News & Commentary, Screen, TV

The 'Plonk' model: a new way forward for Australian TV makers?

| |

A little over a decade ago, if Australian writers/directors or producers wanted to get a new TV show up and running, there was no way forward without the support of a network. There were really only five avenues into our living rooms: Seven, Nine, Ten, the ABC or SBS. The commercial networks’ investment in local content has never been spectacular — certainly not enough to create a large TV industry with plenty of opportunities — so only ideas which suit their commercial plans get a shot.
But the 2010s is the beginning of a more flexible and fractured TV environment, with multiple digital channels, free and subscription streaming services all looking for content. One creator who has cannily exploited all these new possibilities is Nathan Earl, whose web-series Plonk has been one of the more surprising success stories of local TV content in the last few years.
Starring Earl as a TV producer and The Chaser‘s Chris Taylor as an ego-driven TV presenter, Plonk is a satirical behind-the-scenes look at the making of a fictional TV show about Australian wine inspired by Earl’s youth, growing up in the Hunter Valley.
“I always thought I’d make a wine show, but it’d be a very serious one,” Earl says. “And then it sort of occurred to me that a lot of serious wine shows don’t work very well because, unlike cooking shows, there’s no flames or action or knives.”
Earl’s career took him into television comedy, and since 2007 he has worked as a producer and director on shows such as The Checkout, The Chaser’s War on Everything and Hungry Beast. He has plenty of experience, but with so few broadcast slots available, he wondered how exactly to make his niche wine-making show a reality.
“I thought ‘I don’t really know how to make an engaging wine show, but I sure as hell know a lot about fast turnaround television and the perils and pitfalls that come with making programming like that’.”
So the series was developed as a satire on television production with vineyards as a backdrop and notable, real life winemakers as supporting characters.
“We learnt very early on not to instruct them to ‘act’,” Earl says of the winemakers. “We would meet with them, as you would in a documentary, well in advance. Then we would talk to them about their own stories and experiences and then go back and craft a storyline around them.”
The support of the Australian wine-making industry has been integral to getting the series up. Earl said they were immediately interested in the way that such a show could make winemaking seem less elitist.
“The vast majority of the people in the industry are extremely irreverent people with dark senses of humour,” Earl says. “They’re farmers and marketers and I think they were feeling frustrated that traditional wine marketing wasn’t speaking to the audience that they saw every day coming in to buy wine or going to Jazz in the Vines or A Day on the Green.”
The first season was released to YouTube in 2014 with Destination NSW as the major sponsor — the series was written first and foremost as a piece of entertainment, but it was also made as a valuable marketing asset for the tourism body, with gorgeous and romantic cinematography showing NSW’s wine regions. When time came around for a second series, Earl went chasing a variety of sponsors and looked at different distribution methods to reach a broader audience.
Screen Australia came on board as a major supporter, and the second season was moved to South Australia (South Australia Tourism Commission replaced Destination NSW) and picked up by Nine for its streaming service Stan and broadcast on Gem and the primary Nine channel in Adelaide.
“When we get a proposal from somebody to do a subsequent season of a show and they’ve already proven that it has a pretty decent and impressive audience, it makes the decision much easier,” says Mike Cowap, Screen Australia’s investment manager for multiplatform projects.
“The finance plan was really quite complex for a relatively low-budget show,” he says. “But it’s a very smart one and one that we don’t see the like of very much. There’s basically brand sponsorship in there — from SA Tourism and Wine Selectors — the South Australian Film Corporation and some money in there from Stan and Nine … I think we’ll see a lot more of these kinds of financial plans, particularly as branded entertainment continues to rise.”
The deal gave Nine and Stan a period of exclusivity but now the series is being released to YouTube, divided up from 12 to 15-minute episodes into six to nine-minute chunks for easy online consumption. The shorter videos are also considered to be more “shareable”, which means hopefully more viewers will discover the series.
Earl says that it was always going to be difficult to get the show up on the ABC despite his long association with the public broadcaster.
“I love the ABC and there’s great content and great people there, but it is a period where it’s becoming slightly more homogenised so it is more difficult to get programming made.”
That means many creators with a unique idea are having to look elsewhere if they want to create something new.
“There’s only so long you can make other people’s programs for them,” Earl says, “and if you’re a content creator in this country or a showrunner, it’s very hard — despite the fact that you’ve got a reasonably impressive resume — to break out of that pigeonhole.”
Earl hopes the series will continue to gain a following and take its place amongst critically-acclaimed shows like Please Like Me and Maximum Choppage.
“I think having Screen Australia come in as our primary funder this year perhaps sends a message to the TV industry tat large that this is a TV show to be considered alongside other great TV shows from the last year. Despite the fact that it has a slightly unorthodox distribution and funding model, it’s as editorially pure as any of the others.”

[box]The first of the webisode versions of Plonk Season 2 are available now on YouTube[/box]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *