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Yes Minister, there is a crisis….

Paul Fletcher rejects the findings of a recent drama report and says drama is thriving. Here's why I disagree...

Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts, Paul Fletcher, has penned an essay in response to a recent survey by QUT which noted Commercial TV Drama has fallen 68% in Australia over the past 2 decades.

Writing on Mumbrella the minister claimed there is “no crisis, no decline” and that local content is better than ever.

The Australian Television Drama Index report found local drama on Seven, Nine and 10 has fallen from over 250 hours in 2001 to just over 50 hours in 2019.

It attributed this largely to shorter seasons being commissioned by networks in 2021.

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.

The other major drop is in Children’s TV with those sub-quotas recently removed for a more flexible system. Good one.

“With so much choice on offer, perhaps it is not surprising that longer-running drama series have declined in popularity and content makers have responded with shorter series, often with big stars and extremely high production values,” the minister wrote.

“This is happening around the world, not just in Australia, because that is what audiences want.”

But in the USA (where scripted titles eclipsed 500+ per year) broadcast television is still churning out hefty seasons: Grey’s Anatomy (17), This is Us (16), NCIS (16), Chicago P.D. (16), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (16), Chicago Med (16), Chicago Fire (16), 9-1-1 (14) -if anything they were down due to the pandemic. They are also the most popular on broadcast TV because drama is habitual. Audiences connect with the characters week in, week out.

Aside from Home & Away and Neighbours (on a multichannel) most of our dramas sit at around 6 – 10 episodes a year.

Last night viewers had two episodes of the very good new RFDS back to back which Seven insists it is not ‘burning off.’ Let’s hope not. On 10 there were 3 repeats of US drama Bull which is presumably where 10 would have screened the equally excellent Five Bedrooms had it not backflipped and debuted it on Paramount+.

In case the minister isn’t aware, Bull has been on air since January. Why? Because it’s cheaper for networks to screen US dramas than it is to take a risk on Australian content. So those long broadcast seasons of procedurals –NCIS, FBI, 9-1-1, The Rookie (cut me off anytime)- are pretty worthwhile after all.

What’s also becoming increasingly worthwhile are US dramas filmed here in Australia. Newsflash… Reckoning produced by Playmaker Media in Sydney (but set stateside) screened on Seven and will go towards their ‘local drama’ quotas. Can we say “loophole?”

Minister Fletcher also notes, “…four providers—Amazon Prime, Disney, Netflix and Stan—spent over $150 million on Australian programs in 2019-20. More than 80% of this went to commissioning or co-commissioning new Australian programs.”

Whilst I applaud Amazon Prime announcing a slate of local titles recently, the bulk of this money is going towards a handful of productions. Clickbait cost Netflix $52m and you can guarantee the biggest cheques were heading to US executives. I can only imagine what Nine Perfect Strangers cost Hulu. Nobody is suggesting co-productions should be off the table, but both of these dramas were set in the USA. Thankfully, Stan has focussed its drama spend on Australian storytelling…

But if we are really looking to high-end shorter seasons as the salvation, then ABC and SBS will probably be delighted to have drama budgets boosted. They do a pretty remarkable job with what they have.

Finally, the minister laments the exclusion of Home & Away and Neighbours from the QUT report. Fair enough. I’m not sure it would make that much difference to the overall picture, given their output 20 years ago was fairly close to current.

“Are the jobs for writers, actors and crew on these two shows somehow worth less than those on other shows?” Minister Fletcher notes.

On that point I recall the words of producer John Edwards when delivering the Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture in 2015 of the need to shepherd new writers, directors and actors on long-running dramas.

He said, “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.”

That was six years ago…

15 Responses

  1. Making drama is an industry, it usually has to make use of fewer resources for more viewing hours than the movie industry does, it also, until recently does not have additional income from merchandising (with Disney+ franchises as an example).
    Making drama in Australia follows the UK example with having mostly establishment actors getting the lions share of work available, younger actors looking for roles have to wait their turn so most will try for work overseas, the stories written are mostly overused themes which audiences have found attractive in the past, this can work in the US where franchises like CSI are popular and numerous spin offs are made, but the fickle Australian viewer looks for escapist diversity and commercial TV must accept some of that blame dumbing down the television experience with reality TV.
    If drama cant fit into a specific time slot it’s ratings wont last for long, attention spans are low nowadays.

  2. For me, this comes down to dollars. Commercial tv has completely changed in 20 years. Its not the cash cow it was. And it never will be again. The minister has a choice: is it better 7 makes 10 dramas at, say, $20 million dollars; or does he want them to make 3 dramas for the same $$. I’d prefer quality over quantity. This goes for numbers of episodes in a series as it does for numbers of dramas themselves.
    The issue that needs addressing, and I think your article touches on it David, is whether this level of production – along with non-Australian productions like Clickbait – is enough to sustain a local industry. There is never a better test case then with aussie kids drama over the next 2 to 3 years.

    1. Generally I’d agree with quality over quantity but the issue is the price per hour then makes it a virtual non-starter for commercial TV, which results in them not bothering at all. Surely there is a happy medium.

  3. Networks are still obsessed with overnight ratings, despite the industry moving away from that figure as measure of success. Drama is not an ‘immediate’ show. Nobody watches drama at the time it is broadcast. We catch up, we stream, we watch it when the kids have gone to bed, or on the weekend. Drama has no place on any Network obsessed with overnights. News/Sport/Reality is still immediate and watercooler TV – that’s what commercial Australian networks excel at. There’s little point watching yesterday’s news or a footy game on catch up – and if you’re not up to date with Survivor or MAFS then you can’t join tomorrow’s zoom chat about it… But drama is another story… “have you seen (insert show title here)… ” is the new question to ask – and the answer is often “yes we watched that last month” or “I’m planning to watch that after I finish this show”. Australian Drama’s future (and funding) is on the streamers. Legislate content quotas for them – and watch Aussie…

  4. I think Reality TV is the reason we don’t have much Drama on the TV anymore. Plus, Aussie Drama just doesn’t have the budget that US Drama has. Heck, I’d love an Australian version of Law & Order, 9-1-1 for example, but we just don’t have the budget to do so…

  5. US Network audiences were down a lot last season, even with lockdowns. Revenue has collapsed, they are back to making bottle and clips show episodes. With 500+ show the technical skills are still good but inexperienced graduates are writing scripts and the writing has been worse than it was in the 1970s. The final season of This Is Us (if it doesn’t end up on Paramount+) is probably the only US network drama or comedy I am looking forward to watching this season. All of the watchable drama is short run, high budget shows on global streaming platforms, and that is where talented Australians are working. People watch TV with a phone or tablet in their hands, sport or MAFS are perfect for that. If audiences won’t hang around for episode 4 of RFDS or The Newsreader, what the point of making 44 episodes of a Soap when 40 of them remain largely unwatched?

    1. The 70’s was a period of mass production TV serials where it was a priority to have a set amount of episodes or there was no business case to make the show, the genres that were popular then also complimented the generation who liked soap cowboy shows and the evergreen detective, police dramas. A lot of what inspires TV producers today had there origins on 60’s and 70’s American TV at a time when the UK was making budget soaps, some of which like Coronation Street are still ongoing. The UK had no choice during those austere times, quality shows like ‘Skippy the Bush Kangaroo’ was highly popular on British TV then for that reason. American showrunners are always looking at the business angle before developing the entertainment side, the Star Trek franchise is a classic example of that where the studios needed a syndicated product that will be distributed for decades.

      1. The US model was based around economies of scale to increase advertising revenue. Making shows for national affiliates covering a 9 month season with special eps for Sweeps which set ad rates, showing repeats during production breaks, selling shows overseas and later into syndication for local stations and cable. That allowed them to sell high budget TV around the world cheaply. The UK was based around 6 episode seasons, even of 30 minute sitcoms, because they were subscription based and the BBC had a monopoly to start with. 2 shows of 6 eps per season with a few of specials filled 52 weeks. Australian networks made billions buying up US and UK content on output deals, to reduce competition for top rating shows, and showing them to large audiences, which funded their other shows mostly soaps. Global streaming platforms spend $100m producing seasons of 6-10 eps to get people in, then fill up their lineup with movies and syndicated shows.

  6. … you’re both right and wrong … as some of us mentioned last time, the change is all about the “type” of drama production undertaken today – and it’s not unique to Oz … the QUT report was biased and wrong in excluding two soaps to prove its point but even those shows are moving away from the low-cost production model that got them started which they have only been able to do because they are totally supported financially by overseas sales rather than by domestic consumption … a perfect example of what has happened was the ABC series “GP” which was established by David Hill in the face of complaints from the Hawke government about the low hours of Oz drama then being made by the ABC compared to the commercials … it worked fine until the ABC drama department turned what had been a cheap multicamera production into a weekly pseudo-feature at which point it became too expensive and was canned … their argument was “quality” vs “quantity” … you can’t have both …

  7. People’s viewing habits need to change if you want Aust drama back on tv. We’re obsessed with reality tv at the moment.
    Secondly, moving 5 bedrooms to paramount was a silly idea. Let’s hope they play it over summer.

  8. I agree. We need more Aussie drama. But I can’t deny the networks are also right, the audience is too fragmented, which is hurting everything. Not to mention covid too. Let’s dissect RFDS, could it sustain 26 episodes a year? Sure. More likely due to the location shooting, 13 episodes a year. But take the original Flying Doctors format, move the focus to include the town more, the cops, the bar manager etc. it’ll work. But with increased cost of production, that the networks complain about. Should they inject two shows budget into one? Or is it smarter for them to have two shows and see which one sticks? Probably more likely. I would love to see a return to 40 eps a year, I think we’d connect with characters better, but the problem is, is the audience there to sustain 40 episodes? I’d argue yes, during the pandemic, it was. But after the lockdowns end, what are the chances TV will take a big hit? It might not. Who knows? Either way across all tv platforms, we need more Aussie drama.

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