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Report: Commercial TV drama drops 68% over 2 decades

Networks ordering fewer episodes leads to a big drop -but here's what they had to say in response.

Output of Australian commercial TV drama has dropped by 68%* over two decades according to new research.

TV drama on Seven, Nine and 10 has fallen from over 250 hours in 2001 to just over 50 hours in 2019 according to Queensland University of Technology’s Australian Television Drama Index.

The drop is principally attributed to shorter runs commissioned in primetime drama. In 1999 All Saints churned out 43 episodes across the year. Blue Heelers produced 42 and Water Rats was 32.

But by 2019 My Life Is Murder ran for 13 episodes and Seachange ran for 8.

“More than anything else, it is the decrease in adult drama hours commissioned by commercial broadcasters that reshaped Australian television drama between 1999 and 2019, as broadcasters responded to the audience fragmentation and cost increases from the introduction of multichannel services,” said Professor Amanda Lotz from QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre.

“The fall in hours is not so much due to a change in the number of titles being produced but the number of episodes per series – commercial adult dramas dropped from an average of 21 episodes per title in 1999 to just seven in 2019. That’s a 60 per cent decrease.”

The arrival of Streaming services had minimal impact on production levels between 1999 – 2019, though by 2019 their drama hours matched Foxtel’s.

“Despite the ABC expanding its role in drama production, and drama commissions from streaming services such as Netflix and Stan now matching Foxtel’s commissions, together they commission only a fraction of what commercial broadcasters provided in the early 2000s. Combined, these new sources of drama production do not come close to replacing the steady falls in what commercial broadcasters offer.”

A recent ACMA report noted Amazon Prime, Disney, Netflix and Stan collectively spent $153 million on Australian programs in 2019–20, which includes $52 million in Clickbait by Netflix while Amazon Prime Video recently invested $150 million in local productions.

Yet while more production companies are now making drama series in Australia, foreign conglomerates are now taking a bigger share of the drama pie.

“We found there are now twice as many production companies making drama in Australia than there were in 1999 – but together they are sharing 20 per cent fewer broadcast hours,” said Professor Lotz.

“Of the production companies with drama titles broadcast in 2019, exactly one half had produced six hours or fewer and 94 per cent produced fewer than 20 hours. So, companies are either short-lived or exist with a multifaceted portfolio of work that includes factual or feature production, or advertising and online production work.

“A healthy production sector prioritises diversity and sustainability, but it is difficult to accomplish both at the diminished level of production now characteristic of the sector.”

There were also findings which show Australian drama producers have been absorbed into foreign conglomerates.

QUT’s Professor Kevin Sanson said, “Such acquisitions raise questions about the extent to which Australian stories continue to feature in their productions, although they continue to access significant sums of Australian supports. They also leave local companies in a position of being without the significant resources provided by such conglomerates.

“Australian policy does not prioritise Australian-owned companies in the allocation of funding supports and unreliable criteria are used to determine content as ‘Australian.’”

Children’s production remained quite level across the 20 years thanks to quota requirements, however live-action hours have been overtaken by animation since 2006.

Anna Potter, Associate Professor of creative industries, at the University of the Sunshine Coast, “Even more concerning, in 2020, the government removed children’s content quotas which is likely to lead to a significant decline in drama production.

“We also see that more production companies are creating Australian drama but very few of these companies are sustainable in producing drama alone.

“We hope our report can be taken into consideration for future policy decisions on the subject.”

TV Tonight approached multiple networks, platforms and industry for comment. Here are their responses.

Nine Network / Stan:

“Australian drama and Australian stories have always been a fundamental part of our programming mix and our commitment to audiences, and this will not change. The 9Network will be announcing a slate of exciting new local dramas at our 2022 Upfront, and Stan has just announced an even bigger commitment to local production. The production sector has been very adept at evolving along with audience behaviour, and we are committed to working with the sector to invest in local drama.”

Seven:

“Seven is home to Australia’s number one drama, Home and Away. In its 34th season, the much-loved series plays a key role in Seven’s content spine and is out-performing all other Australian dramas on commercial television this year. Seven continues to invest in powerful, contemporary new dramas and this month launched the biggest new Australian drama in 2021, RFDS. The gripping new series based in Australia’s red heart portrays the modern-day heroes of the Royal Flying Doctor Service and is engaging viewers on TV and on 7plus. The new drama event, Australian Gangster, is coming soon to Seven and we have plans for more new local drama series in 2022.”

ABC:

ABC pointed to its recent submission to the Media Reform Green Paper highlights some of the issues raised in the research by QUT – and suggested that additional funding for the ABC would increase production of Australian drama.

“The ABC is the nation’s largest commissioner of new Australian content. In the five years to 2019/20, the ABC invested more than $468 million in the independent sector on productions worth a total of $971million. This investment generated 1477 commissioned hours.

“In its submission (page 36), the ABC proposed additional funding of $30 million a year over the next three years to support Australian content production. This would enable the ABC to commission 36 hours of high-quality Australian drama, premium factual and children’s content each year, as well as commissioning 30 hours of new and original Australian arts, music and specialist programming.”

10 / Paramount+ did not respond.

SBS did not respond.

Foxtel:

“The Foxtel Group is a committed local champion for Australian stories and voices in all genres – drama, lifestyle, factual, sports and news. We have been subject to New Eligible Drama Expenditure (NEDE) regulation since we launched in 1995, requiring the Group to spend 10 per cent of its annual program spend on new Australian drama.Our Australian drama productions include Wentworth, Love my Way, Deadline Gallipoli, Secret City, A Place to Call Home and more recently, The End and The Upright. In recent months we have announced new drama commissions for The Twelve and Love Me.

“Although regulatory relief was provided to Foxtel and free to air television during 2020, reflecting the impacts of COVID, that 26-year obligation remains for the Foxtel Group.The current 10% obligation applies only to Foxtel, however, and with many new global entrants to the market since 2015, we are concerned regulation needs to be modernized to establish new settings that allow competitive local champions to succeed. Our investment in Australian stories and voices in other genres reflects the tastes and interests of our customers. Like drama, those investments also create valuable Australian jobs in the creative industries. For example, Selling Houses Australia, Gogglebox Australia, Grand Designs Australia, Love it or List it, Coast Australia, and The Real Housewives of Melbourne. We believe Foxtel’s record in both regulated and non-regulated Australian content speaks for itself.”

Free TV Australia:

“Bridget Fair CEO said, ““Free TV broadcasters are proud that we have maintained a strong and consistent track record of supporting Australian content and telling Australian stories. Every year, we broadcast around 25,000 hours of Australian programming in every market across the country. In 2020 Free TV broadcasters showed over 358 hours of drama programming. Every commercial television network met its drama quota obligations, despite the impact of COVID on production activity and revenue.

“Over the past decade, the cost per hour of producing drama has more than doubled. Audiences have increasingly demanded higher quality production across all viewing platforms and this has in some cases resulted in series with fewer hours but higher production values being commissioned.

“It is disappointing that the QUT report does not acknowledge commercial broadcasters’ full contribution to Australian drama production, to Australian content more generally, or the realities of drama consumption in the modern media landscape.

“The QUT report ignores the long running serials Neighbours and Home & Away – which are the powerhouses of Australian scripted production, have been the launch pads for many successful careers both on and off screen and have employed thousands of cast and crew over three decades.

“Commercial broadcasters spent more than $1.5 billion on Australian content in 2019/20. The latest ACMA program expenditure reports showed that commercial broadcasters spent over $84 million on Australian drama, more than any other sector.”

Screen Producers Australia:

Matthew Deaner CEO said, “The cut of the data highlights what we have known for a while – that commissioning has been for shorter run and more expensive series. The data doesn’t note the increased substitution by broadcasters over this time of Australian drama for NZ content which has been a critical factor.

“For audiences this has meant fewer hours to find on the schedule. The introduction of multi-channels should have afforded everyone (audiences and industry) the benefits of additional commissioning but this was always going to need regulatory interventions to happen and this did not occur. Currently we are seeing some SVOD commissioning but not yet at a rate that will address the trend evident in the data or address the reductions created by the deregulation of the Australian content standard introduced at the start of the year.

“If the problem isn’t addressed in regulation of the SVODs and a re-visitation of the content standard it will continue to create challenges for our industry in establishing ongoing employment and skill development as well as sustainability for the entire sector. You need strong production businesses to have a strong industry. And this all effects whether audiences can access content that they clearly deserve.”

Netflix declined to comment on the record.

Amazon Prime Video declined to comment on the record.

Disney+ did not respond

Apple TV+ did not respond

Read the full report here.

* Soaps are excluded in these charts because the scale of their production – 50 per cent of all production over the two decades explored here and more than 200 hours per annum in nearly all years – obscures adjustments in the broader business. Yet, soaps too have experienced declining production and diminishing Australian cultural relevance. Between 1999 and 2019, broadcast soap hours fell by nearly one third, from an annual total of more than 320 hours in 1999 and 2000 to an average of 215 hours per year from 2012. Total episodes of soaps broadcast each year fell by more than a third, from nearly 700 in 1999 and 2000 to around 470 from 2003 onwards.  If we include soap hours, commercial adult drama hours fell from 531 hours in 1999 to 291 hours in 2019, a decrease of 45 per cent in total. 

The report was produced by the Making Australian TV in the 21st Century research team, which is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project Grant, and a collaboration between researchers in QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC) and the University of the Sunshine Coast. It used data from Screen Australia to review the changing landscape of Australian drama production between 1999 and 2019 and covers drama programs broadcast by free-to-air, subscription, and video-on-demand services.

23 Responses

  1. There’s a reasonable amount to absorb here, firstly does Australian commercial TV want to return to making long running soap dramas?, I would say it’s unlikely while they make more profitable reality shows. ‘Clickbait’ is a US Australian production so it will receive government tax offsets being made in Melbourne. Numbers of movies and made for TV productions made in both NZ and Australia are replicating overseas locations for the stories being filmed, this is the reality nowadays, to insist on increasing Australian culture in movies and shows wont attract the investment money or the prolific showrunners or producers, not unless they have a proven record of international commercial success, which Australia once did when Fred Schepisi, Bruce Beresford and Peter Weir were at their creative peak, they are all in their 70’s and 80’s now.

  2. I just popped in to say David that this is both a very important article and one that covers its topic very well, an important topic that needed to be addressed.

    I could go on a rant about both quality and quantity of Australian drama but all I really feel is sadness that there is such determination to make sure we don’t have scripted stories told very often and that our television generally is amongst the worst in the world.

    All that needs to be said is that one network will devote 5.5 hours this week spread across four nights, of its primetime schedule, to a group of people arguing about building renovations. I am not really sure how that can even be classed as content but it is deemed ‘good enough’ for the audience to view.

  3. I have watched all of RFDS so far… nope. Usual fair of most shows with infidelity and sex etc. Bit disappointed. As Shiraz said dramas are character focused rather than a good story. I agree. This is why people don’t watch commercial TV much as I m told. Maybe its just us older generation who have given up. I watch a few oldies that are still going on commercial TV but as for other ‘drams’ I much prefer the British show repeats and look forward to them everyday.

    1. After getting a bit excited at the possibilities of RFDS I did find the first episode of the show lacking some energy and dare I say charisma, it was a tick the box production which in an expansive desolate outback location needed a lot more adventure to keep a viewers interest up. Though set in a different climate and featuring a very Canadian vista the 2012 show ‘Arctic Air’ provided a blueprint of sorts for making these type of drama shows especially if it involves flying, perhaps I’m being unfair as the real stars of Arctic Air was the old DC3 airliners, but maybe if RFDS had examined the early beginnings of the RFDS service in 1928 the writers would have a bit more story depth to get involved with, especially for overseas audiences. Maybe Sam Neill could have been talked into appearing as well.

  4. The audience numbers are there, but they’re just too fragmented now. No one rushes home to watch the latest instalment of a big Aussie drama because they have more on demand choice now. That’s why the ABC really push iview. As people find out about a big new show, they can see it. I also think local drama needs to make the transition to product placements. That’s how you sell things. There’s just too many television ads, even the 7+ and 9now catch up service turns viewers off. It’s a changing world and Aussie TV execs are making the wrong decisions. As for the person who made the comments about character vs story? Australia drama has always built itself on characters. That’s how most people get invested in shows. Good characters you can believe in, support, cry with etc. the problem is, it’s hard to build on characters in 8 episodes vs the old 26-36 eps. Everyone struggles for story time.

  5. People still watch dramas, when they can sit down and fast forward through the ads, or stream them without ads. They just aren’t relevant for commercial FTA when over million people will watch the ad breaks during MAFS, and hundred of thousands more will stream it watching ads there. This situation was created, people enjoyed US and UK dramas which were cheap, so they introduced quotas to boost local productions. The commercial networks churned out more cheap procedural serial dramas and sketch comedy (Fast Forward, Full Frontal, The Comedy Company etc.). So the rules where changed to equate budget per episode with quality, so they made short run sensationalist miniseries and TVMs. Then the rules were changed to give massive tax subsidies up to 85 eps to try and force US style productions and we got Rush. Now commercial broadcasters make several short run series hoping for success with OS sales, when forced. So now they want to force Netflix et al. to make our TV.

  6. These days it’s all about reality reality reality. Drama gets shunted to the back burner and we get a few decent series every few years but some that we have got in recent years have been awful. I miss the days of Blue Heelers, All Saints, Water Rats. I grew up watching those as a staple in the household. Every week without fail. Another thing too, they put dramas on at 8:30pm and they end up starting at 8:40 or 8:45 or later. One of the networks need the balls to put Drama back at 7:30pm but be it a good one. McLeod’s Daughters used to dominate that slot in its day. I mean Seven missed a huge opportunity here to put RFDS on at 7:30pm Wednesdays as you can air M rated shows there now but they chose not too but in saying this, gone are the audience for drama. They just don’t want it like they used to. I mean Rafters is back too but its on a damn streaming service : (

  7. Biggest issue is drama is always shown later in the evening when many of do a variety of different things. Lots start at 9.00 to 9.30pm and thats way to late in my view. A drama is a commitment in viewing and when it starts at various times it get annoying and l can imagine many would simply turn off. A smart idea for a network is to have a dedicated ‘Drama’ network, not 4 channels that serve up a mish-mash on programs.

  8. … the problem with this report, like so many others of similar ilk, is that it is purely “academic” and takes zero account of the changes made in drama production over the years … as Pertinax correctly points out, the way television drama is made today is nothing like what it was during the time that the hours were higher … this applies just as much to drama production in the UK as in Oz with production going from a 4-camera studio essentially “live” with minimal editing and post-production to what we have today where every producer/director treats television drama like they are shooting a feature film … particularly right now when they insist on shooting in a 2.35:1 feature screen ratio and then plonking it on a standard 16:9 TV with black bars at the top and bottom … as a result, the cost of making an hour of drama has increased beyond all sense of reality and to recoup the costs it has to involve foreign partners, actors, etc and the proceeds end up going overseas …

    1. Chucking bars on to get a 2.35:1 ratio isn’t where the cost comes from, the cost comes from partnering with streamers who want UHD or 4K with 5.1 mixes, subtitles in 20 languages, and deliverables out the wazoo. FTA here broadcasts in HD or even SD still and doesn’t mandate such high specs.

      As I mentioned before, from what I see the biggest expense should be the script. Telling a good story shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg, just invest in writers that aren’t the same 4 or 5 people churning out stories set in such well trodden locations. If it’s good, it will travel.

  9. Back in the 80s and 90s Commerical TV networks could serve up 40+ episodes of A Country Practice, All Saints, Blue Heelers, Water Rats, Stingers etc. a year and 2m viewers a night would watch them. They were shot like soaps with little rehearse or retakes and the networks had their own production facilities . They are making millions buying up US dramas and comedies cheaply on output deals and getting 1-2m an episode for them too. The ABC produced 1 or may 2 soap like dramas a year and ran BBC content from a $16m p.a. output deal every night. The QUT survey excludes Neighbours and Home and Away as non-dramas in those figures but counts all the soaps from 1999 to fabricate a higher change. Seven is the only network to maintain production facilities (and they were trying to flog them off) and it’s not the 465k that RFDS got last but the 14 countries that it has sold to that are making them happy. These numbers correlate with audience numbers, people just aren’t watching dramas much.

  10. Not too surprising – it just doesn’t fit into their stripped reality scheduling, although do wonder if similarly stripping drama could be a way to make it work again as I think to have a chance it needs to be pushed into the 7.30pm slot rather than an afterthought beginning whatever time their reality franchise ends that night.

    ITV do it in the UK with most their dramas now being 3 or 4 parters across a single week rather than the traditional 6-8 part weekly series. That style would probably reduce the count further but slot in easily to the schedules, but they could also run something across 8 episodes over 2-3 weeks if the will was there. Sadly it clearly isn’t.

  11. The majority of local drama made today – with some notable exceptions – is aimed at the very same people who watched Blue Heelers in the 90s.
    I want to support local drama – I just don’t want to watch it.

    1. As sad as it is, you’re 100% correct. None of the drama being made is challenging or exciting. Compare Mare of Easttown to, say, Between Two Worlds. Same number of episodes, but one was increasing viewers week on week, the other was a huge turn off that turned into a burn off. Mare may have cost more to produce, but it’s scope was small, and the story was engaging. BTW was so dull one wonders how it ever went from script to screen. There is no reason a show like MoE couldn’t be made here using our voices.

      If there is no investment in exciting storytelling and new storytellers in this country, then the same old people will keep turning out the same old daggy dramas, which will get the ratings they deserve, which will lead to calls of further reductions, until FTA is just cheap news and cheap reality and sport. Hang on a minute…

    2. I totally agree with you. I’ve completely given up on aussie drama, I only watch overseas drama on streaming these days and I watch a reasonable amount too. For me Australian drama is stuck in the past, as you have pointed out. It’s generally very character focused rather than story focused too, which doesn’t interest me. We do the same types of shows time and time again. Look at RFDS, it’s been done before and how many medical dramas have we done over the years! We lack genuine originality.

    3. I just don’t find generalisations especially helpful as there are dramas being served up that may not get as much marketing or audience, but it doesn’t mean they don’t stack up. Wentworth has been world class, evidenced by its global fanbase. Wakefield was extraordinary if you stuck with it. Off the top of my head….The End, Total Control, Bloom, Robbie Hood, Lambs of God, The Secret River -how are these aimed at Blue Heelers crowd? Rubbish. Sure RFDS is but those titles are better than things like Nine Perfect Strangers or The Undoing which get all the big bucks and buzz.

      1. Thank you for that. Sometimes it feels like the audience is stuck in the past and doesn’t realise the diversity of Aussie drama in recent years. But it is sad that shows like Robbie Hood which could easily have more stories don’t get more episodes.

  12. At the end of the day, the audience just isn’t there for these dramas anymore. There are a few exceptions of course, but overall the viewership for those shows has dropped off, which is why networks are hesitant to commission long runs. It isn’t viable to run big budget dramas for 200,000 viewers.

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