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 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 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.
“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.