Urgent action needed to stem sharp TV production decline: Screen Forever
Screen Producers Australia chief executive Matthew Deaner has called for urgent action to address the decline of television production in Australia after the industry recorded its worst result in more than a decade.
Deaner has echoed the sentiment of Endeomol Shine Australia producer, John Edwards, who likened the TV drama production industry to a "stagnant billabong" in the Hector Crawford memorial lecture at the 30th Screen Forever conference.
The call comes on the back of Screen Australian Drama report figures, which found that TV drama expenditure fell 13 per cent in 2014/15.
Deaner said Edwards' lecture was a "wake up call" to the industry.
"The recent Screen Australia Drama Production Report confirmed that production of Australian television drama is at its lowest point in a decade," he said.
"Contributing to this trend are several factors, including a move to shorter series as well as sharp declines in commercial television commissioning."
Deaner pointed to a systemic problem in the Australian production landscape, which was highighted in Edwards' address.
“John is without peer in the contemporary Australian drama producing landscape and when he says we have a systemic problem, it is important to listen," he said.
"Screen Producers Australia shares John’s concerns that the trend away from longer form drama has serious long-term implications."
Deaner said short form dramas were inherently expensive and manifested a reliance on Screen Australia subsidy.
"The high cost of producing short form drama also results in a lack of talent regeneration in our industry as taking a risk on unknown or emerging key creatives and cast is unattractive," he said.
"We need to work with Government, broadcasters and the wider production industry on policies that encourage a healthy mix of drama forms – high budget and low budget, long form and short form and, as John says, those forms yet to be discovered.
He said there was an urgent need to conclude the ATRAA negotiations between SPA and MEAA, "to better enable networks to monetize their drama investments, work with Government on determining the right balance of polity levers including tax offsets and direct subsidy, and work with broadcasters and other investors on creating an environment where drama ideas and their creators can experiment and flourish.”
TV drama is coming off four years of increased investment, and drama spend and hours are down as broadcasters deal with straightened times and new competitors.
Overall, the 2014/15 Australian TV drama slate comprised 517 hours of programs (47 titles), accounting for expenditure in Australia of $299 million.
The results were down on last year as the adult TV drama slate fell back from recent record expenditure levels.
Expenditure on children’s TV drama increased, although hours decreased.
The 2014/15 Australian children’s drama slate comprised 116 hours of programs with total budgets of $95 million and Australian expenditure of $64 million.
The adult TV drama slate comprised 34 titles (401 hours) with budgets totalling $238 million and expenditure in Australia of $235 million.
All measures were down on last year and the five-year averages.
The sector has seen a gradual decline in total hours combined with four years of increased investment in TV drama for adults by all broadcasters.
With the contraction of production across all measures this year, the number of hours produced dipped to the lowest since 2005/06.
Total budgets and expenditure were similar to 2009/10, prior to the elevated results of recent years.
Production trends in recent years have seen a move away from longer-run series and serials toward shorter-form series and mini-series.
The commercial free-to-air broadcasters remain the largest financiers of TV drama, even though their contribution reduced this year.
Overall, the Seven and Ten networks continued to account for the lion’s share of adult TV drama hours produced, principally due to their flagship serials, Home and Away and Neighbours.
Production for the ABC continued to be strong this year, increasing even further after three years of solid production levels, following a boost to finance available for drama as part of the public broadcaster’s 2009–12 three-year funding agreement.
As a result the ABC has accounted for the largest share of total budgets of any single broadcaster since 2011/12.
The Seven Network remained the highest financial contributor to the adult slate from a single broadcaster, followed by the ABC and Foxtel.
Subscription television had a strong year with The Kettering Incident, Open Slather and a third season of A Place to Call Home (licenced from the Seven Network last year).
Subscription television finance also had its highest recorded contribution to the TV drama slate.
The introduction of video-on-demand (VOD) services has also brought a growing volume of professionally-produced drama content being made for release online.
This year’s titles are Fresh Blood Pilot Season (ABC iview), No Activity, Plonk series 2 (both Stan) and SBS Comedy Runway (SBS ON DEMAND).
Titles that are 60 minutes or more in total and made for Catch-up or Subscription VOD are captured for the first time in the data of Screen Australia report.
However, direct government investment continued to underpin a large proportion of the slate, with Screen Australia alone contributing $21 million to supporting 47 per cent of all TV drama titles.
Deaner previously told IF Deaner said that the full effects of the budget cuts to the ABC were yet to be felt and that, without intervention, the drama production figures for 2015/16 were likely to be even worse.Screen Australia will lose $3.6 million over four years. This follows a cut of $38 million over four years in the 2014 Budget.
The ABC's budget has been reduced from $1.113 billion to $1.084 billion and SBS' budget was sliced by $2 million to $283 million.
He said the industry expected a level of fluctuation from year to year, particularly in expenditure on local and international feature film production.
"But the hours of drama television are a worrying sign as television remains the engine room of the production sector,” he said.
"After eight years of growth in adult drama expenditure, we have now seen two consecutive years of falls in spend with the total number of hours produced dropping from a peak of just over 500 hours in 2007-08 to closer to 400 hours in 2014-15. This the lowest figure in a decade.
“At this rate we are on track for Australian adult drama to be in the same situation as children’s drama, where commercial networks merely meet their quote obligations only rather than commissioning over and above the quota.”