Meet Nick Murray – the ‘Jigsaw’ in Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder

Executive Producer Nick Murray is the ‘Jigsaw’ piece of the puzzle in the Australian production company Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder (CJZ).

Nick Murray, Executive Producer and founder of Cordell, Jigsaw and Zapruder, Australia’s largest independently owned production company.

Along with producer and director Michael Cordell,  Murray founded Cordell Jigsaw in 2005, and they went on to establish themselves as producers of an eclectic mix of factual, entertainment, drama and comedy. They recently merged with Andrew Denton’s Zapruder’s Other Films, making CJZ Australia’s biggest independently owned production company.

Murray’s responsibilities as EP include overseeing one of the company’s most highly regarded and  popular shows – the international Rose d’Or-winning Go Back to Where You Came From (SBS).  Murray is also responsible for popular factual television series Bondi Rescue (Ten), the spectacular aerial documentary series Great Southern Land (ABC1) and  children’s sketch comedy series You’re Skitting Me (ABC3) – among other projects.

A former President of the Screen Producers Association (SPAA) and the foundation CEO of Australian cable network The Comedy Channel, Murray has more than 20 years of diverse experience within the Australian television industry.  He took some time out to answer our questions about the lay of the local television landscape, telling us why size matters, why Australian television needs to stop relying on international reality formats, and why we need to nurture more young teams of comedy talent. Oh, and he also tells us that he wishes he’d invented Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals! Read on to find out more.

AFI | AACTA: Can you tell us how you came to merge with Zapruders? What was the rationale behind it, and how is it working out so far?

Nick Murray: It’s working very well.  The creative teams are working seamlessly on the existing shows and new development.  The rationale is to help us to compete with the big foreign owned format dealers like Shine, Fremantle, Granada and Endemol.  To compete with format importers, we need lots of good ideas.  That’s what we do and what we’ve shown we can deliver.

AFI | AACTA: What are the particular advantages of being ‘Australia’s biggest independently owned production company’?

Nick Murray: Being a medium sized production company is difficult.  We have to have high overhead and permanent staff costs so that we are responsive and remain interesting to the networks.  This is a big financial risk.  To remain nimble, we need to offer continuous employment to our key creative people, so the theory is it’s better to be bigger rather than mid-sized.

Nick Murray is Executive Producer of GREAT SOUTHERN LAND (ABC) – a four-part documentary series offering a unique aerial view of Australia and its people. .

AFI | AACTA: As the ‘Jigsaw’ in the Cordell Jigsaw Zapruders puzzle, what are the particular strengths and experiences you, individually, bring to the mix?

Nick Murray: I am one of the few Australian producers who has worked in Network TV management, Indie production and run a cable TV network.  As a result, I have built teams that understand the whole market.  That has helped create and pitch new shows. I guess we have half a chance of predicting trends!

AFI | AACTA: What is it that you love about working in television production as opposed to film?

Nick Murray:  TV is more immediate and attracts a much bigger audience.  It is the only medium where the audience experiences it on the same night across the country.  This year, three of our shows – Dumb Drunk and Racist (ABC2), Go Back to Where You Came From (SBS) and Can Of Worms (Ten) – all use audience reaction to spread word of mouth or provoke debate.  I love that.

AFI | AACTA: In international terms does Australia have a strong local television industry? And what are some of the particular strengths and weaknesses you see in our industry?

Nick Murray: We’ve got a great local industry and Australian shows are performing well on TV.  The biggest weakness is a reliance on formats.  In the UK, both on the broadcast side and in production, they have nurtured a stronger industry because of risk taking and innovation.  There is no lasting benefit to the industry if a foreign owned company makes a really expensive foreign format for a network and the profits go offshore.  Australian drama production costs are also becoming a worry.  Our work practices result in costs that are no longer competitive when compared to international productions.

AFI | AACTA: Looking through the list of shows produced by your company, it’s clear you have an obvious strength in the area of making entertaining yet intelligent factual content. Are there any secrets to making shows such as Go Back to Where You Came From, Great Southern Land or Two Men in a Tinnie, which cover important social issues, but in an approachable way?

Nick Murray: The secret is great casting and cloaking the information contained in the show in an entertaining way.  With Go Back for instance, the quasi-reality elements make the audience comfortable watching a show about a potentially uncomfortable topic they would never normally seek out.

GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM, Series 1, SBS.

AFI | AACTA: Is there a factual format you wish you’d invented?

Nick Murray: Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals.  It has changed the way some people eat and you can shoot an episode in an hour.  Plus it’s got Jamie Oliver in it.  Brilliant!

AFI | AACTA: You must be very gratified by winning the two awards at the 2012 Rose d’Or Global Entertainment Television Festival – for both Best Factual, and Best overall program in any genre for the first series of Go Back to Where You Came From. Can you explain to those who aren’t fully aware of the Rose d’Or how these awards work, and what it means to you as a production company to win them?

Nick Murray: The Rose d’Or Awards are the only proper international TV awards.  It is the highest TV award in the world.  Other awards, such as the Emmys, do not pit US shows against international shows which have their own award.  That’s why it is such big news in Europe and the US.  It was great for SBS and it is a huge honor for us to win and has resulted in a big lift in our profile internationally.  It has brought the spotlight to shine on our other shows and new ideas.

AFI | AACTA: Your Rose d’Or win seemed to go under the radar with the Australian media. Do you have any ideas why?

Nick Murray: I can’t work out why it doesn’t get recognised here.  All I know is that judging by the story placement, many industry publications and funding agency newsletters thought it was more important that some short animation was nominated for an obscure award in the Ukraine, than us getting the Rose d’Or for a major piece of Australian TV.

AFI | AACTA: As you will be aware, this year the AACTA Awards have introduced a new award for Best Reality Television Series. What qualities would you like to see this AACTA Award celebrate?

Nick Murray: It’s got to look at the underlying idea, the casting and the execution.  I’d like to see some new unique ideas in there rather than formats.  If it’s a format award, then it’s an award for the best copy.  I’m not sure that’s what the AACTA awards are about.

AFI | AACTA: The second series of Go Back to Where You Came From was a definite ratings and social media win. Were there any special advertising, PR or social media avenues used to create awareness and encourage people to tune in to the broadcast and engage with it interactively?

Nick Murray: Go Back is SBS’s biggest show of the year.  So they supported it with extensive online and traditional marketing.  Our own team did some terrific work in the social media space.  Through our YouTube partnership, we got the jump on clips and promos online which SBS was able to use too.  But the best work comes in the educational space.  SBS’s outreach unit created a wonderful schools kit and this helps the series live on in classrooms for the whole year.

AFI | AACTA: You have a background as foundation CEO of the Comedy Channel. Any opinions about the current state of Australian television comedy? Is there anything you’d like to see more of? 

Nick Murray: The missing link at the moment for me is comedy teams. We make a wonderful low budget sketch series for teens for ABC3 – You’re Skitting Me.  It’s great working with young comedy performers.  But there’s not much else. The industry has to remember that comedy teams over the years like The Comedy Company, Fast Forward, The D Gen were hugely popular and spawned industry heavyweights like Eric Bana, Gina Riley, Jane Turner, Magda Szubanski, Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Glenn Robbins and Shaun Micallef (and others).  More recent shows shows like Ronnie Johns and The Big Bite brought Hamish Blake, Andy Lee and Heath Franklin into the public eye.  Over the years comedy shows have done more for the industry than any other form of entertainment.  But the form is ignored by networks and funding agencies alike.  That’s short sighted.

‘The missing link at the moment is comedy teams,’ says Nick Murray. Pictured: the cast of young comic performers from kid’s comedy series YOU’RE SKITTING ME (ABC3).

AFI | AACTA: Do you have any advice for young players? Any common mistakes to avoid?

Nick Murray: Young players need to remember that we are in the entertainment INDUSTRY.  That implies that it should be profitable.  Don’t do things for nothing.  Certainly don’t do things for less than award rates.  You need to make a profit to run a successful company.  If you aren’t making a profit, you can’t develop new shows.  So you may as well get a job instead of taking the risks of producing yourself.

AFI | AACTA: Thanks for your time, Nick.

Links and Further Reading

  • Visit Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder to find out more about their current slate of programs.
  • Read Mumbrella account of the merger between Cordell Jigsaw and Zapruder’s Other Films.
  • Series 2 of Go Back to Where You Came From attracted over 1 million viewers nationally on its first night to become the no.1 rating show for SBS with a Metro average audience of 767,000 viewers. Related hashtags such as #gobacksbs had 8 of the top 10 trending topics in Australia and 5 worldwide making it one of the most successful Australian programs of 2012, with over 22,000 twitter mentions in 24hours.
  • Series 1 of Go Back to Where You Came From won the 2012 Golden Rose (Rose d’Or) – Best of Rose d’Or; the 2012Rose d’Or for Best Factual Entertainment; the 2012 Logie for Most Outstanding Factual Programme; the 2012 UN Peace Media Award for Best Promoter of Multicultural Issues; the 2012 UN Peace Media Award for Best Documentary; the 2012 Australian Directors Guild Award for Best Direction in a Documentary Series; the 2012 Banff World Media Festival – Best Social and Humanitarian Documentary; and the 2011 SPAA Independent Producer Award for best documentary.
  • You’re Skitting Me is sketch comedy made for kids for ABC3, starring all-new Australian talent. Performed by teenagers, the sketches introduce characters such as the Tattiana the Sailor Girl, Voldemort, Internet Speak Girl, Mario and Luigi, Cavemen, Vikings, Naughty Girl Guides, Bear Cub, the Hipsters, Uncle Vijay, Inappropriate Joe, Australia’s Next Big Talent judges, parodies of Twilight and the accident-prone Helmet Boy.

Why I Adore… Reality Television

By Emma Ashton | 

Reality television has always been the unruly child amongst television genres – passionately loved by some, but barely tolerated by others, many of whom hoped and predicted that viewers would move on and it would eventually die out and never be heard of again.

Much to the chagrin of many, this naughty (and rumoured to be illegitimate) child, through sheer force of personality, continues to demand attention.

In the past decade, reality television shows have dominated ratings, created many stars, unearthed hidden talents, reinvigorated flagging careers, and provided much media chatter – both of the superficial and the deeply intellectual and sociological kinds. In fact, there’s no ignoring reality shows in any discussion of contemporary television programming.

In the beginning…

The beginning of the 2000s was the start of reality TV as we now know it. In Australia the networks bought up overseas formats like Big Brother, Survivor, The Mole, Dancing With The Stars, and Idol, producing local versions and variations.

The first big hit was the first series of Big Brother Australia, broadcast on Network Ten in 2001. This was the Australian version of the Endemol format, which originated in the Netherlands and now has franchises all over the world which follow the basic format: a diverse group of (usually) young people are confined in a house, with their interactions monitored like lab rats, and regular evictions eliminating all but the winner from the house.

The first Australian series captured the imagination of audiences (which averaged 1.4 million in the three-month period of series 1) and continued on yearly until the three-year hiatus after the low-rating 2008 series. (Big Brother has recently been revived for a ninth series, currently screening on the Nine Network.)

The first season of AUSTRALIAN SURVIVOR aired on the Nine Network in 2002.

In the early days, an important part of the voyeuristic pleasure of Big Brother was the ability to watch the action live on the new-fangled invention, the internet. Viewers could then interact with the show by voting to eliminate contestants through SMS, and also by talking about it online in fan forums.

The rise of reality TV thus coincided with the rise of social media, which enticed viewers to watch shows live in order to discuss them in real time. This was something the critics and naysayers had not counted on: the explosion of social media and the perfect way it married with reality television programs.

After Big Brother, other international reality formats quickly found their way onto our screens, including the first series of Australian Survivor (Nine Network, 2002), Australian Idol (Network Ten, 2003), Dancing with the Stars (Channel 7, 2004), Australia’s Next Top Model (Fox 8, 2005) and many others.

The Masterchef phenomenon

It was Masterchef Australia which finally forced the industry and the critical viewer to give the reality genre some respect. The first series of this show hit our screens in April 2009 (Network Ten) as a replacement for the dead Big Brother, and it showed that a cooking show could pull in huge viewing numbers night after night. Ratings averaged more than 3 million viewers a night, peaking at 4.11 million in the final episode.

Julie Goodwin and Poh Ling Yeow – winner and runner-up for MASTERCHEF Series 1, 2009.

Other networks were desperate to find a reality show that would get people tuning in. Channel Nine achieved this with The Block (revived with great success in 2010) and most recently The Voice (2012); as has Seven with My Kitchen Rules (first season 2010) and The X Factor (first season 2005, revived in 2010). In fact, it should be acknowledged that Seven persisted with those latter two shows despite slow first seasons, eventually turning them into mega hits.

In 2009, viewers who had previously hidden their love of reality TV, along with new viewers who’d just discovered it, were suddenly talking about Masterchef, passionately involved in whether their favourite contestants would win or be eliminated. The success of this program showed that reality TV was not going away, but instead was a force to be reckoned with. Viewers who had finally crossed to the “dark side” were now willing to test the water with other shows in the reality genre.

Indigenous? Muslim? Middle-Aged or Mumsy? Please apply

Personally, what I love about reality TV is its diversity of casting. For the first time in primetime history, there were people from different backgrounds, ages, sizes and sexuality on our television screens, and look at how we have embraced them! It could be argued that this has paved the way for more risks to be taken in casting within drama series, other television formats, and even feature films.

Winner of BIG BROTHER, Series 4, the Fijian-born Trevor Butler and runner-up Bree Amer, 2004.

Who can forget Trevor Butler, of Fijian background, winning one million dollars on Big Brother 2004 and going on to have a media career? Or Casey Donovan, who won the reality singing show Australian Idol 2004 at the age of 16, voted for by viewers who did not care about her Aboriginal ancestry or her size? The hugely talented Indigenous singer Jessica Mauboy also obtained her start on Australian Idol, where she was runner-up in the 2006 series. Without this start, it’s possible she’d never have been discovered, and we wouldn’t be enjoying her talents in feature films like Bran Nue Dae and most recently, The Sapphires.

Journalist, television host and radio broadcaster Chrissie Swan may never have had a media career without the kick start she got from appearing as runner-up in the 2003 series of Big Brother.  Nine years on, she still battles criticisms for her weight, her parenting and her refreshing candor, but she forces the industry to treat her with respect because of her popularity with audiences, a popularity which culminated in her winning the Most Popular New Female Talent Logie Award in 2011.

Jessica Mauboy, runner-up in the 2006 series of AUSTRALIAN IDOL and now gracing cinema screens in THE SAPPHIRES.

Amina Elshafei, who was open about her Muslim religion on the 2012 series of Masterchef Australia, was loved by the audience. She showed that a Muslim girl, wearing a hijab and avoiding pork, can be sassy, talented and ‘Australian’. As did Mo and Mos (Mohammed El-leissy and Mostafa Haroun) who were the extremely funny bumbling team on the first season of The Amazing Race Australia. Australian born Muslims of Egyptian background, these two friends were one of the reasons the 2011 show was such fun to watch.

Reality singing TV shows were initially considered an illegitimate way for a person to enter the industry as they had not done the “hard yards” in the music circuit. However shows like Idol, The X Factor and The Voice gave talented singers the opportunity to showcase their skills when previously they may not have had the right ‘look’ or the necessary connections to get ahead in the industry.

Without Australian Idol, would record executives ever have considered signing up 2003 winner Guy Sebastian? A Sri Lankan/Malay boy with an afro, who was not shy about talking about his belief in God or the fact that he was a virgin, he was not exactly made in the traditional pop star mould, yet he continues with chart success and as a judge on The X Factor.

Winner of the 2012 series of The Voice, Karise Eden has a big, gravelly voice and a troubled background, growing up in foster care with low self esteem. It’s highly unlikely that she’d ever have succeeded in getting a demo tape onto a recording executive’s desk without The Voice. And fellow contestant Darren Percival’s demo tape would have been stamped “too old” and “been gigging too long”. Through The Voice, however, he was able to reach his audience – the mums at home who don’t have the time, money or energy to get out to live shows.

The award-winning hit, GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM, Series 1, SBS1.

Go Back To Where You Came From (SBS, 2011) brought the genre respect by highlighting the important and contentious issue of refugees. The program used the tricks and conventions of reality TV productions, placing the cast of six ‘ordinary’ Australians outside their comfort zone and pushing them to their emotional limits. The three-part series took its Australian participants on a confronting 25 day journey which saw them challenge their preconceptions about refugees and asylum seekers. The resulting show, along with its discussion forum and social media frenzy, increased viewers’ understanding of global issues, increasing our empathy for the plight of dispossessed people. The series garnered a number of awards, including the coveted Golden Rose for Best of 2012 at the Rose d’Or Awards ceremony in Switzerland, the TV Week Logie Award in 2012 for Most Outstanding Factual, and two awards at the 2011 United Nations Association of Australian Media Peace Awards for best television documentary and for its promotion of multicultural issues.

Now with the second series of Go Back to Where You Came From (currently broadcast on SBS1), the same production team have created a celebrity version of the show, with participants including former hardline Liberal politician Peter Reith and former ‘shock jock’ Michael Smith. This is attracting similar accolades from the press and audiences.

In a society where education, race, gender and socio-economic background strongly determine opportunities, reality TV has surprisingly allowed these barriers to be challenged and crossed, changing our cultural perceptions and norms in the process. This can only be a good thing.

Connection, emotion and fantasy – why reality works for me

Another aspect of the reality genre which I love is watching people receive the opportunity to transform their lives. It may just be with the big cash prize, but also in other ways.

Would winner of Masterchef Australia season one, Julie Goodwin, a middle-aged stay-at-home mum, ever have dreamt her life would change so much when she auditioned for the show? Anyone bored with the humdrum of their everyday life would cheer her on for jagging a Woman’s Weekly column or her television cooking show. It is not just the winners, however, who change their lives. The vast majority of the Masterchef contestants have changed their lives as a result of being on the show.

South Australian winners of MY KITCHEN RULES, Leigh Sexton (left) and Jennifer Evans – who was initially seen as a ‘villain’.

What really draws love, however, is being able to emotionally connect with the contestants. Like modern day Vaudeville, these shows cause us to fall in love with some, and fervently dislike others. In fact, some contestants are set up to be villains, and this need not be seen as a  negative, as the savvy reality TV contestant realises this role will get them more air time and a higher media profile. In fact, the villain can even transform into the hero. For example, this year’s My Kitchen Rules winner, Jen (Jennifer Evans), started off being quite disliked for her forthright views, however she forced the audience to treat her with respect, due to her superior cooking skills and her entertainment value.

I also love the fact that I can be personally involved in reality television shows through voting and social media interactions. Yes, we viewers are sometimes manipulated by the editing, but it feels good to be supporting the people we like.

Another aspect I enjoy is the sheer quantity of fresh faces that appear on our screens with each new show. As each new series starts, I can’t help but  wonder who will be the star, who will have the talent? Which contestant will I hate, and which ones will  make me laugh?

Hosts with the most – to gain

I also love seeing the fresh (or re-freshed) faces of the cast of judges and hosts who front these shows. At one point it may have been considered a career dead-end – though faded 80s rock stars must have been grateful for the boost to their retirement funds. Now, however, these are prized jobs. Media identities know that if they can appear on a top rating reality show, they may just reinvigorate careers, find whole new fan bases, sell merchandise and showcase another side of themselves.

Revived careers – the judges for THE VOICE AUSTRALIA, Season 1: Joel Madden, Keith Urban, Delta Goodrem & Seal. 2012

It was no coincidence that most of the coaches on The Voice had singles, marketing campaigns and ticket sales commencing at the time the show was broadcast. Delta Goodrem had not had a hit for five years and now she’s everywhere. Within Australia, Keith Urban was considered a niche talent, more famous for his movie star wife, Nicole Kidman, than for his own talents. But with The Voice he cemented his identity as a likeable and approachable talent within the mainstream.

Deserving Respect – a new Award for reality TV

One of the chief criticisms leveled at the genre has been that it steals jobs away from real actors and from creative talents involved in scripted drama, as well as leaching resources from hard news and traditional documentary formats. These are probably issues for someone other than a rabid reality fan to answer!

However, it must be acknowledged that the popularity of reality productions (many of which are more popular here in Australia than their international counterparts) has meant that they are a huge employer within the local industry and a training ground for many new talents both behind and in front of the camera. Live television events, such as those orchestrated by reality television shows, seem to be the future of free to air television, and one of the few formats resistant to time-shifting, illegal downloading and audience fragmentation.

The reality TV genre is broad and continually evolving. Reality television shows have given Australian viewers many of the iconic television moments of the last ten years, and it’s clear now that this genre will continue to thrive in the competitive television landscape.

As an obsessive fan and prolific commentator on reality television, I must say that I’m thrilled to see this much-maligned form of entertainment – which is such an important aspect of the yearly television schedule – now being acknowledged with its own Award by the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA). The people involved in producing, commissioning and working on reality television shows certainly deserve to have an award that recognises excellence within their genre, thus giving legitimacy and acknowledging excellence within these formats.

I’m eagerly looking forward to November, when we’ll find out which shows have been nominated for the AACTA Award for Best Reality Television Show. Bring it on!

About the author:

Emma Ashton is Editor/Publisher of Reality Ravings (www.realityravings.com). You can also follow her on Twitter @RealityRavings where she’s sure to be tuning in live and tweeting about the latest reality offerings on Australian television.