-demand environment. Therefore linear channel viewing, while it will remain, will be less important.

That means it is time for a comprehensive review of the channels we carry. That will cause some distress and discomfort for consumers. The fact of the matter is it is a much more attractive proposition to have fewer channels that have a richer offering with a stronger lineup and fewer repeats.

We then have to let go of those channels that don’t meet our performance criteria.

This is the era of super channels. The audiences are so fragmented and there is so much choice available now that you want to have very robust, strong channels that are real destinations that people will a) recognise and b) go to.

That is our objective now with showcase, FOX8 and a number of our channels.

We have had discussions with our commercial channel partners, telling them we are reviewing our channel lineup and we want to have fewer, bigger and better channels. That is the future – fewer, bigger, better channels and a much deeper library available for people to watch VOD.

Move to video on demand (VOD)

By 2020 we firmly believe linear viewing will decrease, VOD viewing will increase and correspondingly the number of linear channels will decrease.

It is a matter of identifying what those super channels are going to be. They will be the brands that get all the marketing and promotion.

We see Foxtel as being a house of brands – great brands that are globally recognised and local brands that we nurture and market very strongly, showcase being one of those.

If we look at the total channel lineup, include all the +2 channels and the audio channels, Foxtel would certainly have had well in excess of 200.

If you consider all that, plus what customers have through Netflix and Amazon, and the opportunities they have to watch on demand via iview and SBS On Demand, there has never been more choice for people.

You need to make Foxtel an easier navigation. You can do that more effectively with fewer channels that are stronger and a VOD environment that has multiple programming across many genres.

What channels could be dropped?

It’s inevitable that the plus 2s will probably disappear as we consolidate.

[Foxtel’s head of channel and operations Stephen Baldwin also joined our discussion with Brian Walsh. Baldwin’s remit includes the factual channels, lifestyle, entertainment, arts and music. More recently he has also taken over the on-demand portfolio.]

Growth of the Lifestyle brand

SB: We have had great success with our Lifestyle local productions. We would always love to do more but it will always be reliant on budgets. We do have a large number of returning series that are successful, which is fantastic. It also means that it uses a lot of the budget, which makes it difficult to commission a whole bunch of new shows, which we would like to do.

We are constantly monitoring the performance of those shows and we will make decisions to potentially let some of those shows go so we can bring new programs into the schedule.

BW: We have acknowledged that Seven, Nine and Ten have a strategy built around live news, sports and competition reality. For that reason I don’t think competition reality is an area we need to compete in.

When looking at Lifestyle we have had an internal debate over The Great Australian Bake Off. We have asked the question, is it more competition reality or lifestyle?

SB: My feeling about Great Australian Bake Off is that it is different from any other competition reality. It has a definite feel-good element to it and it is respectful to the contestants and they are to each other. It also celebrates cooking skill in a very joyful way, which is important for lifestyle.

Lifestyle channel’s hit rate

BW: People enjoy coming to the Lifestyle channel and we are very protective of the brand. We have had a couple of battles, one with a radio network and the other with a potential competitor in this marketplace over the use of the name Lifestyle. A third-party content provider was intending to launch channels that feature lifestyle content and we are in discussion about the usage of the word lifestyle.

We also had a good-natured discussion with Russell Tate at Macquarie Radio when they were rebranding 2UE and their Magic stations. The word Talking was added to Talking Lifestyle’s name very late.

We firmly believe we are entitled to continue owning that brand.

The brand can grow beyond what we are doing on television. Lifestyle.com.au is a project that Stephen is very focused on, and given our common shareholding with News Corporation, there is enormous scope to build on the lifestyle area of the business. Expect to hear a lot more about synergies with News Corp.

Future content plans

BW: There is a lot of noise around Picnic At Hanging Rock and that will continue to be a focus.

We are finalising a major output deal with 21st Century Fox that will deliver some of their signature network product first run in this market. As part of that deal is an exclusive agreement with FX in this market. Traditionally the programs on FX have been spread across a number of outlets in Australia with Network Ten having a number of programs. The new deal makes Foxtel the exclusive home of FX originals.

We will now be able to say we are the home of HBO originals and FX originals. Add to that the Foxtel originals and we have a very strong drama proposition.

This article originally appeared on Media Week.