Professor Amanda Lotz (Queensland University of Technology), Associate Professor Anna Potter (University of the Sunshine Coast) and Professor Kevin Sanson (Queensland University of Technology), are the chief investigators of Making Australian TV in the 21st Century, a project funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project Grant. This week, they released the Australian Television Drama Index, a report looking back at the last 20 years, tracing patterns in TV drama commissioning, production companies and attributes of drama produced. Here, they share some of their findings and the implications for policy.
We released the Australian Television Drama Index this week as part of a three-year project investigating the challenges of ‘Making Australian Television in the 21st Century.’ The index draws from a database constructed primarily from Screen Australia’s Drama Report, supplemented with ACMA data and other information to build a comprehensive 20-year account of the root causes of what we see as an existential crisis in Australian television drama creation.
The index shows commercial broadcasters’ adult drama commissioning decreased by 68 per cent over the last two decades, from 208 hours in 1999 to 67 in 2019 (soaps not included). The average episodes per title per year produced by commercial broadcasters also decreased, from an average of 21 episodes in 1999 to seven in 2019.
We don’t blame Australia’s commercial broadcasters for these stunning declines. They result from complicated industrial reconfiguration caused by digitisation. The introduction of digital multichannels in the mid-2000s caused audience fragmentation – which challenged the ability to attract a mass audience while increasing programming costs, without new revenue. Despite all the new channels, television ad spending remained stagnant and has begun to decline as advertisers shift some spending to new advertising tools such as search (Google, Amazon) and social media.
Though commercial broadcasters are not responsible for technological innovation or global industry reconfiguration, their reactions to these developments, including a programming focus on sport, news, and reality entertainment rather than Australian drama, have profound consequences. Commercial broadcasters no long play the critically important role in supporting Australian storytelling that they have done for decades. This key changed reality requires careful and comprehensive policy making because their declining investment has systematically eroded the foundations of Australian television drama production.
More doing less
Another finding is that the number of production companies making Australian dramas has increased. This would be good news, but the number of hours (adult and children’s) across all commissioners (commercial broadcasters, national broadcasters, Foxtel, SVODs) declined 20 per cent between 1999 and 2019. Few companies maintain steady and significant hours year to year, suggesting many require a portfolio of factual, feature, commercial, or other production work to stay in business.
We also identified that several of the companies that have produced the most adult drama in the last decade are now foreign owned. The next stage of our research will involve investigating how the lack of access to capital and foreign distribution may put domestically-owned studios at disadvantage. The figure below captures the reduction of hours and increased role of companies owned by foreign conglomerates.
Policy leadership needed
The index illustrates the weakness at the foundation of Australian television, a foundation meant to be supported by fit-for-purpose policy. Although talk of reform has been abundant with Senate enquiries, repeated papers, and calls for submissions since 2017, there is little sign that either the government or industry realises we have reached the edge of the precipice.
The government has implemented some reforms, including removing children’s quotas, a development that is likely to see children’s production fall off a cliff. It has also modified adult drama quotas for commercial broadcasters and is increasing the Producer Offset to 30 per cent for television. Notably, none of these changes directly address the consequences of commercial broadcasters being unable to continue their historic, central role in the Australian television drama ecosystem as a reliable source of drama created primarily for Australian viewers.
The creation of Australian stories for Australian audiences has historically been the primary aim of Australian cultural policy – and other supports for the sector. But these goals have been subsumed by policies prioritising economic interests such as growing the sector through foreign production and production of stories for global audiences.
Of course the international market has long been a factor in financing Australian drama, but it has been a secondary market. The critical difference in drama production right now is the significant reduction in the commissioning of domestic drama for Australian audiences, a role the commercial broadcasters dominated until 2014.
Australia’s national broadcasters, particularly the ABC, continue to commission Australian drama. They have become the most reliable provider of adult and children’s drama, but they’re being asked to do more without increased or reliable funding. Curiously, the policy changes proposed by the government have prioritised requiring local content quotas of the ABC without providing corresponding funding, and at the same time similar obligations have been removed from commercial broadcasters.
The government has also proposed content quotas on streaming providers (but not, oddly, on the Australian streaming provider Stan), a move strongly supported by producers. The risk of this is that Australian viewers are not the primary audience of global streaming services. Quotas might lead to Australian productions, but current settings unreliably deliver the ‘Australian stories’ that figure strongly in rhetoric. As the index illustrates, the loss of commercial broadcast drama commissions is many magnitudes greater than the scale of hours offered by streaming services, or even an established Australia-only service such as Foxtel. Quotas on streamers might diminish the impact on the production sector, but it is unrealistic to think global services will commission Australian stories as commercial broadcasters have.
There is no easy solution
The situation requires a comprehensive plan with clear goals and the acknowledgment that economic supports may be warranted but do not reliably deliver the cultural goals – the Australian stories – that have underpinned policy for decades.
To be clear, our research isn’t pro- or anti- any part of the industry. Rather, it is informed by the macro issues we see across screen industries globally and our recognition that we are at an inflection point that requires leadership, compromise, and collaboration. It is also concerning to see the supports funded by Australian taxpayers produce public value for Australians. The sector has many advocates, Australian audiences have few.
It is not a time for subtle adaptation of old policies to changed conditions. It is a time for new policies suited to a very different reality than that of the past. The future of ‘Australian stories’ requires specific cultural policy that isn’t muddled with metrics of industry growth and jobs – though of course Australians will be employed in the making of stories with clear and specific Australian cultural value. Given the massive reduction in commissioning for Australian audiences and the market drive to global content, culturally specific Australian stories need more and bespoke support.
The drama index confirms the perilous state of Australian television drama production and the need for a comprehensive, holistic, and carefully conceived 21stcentury policy agenda.