Session Report on Broadcasting Panel

This session report is provided by Jennifer McLaren.

Some key words which emerged during the session were collaborationopinionatedcomplexinnovative, entertaining.

The opening session of Presenting the Past set the tone for the first day of the symposium—practical, challenging and optimistic. The broadcasting panelists dispensed pragmatic advice to historians seeking to understand the documentary-making process, and also set some challenges for historians to consider. Some key words which emerged during the session were collaboration, opinionated, complex, innovative, entertaining. The Panel featured representatives from the government’s public funding body Screen Australia, and Australia’s two public broadcasters, SBS and the ABC (screen and radio).

Mary Ellen Mullane, Investment Development Manager at Screen Australia, provided what she described as a ‘field guide’ to making history documentaries in Australia—beginning with where the money comes from. Throughout her presentation and during the panel discussion, Mullane emphasized the collaborative nature of documentary production and the complexity of funding these often long-term projects. She explained SA’s role in operating a series of documentary funding programs—including national, international and development funds—and how SA works with producers. A key aspect of a producer’s role is to co-ordinate funding from SA as well as a number of other parties. These alternative sources of funding might include television broadcasters and online platforms, philanthropic grants, research institutions or other cultural agencies such as museums or libraries.

This collaborative aspect which commences at the funding stage, is a feature of documentary making, and was one of Mullane’s ‘take homes’ for historians interested in learning about how documentaries come together. The team effort involved in making a documentary was raised in most discussions on the Broadcasting Panel.

Mullane also emphasized that documentary making is a lengthy process, using the example of Croker Island Exodus, a documentary which was ten years in the making:

Mullane concluded by noting that the Who, What, How and Why are all equally important in pitching a documentary project. Broadcasters, financiers and producers need to understand the documentary’s story, but just as crucial the questions of how the story will be conveyed, why it should be told, who’s in the team, and why the story should be told now.

Joseph Maxwell, Commissioning Editor (Documentaries) at SBS followed Mullane. He explained that only 10% of SBS’ factual suite is commissioned content, but that these programs rate twice as well as the remaining 90% of content which is acquired. The 10% is commissioned specifically to bring an Australian voice onto SBS programming—in accordance with the SBS charter.

SBS commissions documentaries which will attract attention, provoke debate and push boundaries. Historians should be pleased to hear that Maxwell would “love to have more opinionated historians to front documentaries” and that SBS is not afraid of thesis-led documentaries.

Maxwell showed a clip from Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta (, which was an enormously successful documentary series for SBS. He explained that in its history programming, SBS seeks fault-lines, issues that will create noise, particularly those which intersect with multiculturalism in the way that Cabramatta did. The series drew deliberately on sensationalism (guns, crime, gangs…) to attract an audience, but then used these flashpoints to explore themes such as racism and the new migrant experience, which are core to SBS.

The Cabramatta series also illustrated Joseph’s other message, which was  that the form the documentary will take is a crucial conversation, one which should take place at the outset of discussions about a new commission. A great story means little without the right form. Maxwell showed a clip from Who Do You Think You Are?  ( to emphasize the importance of thinking about how form can be used to tell a story.  The very personal and emotive nature of the stories in WDYTYA provide a connection with the audience, and a way into explaining often complex historical content.

Phil Craig, Head of Factual at the ABC also raised the importance of  innovation in documentary form. In commissioning for the ABC, he looks for history that works in prime time, that people want to watch, rather than feel they should watch—history that isn’t homework. Entertainment is important, so history which engages the audience emotionally as well as intellectually will rate well. Craig noted that the History Channel has conducted studies which demonstrate that as soon as black and white footage appears in a documentary, people switch off, and as soon an historian/expert appears on screen, people also switch off. An American documentary series The Story of Us was made with the specific brief that the program contain no archival footage, no black and white shots, and no experts!

Craig made this point not to undermine the position (and confidence!) of historians, rather to demonstrate that there are many different approaches to making history for TV, and the importance of thinking about who the audience is, and how best to reach them.

Craig showed a clip from Desert War (, a drama-led documentary which attracted a younger and larger audience for the ABC than is usual for military history. The form played a crucial role in the program’s success—weaving together realistic dramatization and powerful, emotive narration from veterans. Another successful and award-winning ABC program, the recent First Footprints used experts on screen, and was on a traditionally difficult subject (Australia 10,000 years ago), but the form the documentary took made the subject accessible.

Craig finished on the point that no matter how entertaining, you can’t retro-fit purpose, that is, the documentary needs to start with a strong story to convey.

Michelle Rayner, Executive Producer for Hindsight, on the ABC’s Radio National highlighted radio’s recent renaissance with the advent of the podcast, which has changed how people approach audio.  In comparison with history on screen, Rayner explained that an historian who wants to successfully bring a story to radio needs to be prepared with some complex and nuanced skills. She described the radio documentary-process as “artisinal” as it requires the historian to be much more hands-on, guiding the project through the writing, production and creative stages personally. Rayner’s team will work with the proposer through the project, and will bring a supervising director and sound engineer on board, but generally, the remainder is up to the historian. In this respect radio is very different from screen as there is less collaboration from start to finish.

The most successful history programs on radio start with an engaging, provocative story, which offers something different. The story also needs to be strongly argued; according to Rayner the mistake historians often make is to produce an illustrated essay on radio, which does not make for great programming! The difficult thing for historians can be compromising on some elements of their argument—not every point in an argument can be brought into the program, so some points need to be elided to create a better story arc for the listener.


Where to start? Where does an historian take their great, entertaining, thesis-led idea?

SBS and the ABC recommended either sending a couple of paragraphs of their idea to them, or even better, talking to a production company to. SA will only deal with producers, so the historian needs to team up with someone early on in the process. Radio National will take the great idea “with open arms” and will deal with the historian rather than a production company.

How do broadcasters imagine their audience for history programs?

The ABC is attracted by ideas which will grab the broad audience. SBS knows they attract a bigger audience with Australian commissions. They are mindful of retaining their core 55+ audience, but are always looking for programming which will draw in a broader audience too. Radio National is “very exercised” by the age of their audience, which is generally 35+, but  podcasting is changing that.

At what stage is the form the documentary discussed?

It should form part of the first email or initial pitch, which is why talking to a production company before approaching the broadcasters is helpful, as they are expert at thinking about form.

Is there any truth in the statement that history programming is only for the 55+ male audience? how seriously do the broadcasters and SA take the notion of the point of view of women in programming?

Craig said there is a general perception that men like military history, women like family stories, but that seems to be changing. Clare Wright commented that at the outset, she and her production team had to work hard to convince the ABC that Utopia Girls was not a story about women, rather that it was “a great Australian story.”

How ratings-driven is history programming? The ABC and SBS responded that ratings are important, hence the need to entertain, but neither broadcaster believes they ‘sell out’ to ratings. Carig said that ABC does not just commission on ratings; they consider a range of criteria when assessing whether a program has been successful, a key question being whether the program started a conversation. An aim the ABC shares with SBS in Australia.



1 thought on “Session Report on Broadcasting Panel

  1. Pingback: Let’s find out if historians can talk! | Jennifer McLaren

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