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Monday, August 28, 2006

ABC makes user-generated high priority

It's not unusual for traditional television commissioners to spawn internet or mobile add-ons, but at Australia's ABC the 'new media' department is the one programming second-tier cabsat channel ABC2. Dan Fill, head of development for new media and digital services, tells David Jenkinson about the thinking behind this back-to-front approach.

Dan Fill (left) moved to ABC from Canadian producer Decode eight months ago. He's been at the heart of the interactive game for years, and now, as head of development for new media and digital services at Australia's public network, he's having some fun defining next-generation content that works on and off TV.

ABC's output divisions include television production, radio and ABC Enterprises, which manages books and merchandise and 60 retail stores across the country. The company relies on revenues from the latter division to be reinvested as it is a commercial-free network. Then there is new media and digital services, which primarily manages a 1.8 million page website that, among other things, is the biggest podcaster in Australia.

"We also have responsibility for the mobile strategy and interactive television," says Fill. "And also sitting within the new media division is broadcaster ABC2, a digital free-to-air channel the original programming for which is derived from the new media team."

The channel has just celebrated its first birthday, and Fill is now focused on developing new programming that can work on TV but also adds fuel to the new digital initiatives coming out of the department. "It's quite a nice option to know you have a television component that you can build into what may primarily be, for instance, a web proposition," says Fill.

ABC2 is focused on kids, youth and regional programming and has a lot of time-shifted shows from the main network. "Increasingly we are looking at innovative projects that are a bit riskier than you would see on the main network," says Fill. He is responsible for the original programming while Carol Saab, who came from Sky in the UK, is in charge of acquisitions.

In terms of new content, one of the things ABC has realised is that its radio station Triple J (TKTK) has a strong youth audience - which is something that can carry over into TV and onto the internet. "So we are producing a television series for the main network called JTV, and then for ABC2 we are making an extended two-hour version of it called JTVXL. It is focused on rock - and fairly inexpensive youth energy and interest," says Fill.

The show is in a magazine format featuring interviews and shorts (bought in) that are "quirky and different." Music videos will be played within the two-hour piece as well.

When it comes to acquisitions, ABC is looking for material like Atom Films' stuff or the Happy Tree Friends. But the main play for Fill will be looking at generating content from users, which is "a huge part of the interactive strategy."

"We are still considering the exact way to go about creating the user-generated content but we have a lot of infrastructure in place through the Triple J site and we have a lot of calls to action for the radio station, so it is just a matter of determining the exact kinds of content we want," he says.

"We realised that this youth audience wants the content when they want it, and they want it in depth. Once the show has finished there is an enormous amount of content on the web that flushes things out."

It has also become clear that kids want to get up on their own soapboxes and say what they think. "It is clear that they do want to see themselves reflected in the content of the show. We are totally open to that notion," says Fill. Many of the opportunities to do this will happen online.

Broadband penetration floats around 70% in Australia, and cable penetration - which is currently low - is about to rocket. "They have just cut the cable prices by 50% and subs are improving, so we are expecting a massive rise," says Fill.

There are two competing offerings: Optus and Foxtel. The full package has dropped to A$50 (US$38) a month.

Fill is buoyant about how the department will move forwards with user-generated content commissions. He says: "We've done some pretty interesting things in the past months. We didn't have the rights to the Commonwealth Games, so we invited people to send in images of their own Commonwealth Games - their own little parties and how they were taking things - through their mobile phones. We got a massive amount of response, things we would never have been able to pull off the wire, and it was very exciting for us."

In the kids arena, ABC is launching an application called Playground Radio that will harness the power of the user-generated trend. "The ABC has a very big library of preschool music, so this ap will allow kids to create their own playlists of songs - like Wiggles songs and Bananas in Pyjamas, some decent brands. In total they can listen to a library of around 1,500 songs," says Fill.

Playground Radio also has some special playlists from kids characters The Wiggles. "If you would like to download those songs to a mobile device and then take it off the computer then that goes through to an arrangement with Destra Publishing," he explains.

"We are trying to broaden our reach to the audience in preschool and have also just launched a parenting section online. We recognise parents surf with their kids."

ABC is also about to overhaul its news site, and while the focus is going to be on providing editorially sound news content it is also about allowing users to be able to participate in some way in terms of tagging content or being able to comment.

There are likely to be extensions of projects like Snapshots, in which the broadcaster sends out 100 cameras into regional Australia and has people take pictures of their lives. "Now we are entering the second season of Snapshots the media is likely to be more rich," says Fill. "And probably spill over from the website onto ABC2.

"We have another project called Video Lives in which we invited the audience to send in videos about them and their regions. Those went up on the ABC.net.au, and then the audience came online and voted for the best, which were broadcast on ABC2. In season two we have actually taken the five or six that were the most compelling of all and have now turned them into a weekly video diary that they do on a show called Australia Wide on TV."

However the network chooses to move forwards, it seems users will play a big part of ABC's future.

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