Report recommends ABC, SBS as destinations for Australian drama

Public broadcasters should be the focus for culturally significant Australian stories, says a new report, not streaming platforms interested in global audiences.

Australian made adult drama fell from 570 to 300 broadcast hours between 1999 and 2023, according to a new report, and children’s drama more than halved, from 106 to 51 hours.

QUT’s report ‘Australian Television Drama’s Uncertain Future: How Cultural Policy is Failing Australians‘ found that the primary beneficiaries of broadcasting and screen production policy reform have been industry interests, not the Australian community.

The demise of Australian television drama is a direct consequence of a failure to adopt policies for contemporary conditions and the blurring of cultural and economic policy priorities.

It claims many of the few remaining dramas today are not made for an Australian audience.

Instead, they are commissioned by services targeting global markets.

Australian TV drama hours, 1999–2023

“For example, Wolf Like Me (Stan, 2022-) is a romantic comedy about two Americans set in Adelaide and Lie With Me (Network 10, 2021) is an adultery thriller set in Melbourne where a couple has recently moved from the UK,” the report stated.

“Others yet are shot in Australia but set in other places, for example, Clickbait (Netflix, 2021) and Nine Perfect Strangers (Prime Video, 2021-).

These series receive as much as 30% of their spending back in government rebates. Streaming services may be spending more per hour but their lack of meaningful engagement with any aspect of Australian society raises the question of what value the Australian community receives.

It also suggested the push for streaming quotas should not be the only focus for safeguarding of Australian stories.

“Those efforts have been stymied by the lack of clear objectives. Policy solutions may include streamers, but the purpose of policy needs to be established first,” it said.

It recommended four interventions :

Cultural specificity, access, and diversity should be key objectives of cultural policy for the Australian screen sector. To that end, funding to ensure Australians have access to 50–75 hours of new, varied, culturally specific drama per year must be established.

Cultural specificity, access, and diversity should be key objectives of cultural policy for the Australian screen sector. To that end, funding to ensure Australians have access to 50–75 hours of new, varied, culturally specific drama per year must be established.

Culturally specific drama provides compelling accounts of the Australian experience in all its diversity.

It offers Australians ways to understand their place in the world, relationships among Australians, and the challenges we face, as in dramas such as Redfern Now (ABC, 2012–13), Gallipoli (Nine, 2015), The Family Law (SBS, 2016–19), Total Control (ABC, 2019–24), New Gold Mountain (SBS, 2021), Fires (ABC, 2021), The Newsreader (ABC, 2021–), RFDS (Seven, 2021–), In Our Blood (ABC, 2023–), Safe Home (SBS, 2023), House of Gods (ABC, 2024), and Boy Swallows Universe (Netflix, 2024).

“To be clear, this is not a call for stories with kangaroos, koalas, accents and Australian landmarks,” it said.

“Much like how Mr Bates vs The Post Office (ITV, 2024) recently galvanised viewers in the UK in
understanding a great injustice in their society, supports for dramatic examinations of Australian crises such as Robodebt, epidemic levels of domestic violence, and accounts of ongoing struggles of cohesion in a migrant and colonialist nation deliver crucial social understanding but are often dismissed as lacking international or commercial viability.

“Titles receiving supports intended to deliver social and cultural value to the Australian community must be accessible to all. This could be achieved through ensuring there is a non-paywalled distribution window. Titles can also be licensed to paid services, as this makes it easier for some Australians to find and view, or be sold abroad.

“As an objective, accessibility demands prioritising the Australian community’s ability to watch these dramas, not industrial strategies of exclusivity and scarcity. There are multiple routes by which this can be achieved, though the most efficient is to resource Australia’s public service broadcasters.

“The provision of culturally specific drama that reflects Australian society in all its diversity aligns with both the ABC’s and SBS’s charter obligations, with both services being widely accessible.”

The ABC and SBS are key cultural institutions that should be central to delivering screen drama cultural objectives.

“The ABC and SBS require resourcing dedicated to this mission given they are the only institutions aligned to serving Australians and prioritising accessibility and diversity. The free-to-air availability of these broadcasters, combined with their established free-to-access, on-demand infrastructure is important given the accessibility challenges of the contemporary ecosystem,” the report stated.

“Just as founding frameworks such as the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 warrant updating for the profoundly changed conditions, so too does the ABC Charter require modernisation to acknowledge its expanded duties given the erosion of commercial broadcasters’ contribution to Australian society.

“Crucially, policy that requires public service broadcasters to ensure culturally specific, accessible, and diverse screen stories must guarantee dedicated funding and expectations for drama objectives.”

Enforce prosocial obligations and/or fees on entities using broadcast spectrum.

“Reducing commercial broadcaster obligations over recent decades has been disastrous for the
Australian community in terms of their access to freely available Australian drama. Current conditions in which commercial broadcasters access public spectrum with minimal corresponding public responsibility must be rectified,” it continued.

“Reinstating drama quotas is not effective policy, but broadcasters should contribute funds that support cultural policy in lieu, such as through contributions to a fund that could support the hours of culturally specific drama called for here.”

Clarity is need regarding the cultural objectives of the producer offset and Screen Australia. Ideally social and cultural aims should be separated from economic development.

12 Responses

  1. … the only way to achieve what QUT wants is to drop the “commission” model at the ABC and go back to in-house production using only the funding provided under the government appropriation like it used to be last century, then drama can be made without any regard to overseas sales as is the current situation where the bulk of the funding comes from Screen Australia and the various state funding bodies plus other sources all of which has to generate a return which necessitates those overseas sales … of course to do this would necessitate the news department going back to the same size and share of funding it had last century which would mean a reduction of around two thirds of its current size … sound like a plan?

  2. An upside in dramas or series being produced by ABC or SBS is that it’s not under the commercial pressure that the streaming companies have. The commissioning and continuation of dramas and series on streaming networks can be erratic and unpredictable. Often there are stories about shows being cancelled on the streaming platforms, despite rave reviews. Streaming companies are beholden to the algorithms, subscriptions and fees.

    It’s advantageous to commission series’ on free-to-air if it’s what the fans want and will get rave reviews.

  3. Their snobbery comes through. They point that Home & Away shouldn’t get any subsidies because it sells to 80 countries and is profitable and mostly funded by ITV anyway. The label it low quality, low viewer TV of no cultural value. At 1m viewers it rates more than twice any of the dramas QUT likes, is produced here so all the money stays here and it actually uses ordinary contemporary Australian speech. What they are arguing for is taxing loss making commercial broadcasters to increase funding to the ABC and SBS to make more pretentious drama that nobody watches. And that is the problem. Nobody wants to watch the dramas that TV here is making, they want to watch MAFS, Farmer Wants a Wife and Masterchef. Foreign drama spending and viewing has fallen even more than local drama on FTA so the problem is no longer cheap foreign competition as it was the past. Foreign shows are actually much more expensive and subsiding it will cost a fortune. The problem is viewer preferences.

    1. Pretty offensive to say nobody wants to watch dramas made here. Even the numbers indicate that is incorrect, Home & Away rates more than MasterChef? I always encourage readers to comment on their own viewing rather than speak for others.

      1. The QUT report is arguing for a return to 50-75 hours of Australian made Commericial Dramas via quotas and specifically refers back to the 1990s when Blue Healers, All Saints and Water Rats were soap operas with 40+ episode year and managed to get 2m viewers an episode. Yes rubbishes H&A the highest rating drama because it’s watch by plebes and isn’t the sort of woke propaganda they want to be the only choice. The quota weren’t even responsible for Blue Heeler it predates it and that’s to families siting around the lounge room TV and watching it rated 2m ON for 40 episodes a year. It was the VHS revolution that allowed people to record TV and watch movies from Blockbuster that ended that. The quotas causes cheap sketch comedy like FF and Full Frontal to replace drama. So they created a premium points target. It’s not just local drama. NCIS’s ratings have fallen from 2m to 0.18m in a decade too. People have infinite choices thanks to the internet. TV is global not local.

  4. Forcing the creation of content nobody wants to watch and then subsiding Netflix, Disney+, Amazon and Paramount+ when they are increasing fee and showing ads to enrich the shareholders of the SPA, BBC, ITV, NBCU, Freemantle, Shine Endemol et al. has always been ridiculous.

    The 30% tax subsidy is the minimum that Home and Away now gets. For some high budget shows and movies it is 40%, plus there is Screen Australia, State Screen funding as they pointless bid against each other and the taxpayer funding that SBS and the ABC receive to consider. What’s more foreign companies have been claiming subsidies not just for production but post-production of competition shows as well. This isn’t the first report to find that economic subsidies to foreign companies are being dressed up cultural investment for those who can afford to subscribe to Netflix and Disney+.

  5. The best example of evidence that Australians want to watch shows produced by Australians, acted by Australians, filmed in Australia showing Australian culture is Neighbours. Channel Ten originally showed the new series just prior to their 5pm news bulletin. However, due to low ratings, they shunted it to an earlier slot where the ratings have been even worse.
    And what did Ten replace Neighbours with? The Bold and the Beautiful! At least us Aussies got to see Angela Bishop doing a cameo.

    1. Isn’t the best example Bay of Fires the biggest drawcard on iview last year outside of Bluey, or Home & Away rating over 900k in 7pm? Or streaming hits like Heartbreak High, Boy Swallows Universe, Colin From Accounts, Fisk… there’s also Wentworth, The Newsreader etc.

  6. So basically what they are saying is programs don’t need to be well written, or have a good story or be entertaining. They just need to belt you over the head with “ Cultural specificity, access, and diversity“. Just give me something entertaining without a message.

  7. As an outsider, my best guess is this is all about the money. There is no money in Australia to fund Australian drama, so writers and producers need to look overseas for funding sources – hence the story lines mentioned here. It is not as simple as to say the ABC and SBS have to step into this space – the simply don’t have the budget to do it, which has been shrinking for years.

    For me, the best chance Australia drama / story telling has is in a reactivation of children’s entertainment. Many decades ago the ACTF was pumping out great little shows that I thought would have good appeal to both a domestic and o/s market.

    Some of the adult Australian drama being produced for a long time has, IMHO, been drivel that as a progressive, even I find too woke.

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