John Edwards: TV has run itself into “a stagnant billabong.”

 

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Australian Television is too focussed on short-run series which is failing to produce new creative talent and relying on the same writers, says renowned producer John Edwards.

Delivering the Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture at the Screen Forever Conference yesterday, he warned the Australian drama production industry has become a stagnant billabong of spiralling costs, repeat writers, shrinking audiences and a reliance on subsidies -for too little gain in quality.

Here are select excerpts from his speech:

 

 

“There are no forty-part series left at all on Australian tv, there are no twenty-two part series left. Thirteen parters are almost an anachronism. Partly this is a function of the ebbs and flow, life and death of series, but there’s also a deeper structural reason. Starting a new series is high risk and expensive. Even the promo campaign will cost a million dollars or upward on commercial tv, leaving aside the set-up costs. Why wouldn’t the network opt first time around to go with say eight parts and have up to 40% tax payer funded subsidy? It’s very understandable that this has become the predominant form. Because six and eight part shows ordinarily cost between $1 and $1.2 million per hour, and once those production structures and so on are in place, the problem becomes it’s very hard to bring budgets down, even if the number of episodes is increased in the future – we’re all both creatures of habit and justifiers of our situations. The million dollar plus an episode series becomes “normal”.

“In prime-time drama in the last two years (I’m excluding the soaps from this) I’m only aware of there being two new emerging writers! I hope I’m wrong, and if I am mea culpa, but the general point holds. Networks are risk averse, understandably, and it’s very easy for producers if they want to go on eating to slide along with their risk averse wishes. Higher volume shows by necessity produce new people. A show like Big Sky, where we made forty eps in a year (it’s not remembered as a success, but all but four of its episodes had better shares than the network average). Tony McNamara, Steve Worland, Jaqueline Perske, John Polson, Rhett Watson, Kate Dennis all getting their first or second tv gig. Similarly on Secret Life there was a good handful, on Fireflies, with Mimi Butler on Rush, on Offspring and so on. Long series need the new people influx, and I do want to say as an aside here, that in my experience almost never are we let down by them. Yes, this is possible on a short series, we had three new ones on Love My Way too, but the odds are stacked against it, simply because on eight episodes, you only need say two or three writers, and the risk-averse pressures of course are amplified as costs go up. And it’s just easier to work with the fewer bods. This phenomenon spreads more widely. New editors, new DOPs, new designers seem only to be getting breaks on comedies (which is great!), but there’s presently very little new blood in drama series.”

Edwards maintains that while we need “event” they’re not our industry’s life-blood. The system is not mixing up forms, with too many short series a few two by twos and a couple of telemovies.

“Look at the figures. In the last decade, the volume of drama production has dropped 24%, to 401 hours in 2014/15 from 527 hours in 2004/5. Despite the fact that the number of potential outlets has expanded enormously. Yet the budgeted cost of that decreased content has increased by 42% in the same period! Just looking at commercial free-to-air (admittedly in a low year) the decrease is 39%! If you take the two soaps out of this picture, it’s even more alarming. Only 57 hours on commercial free-to-air television across all three broadcasters! Barely more than an hour a week across the three. A few miniseries, a couple telemovies, the rest short series. Thank goodness that Foxtel and the ABC have increased production, though notably, with budgets increased in line with what I’ve been suggesting. Some will argue the short series form works so well in the UK. But the UK makes much more than 400 hours of drama a year. And there, too, it’s not just the soaps, but long runners like Casualty and Holby City that draw broad and big audiences and provide a platform for drama viewing, and ITV is increasing the number of hours in its returning series.

“My view of the present state the drama production industry is that we have run ourselves into a stagnant billabong. Less production, same writers over and over, inflating costs for no apparent quality gain, shrinking audiences and increasingly reliant on subsidy. All the openness and excitement and bringing through of new talent, of new work, has certainly dissipated, and the area that has historically been the largest and most productive sector of the broadcast industry has all but disappeared. And people keep saying it’s the golden age of television drama.

“If the emperor doesn’t have no clothes, he certainly seems to be wearing very weird underwear.”

In response Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner said:

“John is without peer in the contemporary Australian drama producing landscape and when he says we have a systemic problem, it is important to listen.  Screen Producers Australia shares John’s concerns that the trend away from longer form drama has serious long-term implications.   Short form dramas are inherently expensive and necessitate a reliance on Screen Australia subsidy.    The high cost of producing short form drama also results in a lack of talent regeneration in our industry as taking a risk on unknown or emerging key creatives and cast is unattractive.  We need to work with Government, broadcasters and the wider production industry on policies that encourage a healthy mix of drama forms – high budget and low budget, long form and short form and, as John says, those forms yet to be discovered.

“As an industry we urgently need to conclude the ATRAA negotiations between SPA and MEAA to better enable networks to monetize their drama investments, work with Government on determining the right balance of polity levers including tax offsets and direct subsidy, and work with broadcasters and other investors on creating an environment where drama ideas and their creators can experiment and flourish.”

 

21 Comments:

  1. The British shows that run 3 to 6 Eps sometimes 8 are pretty good they also have a lot of original ideas,which seem to get short shift from OZ TV,the Yanks still make make long run stuff 23,24 Eps but some are starting to struggle now all the OZ made TV I watch is harmless used to but now Bleah

  2. Naturally there are two cost dynamics at work in longform vs shortform. The two longrunning serials in Australia, fully funded from overseas sales have managed cost control. John Edwards strangely overlooks the part foreign-owned media behemoths like NBCUni, Fremantlemedia and his company – Shine are playing with regards to diminished opportunities and escalating costs. He has been protected from the gale force winds of change that are fundamentally challenging all the old business models, while being the person who has benefitted the most from networks’ risk aversion. Until recently these foreign companies were not allowed to apply to SA. SPA has lobbied hard for the 40% Offset because Australian drama must compete with international drama for eyeballs so his contribution to that part of the discussion was not helpful..

  3. Is there much of an audience these days for 20+ eps per season? Anecdotally very few people I know will watch a long series because the short ones tend to be better quality with not much filler and are less of a time commitment (a win when there are so many terrific shows to watch). But I’m not sure how that translates to the wider community, perhaps there is a demand. For the last few years I haven’t picked up any series that has exceeded 10 eps, luckily TWD started with only 6 eps or it’s unlikely I would have even found my favourite show!

  4. 8 to 10 eps (16 at the most), like overseas dramas, Better Call Saul, Fargo, Breaking Bad, Les Revenants, Game of Thrones, The Bridge , etc, is perfect.
    Just a shame that most Aussie drama just isn’t up to the standard of these.

    • I agree, they are all excellent shows and I’d add Wallander, Broadchurch, Orphan Black, The Leftovers, Rectify, The Fall, Orange is the New Black. I often hear Aus TV producers say they can’t compete with those types of shows because of how small our industry is but from what I understand, the same is true for France, Sweden, etc yet they manage to push the envelope.

  5. Making 40 episodes of TV on low budgets does not result in quality. It results in repetitive soap with poor writing, boring direction and mediocre acting. The reason why is isn’t made anymore is that people have more choices, so won’t just watch whatever rubbish the Networks choose to dish up week in week out. The 80s ended 25 years ago. Talented people cost money. TV is competing a global market where US, UK and other network TV is readily available, along with STV, streaming and internet content. And people need a good reason to put down their phones and tablets to watch dramas.

    Of course contracts for 40 episode seasons that ran for years and years paying low wages made lots of money for Edwards.

    • I’m trying to recall which shows they would be?

      Having followed his work, most were comparitively short to the real long runners such as All Saints and Blue Heelers.

    • Spot on. One of the things that always strikes me, particularly in the case of a good British series, is how suddenly it ends after only 8 episodes. But much better to end on a high note and leave the audience wanting more than to flog a horse to death, revive it, flog it again and then parade the corpse around for a bit longer which is the usual Australian TV model. If it’s any good, make another series but only after the first series has shown this is actually the case.

    • I don’t believe that was his point though?
      He was suggesting limited run series ends up using the same writers again because a gamble on new talent is more risky. As such, there is less probability for creativity in the industry because it’s re-hiring the same people.

      • The same people always get hired to run shows, there are few people with experience at running shows and talented at coming up with good ideas.

        Longer seasons create more opportunities for script editors and junior writers to learn the craft. But if people aren’t watching them they just get cancelled early and that doesn’t happen. Wonderland did make 44 eps in two years, not exactly seeing the creativity that resulted.

  6. I agree with most of what John says. It’s interesting to note his comment about using the same writers over & over. He could have made a similar comment about actors.
    Sadly, whilst audiences still watch rubbish like the Block, it’s hard to see much changing in commercial television.

    • I’ve noted before this trend of the same writers popping up on everything. A cynic might say the industry is a closed shop. And we all know what happens when any industry fails to get new blood in.

      You can also add in the same directors over and over again, in addition to writers and actors. The problem is that most directors (and actors and writers) come from the world of soap opera, and bring those, ahem, “skills” with them.

  7. This is true across the world, both Britain and America are risk-averse. Until, that is, the emergence of new media. The streaming channels are where the risks are being taken, because they don’t have advertisers to please, and wasted expenses are minimised. Until we get something similar here, which may never happen, risk-averse is where we’re going to stay.

    • The same used to be said of cable/Pay TV channels in the US; they were the home of risky and innovative programming because they lived or died purely on subscription income. Then the advertisers & big media companies moved in…

  8. His point isn’t that Australia shouldn’t make anymore 13 parters (or shorter), but that a higher producer offset in absence of a regulated volume requirment will result in only short runners being produced which do not provide a platform to breed new talent.

    I thought it was interesting he noted No Activity as an example of great innovation (I picked up from another news source).

    While Australia has had some fantastic online discoveries such as Bondi Hispters or Fragments of Friday, talent generation via network commissioned dramas should also be considered vital in order to maintain a healthy, vibrant industry.

    56 hours of new drama produced in a year is dire.

  9. its not about quantity tho them brit shows you mention are cr8p and anything on itv isnt worth watching, i have found better stuff on australian tv, the principal etc. ok a few good stuff on british tv but only the short run stuff. as for comedy australia produces the best these days bust most as web series.

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