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.”