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.”