local content, by John Elder and Tom Reilly -
5th October 2008
The Sunday Age)
CHEAP and nasty — and even
worse, boring — is what Australian-made
free-to-air television was looking like for a
few years. Big Brother with its turkey-slapping
pants down was probably the lowest point …
along with that great trite hope of locally made
drama, The Alice, a pretty-looking stinker with
its travelogue photography and toothless characters
born from a drongo dreaming.
was looking pretty ordinary for a while,"
says commentator Greg "Media
Man" Tingle. "But what a difference
a year makes. We now have what's almost an epidemic
of Australian-made shows. Just look at Underbelly
on Nine, Rush on Ten, and Packed to the Rafters
on Seven. They're mixing it with the best foreign
imports and coming out on top.
are so many quality shows being produced, it's
hard to keep up with them."
says the unsettled mood of the free-to-air networks
during the late '90s and early 2000s — unnerved
by the threat of cable TV and the internet revolution
— has been turned around such that "there's
a feeling we're entering a golden age of Australian
homey sitcom Packed to the Rafters has been watched
by an average of 2 million viewers since it debuted
Tuesdays at 8.30pm just after the Olympics. Many
of those viewers stay tuned for the enduring hospital
soap All Saints. Seven is also quite gleeful about
the 1.6 million who regularly watch Monday's gritty
Nine, where the ratings are sustained right now
by endless repeats of Two and a Half Men, the
good ship Sea Patrol held its own in the first
half of the year with more than 1 million viewers.
And we learned that almost 600,000 Victorians
had not yet downloaded Underbelly illegally when
they tuned in to the first pixellated episode
last month; add them to the million interstate
viewers who watched in April, and it may have
earned back its legal fees.
the two newest cop dramas, Nine's The Strip and
Ten's Rush, are struggling, the numbers show that
Australians have rediscovered the habit of watching
dramas with a local accent.
turning point came a year ago, Tingle
says, with the return of David Gyngell to the
helm of Channel Nine. "What the Australian
networks desperately needed was a creative boost
to competition," he says. "Without a
strong Nine asserting itself, the industry doesn't
flourish. The other thing that's happened is the
networks have stopped just looking at numbers
and started focusing on quality. That's what healthier
competition has achieved."
Vincent O'Donnell, an honorary fellow at the Royal
Melbourne Institute of Technology's School of
Applied Communication, agrees Australian TV has
had a resurgence in the past year as a result
of increasing competition between broadcasters.
Channel Nine was always regarded as the home of
well-written drama shows that were well-received
by audiences, while Seven liked to consider itself
as the broadcaster which excelled at sports,"
he says. "But a few years ago those perceptions
started to change as Nine faltered. I believe
when they commissioned Underbelly, it was probably
as a result of that shift. It was an attempt to
reassert themselves in this area of fast-moving,
says commissioning a big-budget program such as
Underbelly "is a gamble for networks but
one which hopefully they'll continue to make.
big-budget drama like that would cost …
$300,000 to $400,000 for an hour of television.
If a network bought a drama in from America, they'd
probably get something for little more than a
tenth of that. But it's important to remember
that Australian audiences have always tuned in
to these well-written locally produced shows,
so hopefully networks will have to keep investing
in them, even if they do cost a lot."
to Geoff Brown, executive director of the Screen
Producers Association of Australia, the Underbelly
strategy was the result of a change in attitude
to project financing by the major industry players.
"A few years back, the Film Finance Corporation
made a decision it would invest in 13-part Australian
mini-series, along with the network licensees.
What it did was ramp up budgets and led to shows
like Underbelly, with substantially better production
values and better writing.
film production, the critical relationship is
between producer and director; in television,
it's between producer and writer. We have very
good writing teams in television, and certainly
the investment in writing is one of the main reasons
why the current crop of Australian productions
are doing so well. A good idea doesn't work without
points to programs such as The Circuit, Rush,
Sea Patrol and East West 101 as examples of good
writing translating to success with viewers and
critics. "We make the best drama for the
cheapest dollar anywhere in the world. We have
to compete with the CSI franchise, which costs
… $5 million to $6 million an hour to make.
For the high-end of Australian drama, you're looking
at $600,000 an hour … so our stories have
to be more narrative-driven."
says Australia has a history of producing good
television "but the networks lost their way
in the '90s and early part of this millennium.
They backed away from Australian drama in particular
and put their focus on infotainment and reality
programming. They kept serving up more Big Brothers
and in the end this didn't work for the networks.
The audience has shown itself to be more sophisticated
… and now Seven and Nine are re-establishing
their brands on the back of good old Australian
analysts point to a lack of quality programs from
the US — a result of the writers' strike
that crippled Hollywood — as a key reason
behind the resurgence of Australian-made drama.
makes our local offerings even more appealing,"
says one industry insider. "There was also
a hiatus where few local programs were being made,
so again, when new ones came around, there was
even more interest in them.
shows are actually good. The networks have invested
heavily in them: probably figuring that they have
to meet their local content quotas, they might
as well invest and do it properly. The scripts
and the acting have reflected this willingness
to take it seriously and make hits."
that added slice of healthy self-image —
attributed to the efforts of former prime minister
John Howard — is another reason audiences
are keen to watch shows for Australians, by Australians,
not selling shrimps on the barbie any more,"
says Greg Tingle.
"We're a more sophisticated society and our
television programs demonstrate that.
locally made shows are hot exports in their own
right, and they help sell the country. Our entertainment
is part of the tourism spiel … the rest
of the world sees us moving ahead with quality.
The confidence for that was certainly bolstered
under the previous government."
Nolan, chief executive of Pisces All Media, which
runs the Hottest on TV website, agrees. "No
matter what else you might say about him, John
Howard made Australians feel great about themselves.
It really started with the 2000 Sydney Olympics,
but Howard actually presided over a cultural shift
that saw the death of the cringe factor —
the adolescent craving for approval from America
and Britain," he says.
the dumbest talking-heads on TV have the confidence
not to cringe and fawn all over celebrities visiting
from overseas. Compare that to the old days, with
Molly Meldrum constantly saying how wonderful
it was that such-and-such a pop star was in the
says evidence for this new-found confidence can
be seen in private investment in television production.
"We had a sheltered workshop here, where
everything was driven by government grants. All
that did was compomise quality. That's no longer
the case. People invest in these shows because
they believe in them, not just because they're
getting a tax break …
pay-off is that we now perform extremely well
on the overseas market. You get a show selling
well overseas — like Stingers or Police
Rescue — (and) you have an earner for life.
At the Roma Fiction Fest (a television awards
and buying festival) in July, there were buyers
from all over Europe looking at the Australian
shows with the greatest interest.
Italian shows looked like something from the '70s
… they were desperately clinging to their
own culture, while the Australian shows were more
sophisticated and well-placed for the international
Sue Turnbull, co-ordinator of the Media Studies
Program at La Trobe University, says the Australian
push into the global market was pioneered in the
'80s by Neighbours, Home and Away and older programs
such as The Sullivans and Prisoner. One British
critic whinged at the time that UK television
was overrun by Australian content. "There
were 11 different Australian soap operas being
shown on British TV in a week," says Turnbull.
the '90s, the Australian invasion died down such
that only Neighbours and Home and Away held a
significant audience. We were making some good
shows, but the Brits weren't interested. "There
was the great failure of Sea Change to find a
market in the UK. It never got a release."
Aussie producers are deliberately targeting the
global market ahead of local viewers. A second
series of Sea Patrol was planned ahead of the
first series release, with a view to an international
release — which it gained through Hallmark.
says that the later episodes of Kath & Kim
were blatantly written for the UK, featuring appearances
by Kylie Minogue "and the fellows from Little
Australian-made "usually goes well at home
— from the days of Graham Kennedy on IMT
to Packed to the Rafters — audiences won't
watch bad Australian TV. Like The Alice."