"We just got it": The story behind South Park and SBS

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Now, in 2016, the success of South Park seems like something of an inevitability.

It’s witty, it’s edgy, it’s irreverent, it’s intelligent and it’s often controversial. Yet back in the late-Nineties, the groundbreaking series was anything but a sure thing.

In fact, most networks didn’t want to touch it – especially in Australia.

“Comedy Central couldn’t get meetings with Ten, with Seven, nobody would return their calls,” recalls Mark Atkin, who initially bought South Park for SBS back in 1998.

“It’s not like a lot of people were putting their hands up.”

South Park was breakthrough piece of programming for SBS at the time, opening up the Australian  audience to a type of humour they had never experienced before and giving a younger audience their first entry point.

“SBS was focusing on buying in programming for all these different communities – Vietnamese language programming, Greek language programming,” says Atkin.

“And then there was a marked shift in strategy that rather than screen programs for each individual community we should try to celebrate diversity and help everybody understand each other. So that was a big shift.

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“We’d been looking into a lot of adult animation anyway; Japanese anime was very big at the time.

“And when I saw South Park… we just got it.”

Debuting in 1998, Atkin says it was a “moderate success” at first – “enough for us to buy the second season anyway” – yet halfway through the run South Park “exploded” on a global scale.

“Everybody was talking about it and all these people who had never watched SBS before started tuning in, and through that finding out what else was on the network.”

Males between 18 – 24 proved to be the biggest fans of the show, but goin’ on down to South Park also became a wildly popular pastime for women and men under 40.

It proved to a gift in terms of expanding the SBS audience, with viewers coming to watch the creation of Matt Stone and Trey Parker and staying to try something else.

“A couple of years in, we found that about 60 per cent of people who’d come in to South Park had tried at least one other program, which was encouraging to see,” says Mike Field in The SBS Story: The Challenge Of Diversity.

Yet the show was always going to have its critics and Atkin says there were many meetings about how they were going to manage the wrath of angry letters.

“Of course they came in, but nothing ever stuck so we were able to keep going.

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“There wasn’t actually a lot of opposition, though we did have a lot of discussions about how we were going to handle the complaints.

“After that when all the other networks started knocking and they could have sold the program on to someone else, probably for more money, they decided to stick with SBS because we’d worked with them when nobody else would take their calls.”

Now with 19 seasons in the pipeline, a movie and wealth or merchandise, South Park has come a long way from the potentially risky piece of programming it once was.

And its creators too have gone on to big things, with Stone and Parker behind the equally cutting Team America: World Police and Broadway hit The Book Of Mormon.

For Atkin, he says it’s no surprise the series has had legs.

“South Park was always so great at accurately pinpointing the things in our society that need to be taken down, and punching up.

“I always said, after South Park, the next big thing would be geniality.”

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