By Sally Rawsthorne
Office culture, the ubiquitous “brand management” and the government’s obsession with infrastructure are all lampooned in the second series of the ABC’s Utopia. Created by production house Working Dog, the satire introduces new themes extending on the building-focused first season. Executive producer Michael Hirsh said that the series continued to reflect what he calls the “obsession” with infrastructure. “We’re still obsessed. The show also zeroes in on the way that offices – as in general offices, not necessarily government-run offices – operate now. They’re so tied up with their brand and their marketing, the aspect of getting some real work done has really lost its profile. Whereas previously it was about getting the job done, it’s now about telling people that we’re getting the job done,” he said.
Although Utopia is set in the fictional offices of the National Building Authority, Hirsh was confident that all office workers could relate to the series. “The response very early on to our first series made it clear that anyone who worked in an office could watch the series and have a laugh.”
With audiences ranging between 600,000 and 700,000 for the first series, and the show picking up the 2015 Logie for Most Outstanding Comedy Program and the 2015 AACTA for Best Television Comedy series, it seems no surprise that the ABC ordered another instalment of the format. Despite Utopia’s success, Hirsh said that a second series is never guaranteed. “You can’t ever expect it. You make a series and hope that people watch. If they do, you hope that enough people watched the first time to allow the broadcaster to go for a second time. We’re rapt that people watched the first series, and hopefully they’ll watch the second too. A lot of things have changed in the past 12 months, and we’re hoping that the audience tunes in to see that.”
As to the anticipated ratings, Hirsh wouldn’t be drawn, saying only: “I’ll take anything.”
He was equally close-lipped as to whether or not the Working Dog team anticipated a third season of Utopia. “Following series two going to air, we will be discussing it with the ABC. But until it does, we won’t be having that conversation. If we do go ahead with a third series, we’ll need to have some ideas about keeping it fresh.”
Series two of Utopia kicked off on ABC on Wednesday 19th August at 9pm.
>> “The obligation to buy into our culture is not there” – Hirsh on SVOD services
The breakneck pace of change in the way that audiences consume television was on Hirsh’s mind when discussing Utopia. Speaking to Mediaweek, he was enthusiastic about the myriad of new distribution options. “There’s a lot to talk about. Gone are the days of four channels. There’s now this world that’s constantly changing. There’s digital and analogue and subscription and FTA and streaming services. We’re working at a time of dynamism!”
He predicted that these new means of distribution would have minimal impact on Working Dog’s means of creating television. “I don’t think it changes the way that we work. It just changes the opportunities in the overall mix. What has changed considerably is that where you would once rely on a VHS or DVD as your after-broadcast scenario, that’s been replaced by theft and subscription. None of these digital mediums add up to what was once the revenue provided by DVDs, etc.
“But there’s now more opportunity for your content to be seen, which is fantastic. The way that we watch now is also fantastic, because you can watch when you want and as much as you want. So it doesn’t really change how we make things, but certainly it’s impacted the way that people watch them and hopefully enjoy them. Unless you’re doing news and sport, if you’re doing drama and entertainment like us, then your stuff isn’t necessarily being watched as it’s initially broadcast. People are using their iQ boxes and iview and DVR, and catching up in their own time. That’s all great, especially from a programming perspective. The financial model is slightly different, but the creative model remains pretty unchanged.”
Although Working Dog hasn’t made anything specifically for the SVOD players, Hirsh said the busy production house would consider it. “We’d be happy to talk to anyone. We tend to develop our own work, and then try to find the best home for it. There are more avenues into people’s homes, and we’d certainly look at those different opportunities. The only thing is that there’s no obligation from the SVODs to do anything Australian. Unlike the FTA broadcasters that have our air and pay a licence fee for that, there’s no obligation for using our internet connection to create anything out of Australia. There’s a difference between a want [such as Stan’s Plonk] and an obligation, and in this case there’s no obligation.”
He denied that the changing landscape was causing the Working Dog to worry. “I don’t think it’s stressful. The obligation to buy into our culture is not there, and that’s all there is to it.”
>> Working with Working Dog
With both Utopia on the air at the ABC and perennial favourite Have You Been Paying Attention? at Channel 10, team Working Dog is clearly adept at creating content for a range of audiences. “We’ve worked across the spectrum of broadcasters. We obviously work with the ABC, and we’re working with TEN and Foxtel too. We don’t have any formal output deals, and if they are happy to work with us then we’re happy to work with them.”
Hirsh made mention of Working Dog’s positive relationships across the broadcast networks, saying it meant the company could bring the right content to the right audience. “It’s about finding the appropriate home for the format and then finding the person who controls the budget there! There is also a difference in the audience depending on the brand of the network. For example, we’re much more comfortable with Have You Been Paying Attention? on TEN and Utopia on the ABC. There’s a degree of difference, and the brand brings you an expectation from the audience.”
As to why Utopia sits well on the public broadcaster, Hirsh said: “There’s some sophistication, there’s some satire and it’s a program that’s relevant to today’s environment. The show is very much in accordance with their charter.”
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