KEO Films wins in the War On Waste

Plus new CEO Brendan Dahill on future of Struggle Street and River Cottage

When Brendan Dahill left the ABC last October after just over six years with the broadcaster he didn’t get much of a break before taking up his new role. “I left the ABC on a Thursday and started at KEO Films on the Monday,” he told Mediaweek. After a few hours in the office he headed to the airport bound for London for his orientation with the team at KEO Films in London.

After arriving in Australia in 2004, Dahill worked for BBC Worldwide as director of television Australasia before moving to the ABC where he was ABC1 channel controller, head of programming and then head of non-scripted production.

Brendan Dahill

Dahill noted that KEO Films was keen to continue in Australia after Leonie Lowe launched the Australian office in late 2013. “If you aspire to do well and you are making shows in the English language then America and Australia are vitally important,” explained Dahill.

KEO Films is a factual specialist with a brief to make shows that make a difference and help change the world. One of those went to air this week with the first episode of War On Waste on the ABC.

Hosted by The Chaser’s Craig Reucassel, War On Waste is three one-hour programs and is the first show KEO has made under Dahill’s watch. It couldn’t have launched better with a first up metro audience of 759,000, which was enough to win the timeslot.

MORE: Mediaweek’s James Manning and Kruti Joshi spoke with Reucassel about the show on the Seven Days podcast. Listen online here.  

War On Waste is a really important series and true to the KEO brand. It is a piece of campaigning social activism that seeks to shake people into looking at the world around them and get them to do something about it.

“In the UK there are many more places to sell that type of show too than there are in Australia. One of the things KEO has asked me to do is look at diversifying the portfolio to find programs that might appeal to more buyers.

“I would love KEO to remain a factual specialist, but I don’t think the factual industry in Australia is big enough to support too many factual specialists. We are looking to diversify the portfolio a little. At one extreme we have lifestyle with River Cottage Australia and at the other end we have blue chip factual.”

Dahill added that the ABC and SBS have been very good to KEO with the commissioning of Bullied and War On Waste on the former, while SBS will be screening a second series of Struggle Street in the future and is running River Cottage Australia stripped at 6pm later this year.

War On Waste isn’t a format as such, but KEO had something similar that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (one of the KEO co-founders) has hosted.

In addition to the three one-hour programs, War On Waste will return at the end of 2017 to check on some of the promises made by corporations during the series. “During the program we laid down a number of challenges to major retailers like Coles and Woolworths and others.”

The producers found that some of the corporate players were more receptive than others to taking part. “Harris Farm Markets was brilliant as were some of the smaller recycling plants.” It has been suggested two of the bigger supermarket chains were harder to engage, something made clear in the first episode.

When asked what it was like pitching a program to the ABC, Dahill thought for a minute and said, “Weird. It was interesting…I was gamekeeper turned poacher. The hardest part was me assuming I knew too much. I needed to forget what I knew and just treat it as a fresh negotiation.”

Dahill noted that is easier said than done given he has not been gone long from the ABC and some of the shows he commissioned last year are still flowing through the schedule.

For the future Dahill said there have been preliminary discussions with the ABC about what the next War On series might look like if it is to be recommissioned. “There are a number of projects we are putting under the microscope to see what we should be pitching. We are looking at the sort of shows we do well and how we could make them more appropriate for commercial networks.”

Executive producing War On Waste was Jodi Boylan with assistance from David Galloway who is KEO Films’ director of programs.

KEO Films is hopeful the industry might find a way to ensure there was more money available for Australian productions. “The more money there is and the more slots there are for Australian content mean everyone is a winner. The death of a few reality strip franchises wouldn’t go amiss either! But we totally understand why they are commissioned because they attract audiences and make money.”

River Cottage Australia

Paul West and Digger in River Cottage Australia

“The format has finished for Foxtel and The Lifestyle Channel where it did its job,” said Dahill. The River Cottage Australia property at Tilba Tilba, owned by KEO Films, is for sale for $895,000.

Dahill noted that River Cottage in the UK had three separate properties across its 14 series run.

“We are re-versioning the show to run stripped on SBS on weeknights at 6pm later this year. We are working with Paul West to make sure every episode feels like a substantial half hour.”

KEO had interest from several commercial broadcasters, but he told Mediaweek they went with SBS because if the show works for them SBS would be open to talk about extending the River Cottage brand in Australia.

When asked if the 6pm timeslot was a tough one to crack, he replied: “Where are the not-so-tough timeslots?”

Struggle Street

Struggle Street season one

“We have nearly finished all six episodes of the second season. I am not sure when SBS wants to broadcast it. SBS is very mindful of what is going on in the lives of the people taking part in the series.”

Brendan Dahill was an onlooker when a massive controversy blew up prior to the screening of the first series. The then-head of KEO Leonie Lowe and the head of SBS Michael Ebeid both had their property holdings detailed in The Daily Telegraph. Mediaweek asked Dahill if he was prepared if that happens again this time.

“There seemed to be a load of fake outrage by people who never watched the show,” Dahill said. “The minute people saw the program they realised how well it was crafted and how empathetic it was to its participants and how it wasn’t property porn. These were just honest, authentic stories of people who were doing it tough in Australia.”

Struggle Street remains the most-watched SBS commissioned program ever with a 1.3m overnight national audience.

“Back then I was sitting at the ABC looking on jealously at the amount of publicity the show was attracting.”

Dahill estimated the publicity SBS attracted was perhaps worth the equivalent of a $25m marketing campaign. “When I was at the ABC I would have loved a $25m marketing campaign for any of my shows. That only gets people to watch the first few minutes of the show. However, the quality of the program then keeps them watching and then return for other episodes.”

The KEO boss believes there is a still a need for the show. “There are 3m Australians living below the poverty line. That is a lot of people and it is not OK. The top 20% of Australian households control 50% of Australia’s wealth and the bottom 20% of Australians control 4% of Australia’s wealth. The gap between the haves and the have nots has never been bigger. There are a lot of people doing it tough.”

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