What Iff…

What Iff…

The son of a butcher from suburban Sydney, SBS director of TV and online content, Tony Iffland, knows first hand about creating opportunity with modest means, as Madeleine Ross discovers

B&T Magazine
Posted by B&T Magazine

On Tony Iffland's business card he describes himself as "just a dad who loves tele". It's a characteristically self-effacing classification which might fool you into thinking he was a man after the heart of Homer Simpson or Family Guy's Peter Griffin, but that couldn't be further from the truth. 

A family guy, yes. He also shares Griffin's penchant for comedy, although perhaps is less often the subject of it. But there the likeness ends. 

Iffland is a hard-worker from suburban Sydney who, after more than 30 years in broadcasting, continues to exude genuine wonder for the industry which turns most executives into brash cynics. 

"I pinch myself most days that I work in media, that I do what I do," says Iffland, one of six children and the first of his siblings to attend university. "I don't take anything for granted. I'm the son of a butcher. Dad left school at 13."

Iffland joined SBS almost a year ago, after 30 years at the BBC. While both are public broadcasters, he notes working for the BBC was "much more commercial" than SBS, with its mandate to celebrate diversity. Nevertheless, the energy at his new Artarmon office is palpable.

"The pace is similar," he says. "SBS is not a cozy little public broadcaster. It's got lots of momentum."

Much of that recent momentum has been around the relaunch of SBS2 in which Iffland was instrumental. Up until a month ago, SBS2 was best described as a 'deep dive of SBS1'.  "It was skewed to a much older audience and it wasn't bringing any new audience to the SBS family," says Iffland. "We need to re-engage with younger Australians – we're talking about the 20 to 30 somethings."

It's early days for the new SBS2. On the night of the relaunch it brought in a modest 0.7% share of audience. But with new content, a commitment to social media and viewing propositions, Iffland is optimistic. Viewers can now watch entire series, consecutive episodes of their favourite shows, on demand after the first episodes go to air, similar to the BBC iPlayer which Iffland launched in Australia 19 months ago.

"I said to Mike [MD Michael Ebeid] when I joined SBS that I had a public broadcaster heartbeat but a commercial head. I get public broadcasting, but I'm also a commercial animal."

You may be inclined to think the move would draw viewers away from free to air (which is of course, where the big bucks are made). But Iffland believes catering to audience desires, whatever the touchpoints, will pay off in the end.

"It's counter intuitive to an old programmer like me, but all the research I've seen around the world is that this is additive viewing. If you can create a brand about the show and a buzz about the show then that rising tide lifts all boats," he says.  

"We're talking to our audience a lot about what they want and the message is 'when we love something we don't want to wait for you, Mr Programmer, to put it on next week'.

Comedy is another focus, both on SBS1 and SBS2, with new series of Bullet in the Face, Housos, Legally Brown and Danger Five either on air or in development. Notorious in the world of television as the most difficult genre to produce and sell, Iffland believes humour is not only key to luring younger audiences, it's also an authentic way to promote cross-cultural harmony. 

"Comedy brings communities together," he says. "If you can laugh with someone, if you can share their humour, that goes a long way towards what SBS is about – promoting understanding and acceptance."

SBS continues to pull around 3% to 6% of nightly audiences, struggling most on Monday nights. Increasing the network's reach is a priority and, with a brain bridging creativity and commerce, Iffland's confident he'll make inroads.

"I said to Mike [MD Michael Ebeid] when I joined SBS that I had a public broadcaster heartbeat but a commercial head. I get public broadcasting, but I'm also a commercial animal. I also understand how you can commercialise content without compromising the public broadcaster aspect of it," he says. 

As competition for audiences increases with digital giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Hulu and Netflix beginning to commission and create their own series, commercial acumen is exactly what traditional TV networks will need in their talent pools moving forward. 

But Iffland doesn't see the traditional TV landscape changing too radically in the next decade. "All competition for people's time is competition, but a linear TV channel is still the biggest aggregator of audiences," he says. 

Since joining SBS he's pulled down partitions and sits amongst his employees on an open plan floor. "I'm not interested in show ponies," he says. "I'm very collaborative and always look for people who are going to be collaborative, who want to grow businesses, who want to share and celebrate success and who'll put their heads down and make things happen as part of a team."

With that work ethic, the only way is up. 

This profile was originally published in the April 26 issue of B&T Magazine