The co-creator of Offspring has deplored the decline of the 13-episode Australian drama and criticised the shift to shorter-run “puzzle” dramas.
“I feel quite sad that the 13-parter seems to be fading in Australia,” Debra Oswald said in an interview for the Swinburne Institute for Social Research’s report TV 2025: Reconsidering small screen media in Australia by Jock Given, Michael Brealey and Cathy Gray.
“People now just seem to just want six or eight,” said Oswald, who created Offspring with John Edwards and Imogen Banks and worked on the 13-part show for all five seasons.
However two networks dispute that view. Angus Ross, Seven Network Director of Programming, tells IF: “It’s a matter of finding the right format for the story being told. The suggestion that the 13-part series is dead is premature in my view.”
Andy Ryan, co-head of drama at the Nine Network says, "The 13-parter is not dead but there are more opportunities for different kinds of storytelling. We have more flexibility, which is a good thing. In the past two or three years we have commissioned a two hour, 2 x 2 hours, 8 hours, 9 hours, 10 hours and 13 hours (House Husbands). We love 13 hours."
Oswald writes, “Twenty years ago I would have thought, oh what a treat to get to do a six-parter, because it was seen as more high quality and authorial or something. I can see the joys of that, the chance to develop characters over time.
“With a 13-part series, or even the old 26-part, you can lure an audience in to watch something they might not have thought they would like, instead of having to convince them beforehand, which is what a movie has to do. You can sneak up on people. A few people watch it, they tell their friends to watch next week, and with catch-up those friends can then catch-up. And then you can end up taking people places that they didn’t think they wanted to go.
“The writers can go places they didn’t think they wanted to go, because things happen. You can lose actors so you’ve got to do something, and you find some interesting sideways turns in a story. There’s something so exciting about that for the audiences and the creators.”
Some broadcasters may well argue that given the hefty production budgets, it’s increasingly problematic to finance 13-part dramas, and that viewers are clearly showing they prefer miniseries such as Catching Milat and House of Hancock, and short-run series.
Oswald, whose credits include The Secret Life of Us, Something in the Air and Police Rescue, took issue with the current "obsession" with the 6-or 8-part puzzle drama.
“There’s something closed about it – it’s not true to human existence,” she said. “Of course, there are all sorts of exceptions where people do it in a very intelligent and thoughtful way – but generally puzzle dramas are a kind of low-grade form of storytelling, where the writers hold information behind their backs, in a phony way, and then suddenly whip it out and go ‘Oh there you are, that’s the answer’, which is not to me, what classic storytelling is about.”
Looking at the future of TV in the next 10 years, she voiced one major concern: “ My fear is whatever happens with streaming technology, whatever delivery system wins the shake-out in broadcasting, that US-made drama will dominate English-speaking markets, and local Australian product will become financially unviable.”