Australian content under attack? It’s not quite the full picture.

This week Screen Australia claimed Australian content was being smothered by international product.

Overseas content has gone up 154% since 2008 while Aussie content has shrunk from 52 per cent of total hours in 2008, to 38 per cent in the first six months of 2011.

Their Press Release was picked up by a number of print media and radio.

As a result, the perception was that Australian content is suffocating to death, when it fact production is buoyant.

The overall proportion has shrunk only because we have multichannels that are full of US and UK shows. So the slice of pie hasn’t really shrunk, it’s just that the pie itself got a lot bigger.

Earlier this month ACMA issued data that showed Seven, Nine and TEN all exceeded the minimum requirements for Australian content in 2010 as well as the minimum local drama required on their primary channels.

The last Drama Production report by Screen Australia (for 2009-10) showed that the total hours of produced television was 564 hours of TV, down from 646 hrs in 2008-09. But it also found that expenditure for Australian TV drama for adults increased.

FreeTV Australia, which represents Seven, Nine and TEN predictably hit back at the claims. But they had some valid points.

In a statement it said: “Its methodology is misleading at best. Its suggestion that you simply multiply the broadcast hours by the number of digital channels and then say the Australian voice is “watered down” is missing the point.

Every year commercial television broadcasters produce over 500 hours of original Australian drama and invest over $950 million a year in original Australian programming including not only drama, but children’s programs, documentaries, sport, news and current affairs. The advent of the multi channels has not changed this.”

At the heart of Screen Australia’s argument is that multichannels have no local content quotas. TEN knows all about that problem, currently screening Neighbours on ELEVEN for 0 Drama points. Presumably it thought the government would have allocated these by now, but it hasn’t…

There are still defensible reasons why Drama points are allocated to first run drama in primetime on primary channels. If they are suddenly equitable across all channels, there is a risk that low rating dramas, or cheaply-made dramas, will be shoved off to multichannels and replaced by even more international content. The current model ensures that networks  aim for quality local drama in order to rate and deliver eyeballs to advertisers.

True, by the end of 2013 it will be a different playing field, which is what the Convergence Review is considering in part.

Senator Conroy has previously said there are no current plans to add quotas on multichannels. But when it is introduced it should be in such a way, as the Screen Producers Association of Australia has proposed, of encouraging emerging drama producers. Points could be tied to production spend, not to hours. This could prevent networks making cheap drama simply to top up their points.

There is much to consider.

Australian stories told by Australian voices (preferably over New Zealand voices) are still the ultimate target.

But let’s not blur the argument by suggesting networks have dropped the ball on Australian production.

Downton Abbey notwithstanding, everybody knows that MasterChef, The Block, Packed to the Rafters, Underbelly, Paper Giants, The Gruen Transfer are all performing better than shows like Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, Desperate Housewives, and Hawaii Five-0.

15 Comments:

  1. The facts are that other than Seven Network the commercial free to airs are commissioning the bare minimum of Australian drama. Network Ten relied on 39 hours of New Zealand drama (subsidised by New Zealand governments TV ON Air) to get its minimum quota points and ran it late in “prime time” or in the summer out of ratings. The commercial networks were given for nothing the digital spectrum which has created its digital channels and the Federal government gave them a 50% discount on its licence fees. There was no attempt by government to enforce some increase in Australian drama and documentary production as a quid pro quo. Further the creation of the Producer Offset for drama and documentary which amounts to an extra 17-18% of a production’s budget means the broadcaster has not needed to increase the licence fee for the production as part of general increases. And Screen Australia has subsidised a raft of 13 part dramas including Underbelly, Sea Patrol, Rush, Rescue Special Ops to name a few. The only conclusion one can draw from these examples is that commercial television receives a raft of subsidy in a market which has by virtue of the issuing of spectrum licences by government, no opportunity for new entrants. These are the realities that free to air television’s spin doctors and lobbyists don’t want you to engage as they camp outside the doors of the Communication’s Minister.

  2. I’m with FreeTV on this one. These extra channels have only just started & Screen Australia wants to impose even greater costs on the networks? Just leave them alone for a while & then maybe we can revisit this issue once costs have been bedded down.

  3. @ Jezza Which “someone” do you mean? A poor old inipendent producer can’t just speculatively deliver a whole new model of production – it still takes a lot of money. Drama and comedy commissioners hold all the cards – they need to be bold and brave and innovative. Problem with that however is that these people are not rewarded with job security for taking a risk, they a rewarded with job security for playing it safe. There’s no innovation at network level either financially or creatively. Most of them have been keeping their seats warm literally for years. They are all very afraid of rejoining the production sector once they’ve seen it from inside a network – it’s way too hard! So there they sit not doing anything different.

  4. Someone with a bit of bold imagination needs to look at ways of producing low cost local content, that can start on the digi channels, gain a cult following and go mainstream.

    Case in point UK series The Inbetweeners…look it up… Started on uk digi channel E4 which is an offshoot of commercial Channel 4. A total of 3 series starting with low numbers for S1 before S2&3 took off like a rocket, to be followed by a hugely successful feature film. There is no point our industry following the US model, we are just not big enough, we are far better off following a hybrid version of the UK model and look to exports to boost $$$$$ cashflow….

  5. I’d love to see a further break down of those figures. (Even though i know it’s probably not possible).
    What percentage of those total hours of local production is now reality TV shows such as MasterChef, X Factor and all those other rubbish shows? And then what percentage is drama/comedy shows such as Rafters, Winners etc. Them compare those figures with say 20 years ago. I’m betting I already know the answer …
    It’s obvious why … drama shows as more expensive to make. there’s no actors, script writers, etc to pay and hardly any sets to make and the like.

  6. @ David Knox good point about All Saints – all of those 40 weeklong runners have disappeared and will not be replaced. The 564 hours 2009-2010 also includes 100 hours each for Neighbours and Home and Away, another 80-100 from Seven’s in-house drama machine – leaving the real story – barely 250 hours of new Australian being commissioned between FTA and subscription TV. 3/4 of those hours in any year is usually made up of returning commissions from the main suppliers such as Southern Star or Screentime – Offspring, Rush, Underbelly etc. That means the rest of the independent production community is competing for very rare new drama commissions – which is why the independent sector is really struggling. That is also why the ABC has an obligation to take risks with indies, and not commission 22hrs of Crownies – 13hrs would have been more than enough. If it works, commission more, if it doesn’t how about giving someone else with a great idea that scarce commission?

  7. Dont you love stats? You can bend them, twist them, poke them, inflate them, exagerate them, you can do anything with them. I know someone who told me that 99% of stats are false…..think his name was Homer Simpson…..

  8. Well Australian-made television (except for reality shows such as the Block) is awful. I don’t like American shows but British TV is top quality. Shows such as Doctor Who, Spooks, Downton Abbey, Sherlock.. I’d much prefer to watch them than the rubbish Australian TV puts out.

  9. Have a look at any TV program guide from the 80’s and you’ll see Australian dramas back to back from 7pm all the way to 9.30/10.30pm all year round. Now you’ll be lucky to get a single drama per channel in any given week lasting only a few months before it’s gone and not an Australian sitcom in sight. Australian television has really become a joke.

  10. An 80 hour reduction in drama hours down to 564 is a significant percentage drop – around 12% . That is alarming for both SPAA and the TV drama producing sector in general. I really urge the government to increase the producer offset to 40% for TV and remove Screen Australia out of the TV drama equation – they’re funds are too stretched anyway. Help the industry commission the hours it clearly wants by giving producers the kind of support they really need – the funds to make the shows.

  11. I don’t think any f the commercial channels can actually afford to keep the quality up across every night of the week across the year. They need to bring in cheapo ‘filler’ shows to plug the gaps. There are only a very few ‘must view’ programmes each week, the rest is very much take it or leave it and that is why the ratings are soft on a few nights. So I am in favour of no quotas on the digi channels, but keep up the quotas on the main chs. May be allow half points for first showing of local content between 6pm-9pm on digi channels

  12. I think half the problem is Screen Australia’s interference with the film industry. It’s a government department whose real job is to produce the government’s ads and documentaries, handle the film archives, hand out permits, and provide government support to the film industry. That’s all it’s supposed to be doing.

    When it comes to matters of film and TV production and content, that’s supposed to be governed by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. My question is, why wasn’t the MEAA first approached about the matters raised in your article and given a voice?

    Screen Australia constantly fudges the books to make themselves look good. Last year, Screen Australia’s complete handout was $40 million to be shared amongst 225 film and TV productions (most of which they gave to AFTRS, Channel 31, AFI, Open Channel, RMIT and OzFilm, etc). The rest of the $$ figure they quote is from private Equity funding that did Not come from them.

    The real reason Australian productions don’t reach the Oz quota (for film and for TV) is because they can’t. There are not enough productions of a viable standard to get sold to TV or go into cinemas. Albania has a higher rate of production than us (if we take away the amateur productions financed by the bulk of Screen Australia’s money… that will never see the light of day).

    Screen Australia (via the FFC) says it was an investor in Happy Feet. No it wasn’t. The FFC’s only involvemet was to sell George Miller an appropriate tax form for $5.

    To call Film Australia a film funding body is a misnomer and inaccurate, because nobody knows what the hell they do (and neither do they). It may be more accurate to say they Report on how much funding Film & TV gets from investors, as part of their job.

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