Cost of Australian drama hitting networks as future of quotas called into question

From left: Bob Campbell, Ian Robertson, Ross Crowley and Fiona Cameron

From left: Bob Campbell, Ian Robertson, Ross Crowley and Fiona Cameron

The cost of producing and buying Australian TV drama is in danger of becoming prohibitively expensive, while maintaining and enforcing the current quotas for local content is likely to become increasingly difficult, industry experts have warned.

Speaking during a panel discussion on content funding at the ASTRA conference in Sydney last week, Screentime managing director Bob Campbell, a former chief executive of Seven Network, said he was “proud” to produce Australian programs, adding the quality is rising and demand is growing.

But he confirmed the costs of funding Australian programs was also climbing and it was “not easy” to find the cash. His  comments followed remarks from Screen Australia chief operating officer Fiona Cameron who said the cost of buying local content was at least four times more expensive than acquiring drama from overseas. The result is that 70 per cent of drama on Australian TV is foreign, she said.

“In terms of audience acceptability, we’re in a pretty good place,” Campbell said. “The challenge, as always, is funding. And in a market of 22 million people, with five free-to-air networks and a very well-credentialled pay platform, and with a lot of other competition coming, it is not easy to fund budgets of $1 million, $1.2, $1.5, or in some cases $1.8 million an hour.

“So it does need the confluence of networks willing to take risks, foreign distributors wanting to take on Australian production, which is getting more and more difficult, and funding organisations outside of the networks and foreign distributors.”

Cameron said the economics of screen production in Australia “don’t stack up”.

“The average cost to an Australian broadcaster of purchasing one hour of US drama is roughly between $200-$300,000, while the average contribution to local Australian drama is $1 million plus. It’s a huge cost differential,” she said.

Even Seven’s popular drama ‘A Place to Call Home’ couldn’t secure a third series despite pulling strong audiences in it second run, Cameron added.

Corporate and media lawyer Ian Robertson, a former deputy chairman of Screen Australia, told the discussion that network executives have a responsibility to their shareholders to “maximise the revenue for each hour of the day at minimum cost”.

“So if I can choose between a high-quality drama from another country, being America or England, that will be very popular with the audience…..that I can acquire that for a license fee of $200,000 an hour, and to get something comparable made in Australia it’s going to cost me $1 million an hour, which one am I going to do? ,” he said. “And therein lies the problem.”

Robertson also slated the Government for recent cuts to the ABC and Screen Australia, branding claims programming and development will not be impacted as “rubbish” . He warned there was likely to be a repeat of the Howard administration’s budget reductions which led to the ABC cutting all drama funding.

“Anyone who’s dealt with the ABC will know it’s something of a bureaucracy, and undoubtedly there is room for efficiency, but to take $40 or $50 million out of its budget and say that that’s not going to impact on what it produces and commissions, I think’s rubbish. Of course it is,” he said. “And I expect that one of the most vulnerable areas will be drama.”

“The ABC will have to respond, as Screen Australia has had to respond, by cutting programs.”

He described the cuts as “miniscule, a rounding error” in the Department of Defence accounts, but ones that will have a “really deleterious impact on what is produced at a time when broadcasters are facing the toughest competitive landscape they’ve ever faced’.

“It’s going to put enormous pressure on high-cost Australian production. The timing could not be worse, but I think that’s what’s going to happen,” Robertson said.

The panel also discussed the issue of quotas with both Robertson and Foxtel director of programming and channels Ross Crowley arguing change could be on the cards, while Campbell backed their retention.

Crowley said that if a quota model is to be maintained, it should extend to broadcasters based outside Australia in addition to those servicing Australia.

“What is a broadcaster? Is it an IP operator based in Britain or the US or somewhere serving Australia?” he said. “Is that an Australian broadcaster or not an Australian broadcaster?

“There are lots of them coming. Netflix is coming, or not….Quickflix is here, and so on. How do you then apply a quota to the consumption, or the role they play in operating in this territory? The challenge with all of those in a quota system is you can’t force people to consume Australian content because they’re pulling it.

“You can’t say that in order for you to watch the fifth episode of Breaking Bad, you have to now watch an episode of an Aussie show. It can’t be done.”

Robertson said that while they remain relevant, retaining a quota system is going to get “harder and harder”.

“In a truly globalised, video on demand over everything type world, I can’t really see how quotas are going to be able to be either imposed or enforced,” he told the discussion.

Campbell meanwhile described quotas as a “safety net” and warned politicians to be careful before scrapping them. But he acknowledged that it was questionable whether they were at the right level.

Whether the quotas are set at the right levels or whether they are applied in all genres correctly, I think’s open to debate. But I do think they are a very useful safety net and I don’t think there’s an inevitability about quotas going at all,” he said.

“I think that any government who wants to remove quotas and wants to run the risk of Australian content diminishing on Australian television will do so at their own peril. And I don’t think governments are foolish in that regard.”

Steve Jones


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