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Australian TV drama production in dramatic drop according to QUT-led research

While more production companies are now making drama series in Australia, they are making substantially fewer than they were in 1999 and foreign conglomerates are taking a bigger share of the drama pie. That’s according to new research led by QUT.

The Australian Television Drama Index report concludes that available drama production work and revenue are increasingly diluted and that the diminished priority on drama from commercial broadcasters hampers the production of Australian drama.

“We found there are now twice as many production companies making drama in Australia than there were in 1999 – but together they are sharing 20% fewer broadcast hours,” said Professor Amanda Lotz from QUT’s DMRC.

“Of the production companies with drama titles broadcast in 2019, exactly one half had produced six hours or fewer and 94% produced fewer than 20 hours. So, companies are either short-lived or exist with a multifaceted portfolio of work that includes factual or feature production, or advertising and online production work.

“A healthy production sector prioritises diversity and sustainability, but it is difficult to accomplish both at the diminished level of production now characteristic of the sector.”

Co-author QUT’s Professor Kevin Sanson added another area that should be of concern is the scale at which Australian drama producers have been absorbed into foreign conglomerates.

“Australian production companies are decreasingly Australian owned, especially among those producing sizable quantities of adult drama hours,” said Professor Sanson.

“Such acquisitions raise questions about the extent to which Australian stories continue to feature in their productions, although they continue to access significant sums of Australian support. They also leave local companies in a position of being without the significant resources provided by such conglomerates. Australian policy does not prioritise Australian-owned companies in the allocation of funding supports and unreliable criteria are used to determine content as ‘Australian,'” Sanson added.

The report also revealed the extent to which commercial broadcasters’ contribution to Australian drama has diminished.

“More than anything else, it is the decrease in adult drama hours commissioned by commercial broadcasters that reshaped Australian television drama between 1999 and 2019, as broadcasters responded to the audience fragmentation and cost increases from the introduction of multichannel services,” said Professor Lotz.

“The fall in hours is not so much due to a change in the number of titles being produced but the number of episodes per series – commercial adult dramas dropped from an average of 21 episodes per title in 1999 to just seven in 2019. That’s a 60% decrease.

“Despite the ABC expanding its role in drama production, and drama commissions from streaming services such as Netflix and Stan now matching Foxtel’s commissions, together they commission only a fraction of what commercial broadcasters provided in the early 2000s. Combined, these new sources of drama production do not come close to replacing the steady falls in what commercial broadcasters offer,” Sanson said.

A spokesperson at Foxtel told Mumbrella: “The Foxtel Group is a committed local champion for Australian stories and voices in all genres – drama, lifestyle, factual, sports and news. We have been subject to New Eligible Drama Expenditure (NEDE) regulation since we launched in 1995, requiring the Group to spend 10 per cent of its annual program spend o new Australian drama.

“Our Australian drama productions include Wentworth, Love my Way, Deadline Gallipoli, Secret City, A Place to Call Home and more recently, The End and The Upright. In recent months we have announced new drama commissions for The Twelve and Love Me. Although regulatory relief was provided to Foxtel and free to air television during 2020 reflecting the impacts of COVID, that 26-year obligation remains for the Foxtel Group.”

The spokesperson continued: “The current 10% obligation applies only to Foxtel, however, and with many new global entrants to the market since 2015, we are concerned regulation needs to be modernised to establish new settings that allow competitive local champions to succeed. Our investment in Australian stories and voices in other genres reflects the tastes and interests of our customers. Like drama, those investments also create valuable Australian jobs in the creative industries. For example, Selling Houses Australia, Gogglebox Australia, Grand Designs Australia, Love it or List it, Coast Australia, and The Real Housewives of Melbourne. We believe Foxtel’s record in both regulated and non-regulated Australian content speaks for itself.”

When Mumbrella reached out to the ABC for a comment on the apparent decline in drama series, a spokesperson referred to Screen Australia’s 2019-20 Drama Report, which reaffirmed that the “ABC is the biggest backer of Australian drama, investing $33 million into 14 titles – more than any other network.”

In addition, ABC’s recent submission to the Media Reform Green Paper highlights some of the issues raised in the research by QUT suggesting an effective way to increase production of Australian drama.

“The ABC is the nation’s largest commissioner of new Australian content. In the five years to 2019/20, the ABC invested more than $468 million in the independent sector on productions worth a total of $971million. This investment generated 1477 commissioned hours,” a spokesperson said.

“In its submission, the ABC proposed additional funding of $30 million a year over the next three years to support Australian content production. This would enable the ABC to commission 36 hours of high-quality Australian drama, premium factual and children’s content each year, as well as commissioning 30 hours of new and original Australian arts, music and specialist programming,”

When Mumbrella contacted Netflix for comment they declined to make an official statement, however referred to the fact that the ACMA reports that in the financial year 2019-20, the total investment on adult drama and children’s content from all commercial broadcasters was $89.7 million. In the same period for the same categories, Netflix’s investments totalled just over $111.5 million.

In 2019/2020, Netflix also invested $110 million in more than 80 titles, spanning commissions, co-productions and acquisitions. That included $52 million in Clickbait and more than $33 million in children’s drama.

Free TV responded to Mumbrella with a comment noting that it has maintained a strong and consistent track record of supporting Australian content and telling Australian stories.

“Every year, we broadcast around 25,000 hours of Australian programming to every market across the country. In 2020 Free TV broadcasters showed over 358 hours of drama programming. Every commercial television network met its drama quota obligations, despite the impact of COVID on production activity and revenue.

“Over the past decade, the cost per hour of producing drama has more than doubled. Audiences have increasingly demanded higher quality production across all viewing platforms and this has in some cases resulted in series with fewer hours but higher production values being commissioned.

A spokesperson added: “It is disappointing that the QUT report does not acknowledge commercial broadcasters’ full contribution to Australian drama production, to Australian content more generally, or the realities of drama consumption in the modern media landscape.

“The QUT report ignores the long running serials Neighbours and Home & Away – which are the powerhouses of Australian scripted production, have been the launch pads for many successful careers both on and off screen and have employed thousands of cast and crew over three decades.

Free TV explained that commercial broadcasters spent “more than $1.5 billion on Australian content in 2019/20. The latest ACMA program expenditure reports showed that commercial broadcasters spent over $84 million on Australian drama, more than any other sector.”

Last week, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) published new figures that showed investment by the subscription video on demand (SVOD) sector into local screen content, with streaming platforms Amazon Prime, Disney+, and Netflix, as well as the Nine-owned platform, Stan, spending over $153 million combined on Australian programming as a whole (not just drama) across 2019 and 2020.

“Australian drama and Australian stories have always been a fundamental part of our programming mix and our commitment to audiences, and this will not change,” said a Nine spokesperson.

“The 9Network will be announcing a slate of exciting new local dramas at our 2022 Upfront, and Stan has just announced an even bigger commitment to local production. The production sector has been very adept at evolving along with audience behaviour, and we are committed to working with the sector to invest in local drama.”

Mumbrella has also reached out to Seven and Ten for comment.

 

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