The ABC has been home to Australia’s most loved TV comedies for several decades now, stretching all the way back to the 1970s, when the broadcaster was home to Aunty Jack and Norman Gunston, through to Frontline in the 1990s, Kath and Kim in the early 2000s, and Mad As Hell in the 2010s.
But on December 4, the broadcaster will consolidate and place new focus on its comedy offerings with the launch of ABC Comedy, a new “multiplatform brand”.
In practice, what that means is ABC’s secondary digital channel (currently ABC2) will rebrand as ABC Comedy from 7.30pm each night, with the channel remaining as ABC Kids throughout the day. A new on-demand iview comedy channel will also launch, and the broadcaster will be commissioning more audio comedy content for podcasts.
Headlining the announcement is a new weeknight comedy show called Tonightly, hosted by Tom Ballard. The program will air on ABC Comedy at 9pm from Monday through Thursday, with a “best of” package airing each Friday.
Tonightly will feature Ballard alongside Greta Lee-Jackson (SkitBox), Greg Larsen (Fancy Boy) and Bridie Connell (Whose Line Is It Anyway? Australia) as field reporters, taking in everything from the news of the day to pop culture. It’s designed to have a significant social media presence, streaming live on Facebook each night, with segments uploaded to social media platforms throughout the day.
It’s the first nightly comedy show to launch on Australian TV since Tonight Live with Steve Vizard, which ran on Channel Seven from 1990 to 1993.
ABC’s Director of Television David Anderson says Ballard, who’s best known for his live stand-up and hosting Triple J’s Breakfast show, was the only clear choice for host for Tonightly.
“I can see this coming together in a way that’s quite segment-able and shareable,” Anderson told Daily Review. “I’m imagining an opening monologue from Tom that’ll be shared widely across social. The ambition is high, but I think the rewards will be great.”
When asked how much of an investment a nightly comedy show requires from the ABC, Anderson says there are significant resources directed towards the series, but it will be produced in a cost effective manner.
“Well we don’t have a band,” he says. “With Tonightly and ABC Comedy, we’ve obviously tried to keep the costs down on this as much as possible; the rebrand is being done in-house and the Tonightly is an in-house production, not a co-production.”
The channel will also feature a range of international comedy titles, including Inside Amy Schumer, Catastrophe and Episodes, re-licensed Australian comedy classics, short-form series from rising talents such as Nakkiah Lui, and Comedy Next Gen, a series of stand-up specials by local young stand-up stars.
There’s a strong focus on curating the ABC Comedy broadcast channel, but there remains the significant challenge of moving more viewers across to a secondary digital channel. Anderson says ABC2 has had a bit of an identity crisis in recent years, and that the broadcaster has been considering this identity change for a long time.
But given that some ABC content is now reaching bigger audiences on social media than on traditional broadcast or iview (one video from You Can’t Ask That has been viewed more than 40 million times on Facebook) how much do broadcast ratings matter to the national broadcaster?
“It matters less over time, unless of course you’re a commercial free-to-air operator and you’re trying to sell something, then it’s a problem,” Anderson says. “For us, we look at not just the overnight, we look at how it performs on iview, and how it performs on social and third-party platforms.”
“The numbers around Facebook use in this country are not to be ignored. Increasingly, we’re getting audiences through there. They’re still getting value from the ABC, even if they don’t come to our platform.”
Anderson says although there are many avenues through which the ABC can reach audiences, it still needs its own strong and popular channels through which audiences can reach independent, quality Australian content.
Part of the strategy to increase the popularity of its various platforms — particularly among younger audiences — is bringing popular talents across from social media into the ABC fold.
The broadcaster has previously done so with Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney’s hits The Katering Show and Get Krack!n, and has now commissioned new shows for its iview platform by John Luc (AKA Mychonny), who has had over 300 million views on his YouTube channel, and comedian Celeste Barber, who has a significant following on Instagram.
“It’s a bold direction to take and one that we think will resonate well,” Anderson says. “The world is a pretty serious place on a pretty regular basis, and to be able to provide light entertainment relief through Australian characters, Australian voices; you can reflect contemporary Australian through doing that and find emerging talent. Comedy is a great vehicle to tell great Australian stories, and helps us to understand who we are, and understand each other. They’re all things a public broadcaster should be doing.”
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