Edwards laments lack of new dramas and talent

John Edwards today likened the state of the Australian TV drama production industry to a “stagnant billabong,” marked by fewer series, the same writers, inflated costs for no apparent quality gain, shrinking audiences and increasingly reliance on subsidy.

“All the openness and excitement and bringing through of new talent, of new work, has certainly dissipated, and the area that has historically been the largest and most productive sector of the broadcast industry has all but disappeared,” the veteran producer said in his Hector Crawford memorial lecture at Screen Forever.

“People keep saying it’s the golden age of television drama. If the emperor doesn’t have no clothes, he certainly seems to be wearing very weird underwear.”

Edwards lamented the demise of the 40-part and 22-part series and said 13-parters are almost an anachronism.  He noted 6-8 part dramas typically cost $1 million- $1.2 million per hour and once those production structures are in place it is very hard to reduce budgets.

The Endemol Shine Australia executive pointed to a 24 per cent drop in the volume of drama production in the past decade to 401 hours in 2014/15 from 527 hours in 2004/5, despite the rise in the number of potential outlets. Yet the budgeted cost of that content has shot up by 42 per cent in the same period.

He said the drop in volume among the commercial free-to-air broadcasters was 39 per cent and, excluding Neighbours and Home Away, just 57 hours of Australian drama was screened on those networks in 2014/15: short-run series, telemovies and a few miniseries.

“Thank goodness that Foxtel and the ABC have increased production, though notably, with budgets increased in line with what I’ve been suggesting,” he said.

By his reckoning only two new writers emerged from prime-time dramas, excluding soaps, in the past two years. By contrast, his 40-episode drama Big Sky, which ran from 1997-99 on Network Ten, gave Tony McNamara, Steve Worland, Jaqueline Perske, John Polson, Rhett Walton and Kate Dennis their first or second TV gigs.

Edwards has nothing against short running, returning series, having produced eight including Offspring, The Secret Life of Us, Love My Way, Tangle and Puberty Blues.

Acknowledging Screen Australia’s crucial investment, he said, “Screen Australia is currently keeping us alive. They have to work within a broader regulatory system that needs a re-jig. The system ought to give us a mix of forms, but at the moment it’s all short series a few two by twos and a couple of telemovies, not a healthy mix at all.”

He praised Stan’s No Activity, produced by Jungle (formerly Jungleboys) as the best local series he’s seen this year, and he observed Foxtel’s success with volume dramas Wentworth and A Place to Call Home.

As for ways of rejuvenating drama production, he suggested the ABC and the commercial broadcasters could switch to volume production at lower budgets, which would stimulate production.

“The volume benefits might just come to outweigh the risks of launching new shows,” he said. “Everybody would be much better off, new forms of drama would pop up, new people would have to be bought through and the government would collect more tax."

“If a policy of making six and eight hour series continues though, I fear disproportionately less good would be achieved."

While he doubts the 40-part series will ever return, he predicts new drama forms might blossom, such as two parts a week in short runs to compete against reality shows,  “cable real half hours” playing for 45 minutes after those shows, or reintroducing a primetime strip.

“Our world is changing so fast. But to me it seems a safe bet that it will be the requirement to make volume that will spurn re-inventors, not more funnelling money to ever more expensively repetitive short series playing to ever more diminishing audiences,” he concluded.

Following his talk, Screen Producers Australia CEO Matt Deaner said, “John Edwards' lecture is an important wake up call to our industry to consider the challenges facing television drama production this country. The recent Screen Australia Drama Production Report confirmed that production of Australian television drama is at its lowest point in a decade. Contributing to this trend are several factors, including a move to shorter series as well as sharp declines in commercial television commissioning.

“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. Screen Producers Australia shares John’s concerns that the trend away from longer form drama has serious long-term implications. Short form dramas are inherently expensive and necessitate 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. 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.”

  1. I agree with everything John says.
    Another key to growing drama production would be the increase in private investment that would flow into the industry should the Government’s Foreign Actors’ Visa Review recommend decision- making on temporary visas for overseas “name” actors be the sole responsibility of Immigration and Border Protection, with MEAA being taken out of the equation.

    We still await the findings of the Review and hope that common sense will prevail and that the union are unsuccessful in their efforts to have those findings overturned by a Motion of Disallowance in the Senate, should they not satisfy MEAA’s own narrow interests.

    Current MEAA rhetoric claims a victory in this matter but I am led to believe that may not necessarily be the case. Fingers crossed…for the sake of sustainability and growth in our Australian screen sector.

  2. I’m glad an industry insider has admitted this problem. The TV industry in Oz is a closed shop. I keep noticing that it’s the same twenty people who write everything, and the same twenty people who direct everything. It’s why everything on Oz TV feels like recycled soap opera, and why no-one overseas wants most of what we produce. Look at all the fantastic shows coming out of the USA and UK – so many of them are from fresh new voices.

  3. Not quite Shane, but you are in the ball park.
    Here is a voice from another industry insider, who knows the other one, and happens to (mostly) agree with him.

    There has been a cyclical rhythm to the Australian TV and film scene for forty years to my knowledge, the current contradiction of “we are in the golden age” and the obvious absence of any real industry, is just the 2015/16 cycle.

    I was first introduced to the phenomenon in 1972 when I joined “The Actor’s Forum,” a group formed by Michael Pate, Jonathon Hardy, George Mallaby and others, with the notion of meeting regularly to discuss and attempt to counter just exactly the same problem that faces us today.

    A little group of culture vultures and art baggers have had their feet in the trough and ruled by a kind of fraternity or club, because the powers that be are ignorant of the nature of good drama and/or good theatrical practice. like investors or gamblers, they look to what has scraped through previously and seek to emulate it in the hope of striking gold.

    They look to the US for leadership, precisely because they lack the imagination and the guts to clear scrub and plant new crops. We are Australians, we are not US American, and we only think of them as representing the bench mark, because we have been spoon fed with their gruel since childhood.

    They do some good work, but they chase ratings and settle for the lowest common denominator, as our TV channels do, which brings about glossy mediocrity, so called reality TV, and cooking shows, but not good drama.

    The US industry was great, in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, after that it simply slid into production line sausage machine production, which we lapped up and feasted ourselves upon at our own expense and to our own detriment.

    There is a way out, but it will take courage and big change.

  4. I’m working with a small team in Brisbane and we desperately want to produce new drama. You know what the chances of finding money to finance this is? Zero.

    Screen Queensland and Screen Australia seem totally closed shops with long, long-winded processes around applying for funds.

  5. Richard Moss you’re living in a dream world my friend. The last 15 years has seen the US produce some of the greatest tv in the history of the medium. sure, this is balanced by a bunch of dross but it’s relative to the size of the market. Go and read “Difficult Men” by Brett Martin. Better still, go watch ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘The Wire’. Australia just doesn’t have the marketplace to produce a high volume of “quality” drama that appeals to middle class intellectuals. We produce a fair volume of drama and some of it is OK. Not great, just OK. Most of it is doughnuts for the lowest common denominator but that’s the commercial reality of the industry. We make PRODUCTS. Most of us working in the business these days realized a long time ago that it’s a series of compromises and if we’re lucky we’ll get our idea on screen with some semblance of it’s initial integrity intact. Or we’ve realized that the best way to keep working is punch out those doughnuts, earn a paycheck and go on a nice holiday and have a nice drink and think about something else.

  6. Ebola Retson. First I am not your friend, and if by accusing me of [quote]”living in a dream world”[unquote] you mean to say that you disagree with me, then I acknowledge your right to that. If you read my views, then you would be aware that I said of the US model “they do some good work” I did not say that they produce only dross.

    Your opinion runs to: [quote]” Australia just doesn’t have the marketplace to produce a high volume of “quality” drama that appeals to middle class intellectuals.”[unquote] I have no idea where you acquired your marketing skills, but the marketplace usually produces nothing, it sells product, so what do you mean?

    The ABC alone has the facilities and the mechanism to produce high quality drama in the English language, and, in case you are equating quality with large amounts of funding, Good drama and high production costs are not conjoined, theatre can be as simple as a ring drawn in the sand.

    Those doughnuts you talk about are sugary, fat filled and very bad for the health, working class, middle class or upper class, intellect needs nutrition to develop.

    By the way, The US has produced some of the finest TV in the English speaking world for a great deal longer than 15 years, but it is still not the bench mark to which we should be referring.

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