Producers decry the increasing shift to short-run dramas

Deltra Goodrem as Olivia Newton-John.

Some producers are dismayed at the Australian networks’ preference for short-run dramas, pointing to a lack of training opportunities for writers and directors.

Others believe broadcasters still have an appetite for returning series and the trick is to find – and finance – concepts that meet their needs.

“What we are seeing is a trend line over the past few years to fewer higher-budget, shorter-run dramas,” Screen Producers Australia CEO Matt Deaner tells IF.

“It’s a commercial decision and obviously informed by an assessment of risk and for the commercial broadcasters, their content obligations. In its submission to the content review, Free TV wants the government to give these dramas more weight in the content standard so they see value in them.

“I do worry that if this trend continues it will accelerate the drain of skilled workers from our industry. It’s not great for a business model for production companies, given the sunk costs that then can’t be amortised over multiple seasons and the challenge of selling short runs overseas.”

Endemol Shine Banks’ Imogen Banks, who created and produced Offspring and produced Sisters, agrees. “The problem of short running series is real – it almost completely wipes out the opportunity for training writers and directors, and it pushes up the hourly cost of drama at a time when its audiences are dropping,” she says.

“For networks it also poses a marketing conundrum – launching a show is hugely expensive. Launching a six-part mini-series is not much different to launching an ongoing 20-part series. But you have a much shorter time frame for audiences to notice, tune in and then remember to watch again the next week. This is partly why we’re seeing a lot of shows that come with an inbuilt marketing campaign – i.e. remakes of previously successful shows or adaptations of known books. There is already audience familiarity.”

In the past two years Love Child creator Sarah Lambert has worked exclusively on shorter run series. “Maybe it’s a trend or just part of a cycle. I do think the Holy Grail is to find a great returning show but something that hasn’t been done before,” she says.

Network Ten’s head of drama Rick Maier tells IF: “The audience have indicated shorter runs are preferred, but it really has to be determined on a case by case basis. There’s no hard and fast thinking on this.”

Seven’s head of drama Julie McGauran says she is always open to looking at all drama genres that tell strong, compelling and unique stories with identifiable characters.

Olivia Newton-John: Hopelessly Devoted to You, FremantleMedia Australia’s two-part biopic starring Delta Goodrem, premieres on Seven later this year.

Easy Tiger’s Ian Collie observes: “In general broadcasters are still looking for returning series but the number of episodes are less in case a show doesn’t perform. If they do succeed they become a wonderful brand for the network to trade off.

“Broadcasters do seem to be looking for a mix of formats these days. The returning, long running series is the Holy Grail but harder to pull off these days. Minis are working, particularly if there is some pre-brand awareness, like a book or remake of a film. One to two-part telemovies appear to have exhausted themselves but maybe that’s more in the bio pic genre: we’ve run out of interesting celebs.”

Matchbox Pictures MD Chris Oliver-Taylor notes that all networks have successfully built drama brands in recent years, citing such examples as the ABC’s Rake, Foxtel’s Wentworth and, currently, Nine’s Doctor Doctor.

“I think that impact dramas, perhaps those on SBS or the ABC, are shorter in length than they used to be – four parts as opposed to six – and we are not seeing the 13 or 22 episodes commissions at the moment,” he says.

“But that is also reflective of how audiences are engaging with content. I think networks will absolutely commission longer running series if the idea is sound and they believe the audience will stay solid.”