John Edwards: ‘The Australian production sector has run itself into a stagnant billabong’

One of Australia’s most lauded television producers has warned that TV networks are opting for the safe route by commissioning only short eight-to-ten episode series and he has also chastised local television producers for the size of the budgets they expect.

John Edwards

Edwards: ‘we have run ourselves into a stagnant billabong’

Delivering the Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture John Edwards, the man behind major hits such as Off Spring, The Secret Life of Us and Police Rescue, today warned the the audience they needed to look at their budgets and whether they could still achieve a good result with a less money.

“My view on the present state of drama production industry is that we have run ourselves into a stagnant billabong,” said Edwards at the Screen Forever conference in Melbourne.

“Less production, same writers over and over, rising costs for no apparent quality gain, shrinking audiences and increasingly reliant on subsidy. All the excitement of bringing through new work, new talent is slowly dissipating.

“The area that has been historically the largest and most productive sector of the Australian broadcast industry has all but disappeared and people keep saying its the golden age of television drama. The emperor has no clothes and he is wearing very weird underwear.”

Edwards cited his budget for The Secret Life of Us to argue it was time for the industry to look at why costs were rising and what we being achieved for that investement.

“My budget for that show was $500,000 to $550,000 (for) an hour (of content), pretty much half of what it costs for an hour of content today,” he said. “And a tiny fraction of what it costs for some.”

However, while conceding that The Secret Life of Us was filmed a decade ago he noted: “100 to 400 per cent inflation seems out of whack especially when there has not been a commensurate increase in the quality of productions. The only significant cost increase across the board has been in the writers and cast fees.”

Edwards argued that TV Networks were taking the safer choice commissioning shorter series for fear they wouldn’t rate well.

“Why wouldn’t the network opt first time around to go with say eight parts and have up to 40 per cent tax payer funded subsidy?,”asked Edwards.

“It’s very understandable that this has become the predominant form. Because six and eight part shows ordinarily cost between $1 and $1.2 million per hour, and once those production structures and so on are in place, the problem becomes it’s very hard to bring budgets down, even if the number of episodes is increased in the future – we’re all both creatures of habit and justifiers of our situations.

“The million dollar plus an episode series becomes “normal”.

Edward’s speech has been welcomed by the Screen Production industry body.

“John Edwards’ lecture is an important wake up call to our industry to consider the challenges facing television drama production this country,” said Matthew Deaner CEO of Screen Producers Australia.

“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.”

Nic Christensen 


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