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Australian TV drama ‘on the ropes’, ground-breaking study finds

<i>Blue Heelers</i>, <i>Offspring</i> and <i>Water Rats</i> are but some classic Australian TV dramas of the past.

Blue Heelers, Offspring and Water Rats are but some classic Australian TV dramas of the past. Photo: TND

Once upon a time in Australia, suburban lounge rooms were sacred ground for watching locally made dramas on free-to-air TV.

They featured our favourite stars delivering compelling and authentic Aussie storylines – a long-running home-grown TV drama or mini-series based on events in our nation’s history.

But an extensive study by Queensland University of Technology has found that Australian TV drama has nosedived in the past two decades. In fact, it’s “on the ropes”.

The four-year study found Australian television drama hours have plunged 55 per cent since their early 2000s peak – and the drama that is made is letting down the community thanks to “inadequate government policies”.

The days of families watching Australian TV drama at home has nosedived since the early 2000s. Photo: Getty

More investment, fewer returns

The study, titled Australian Television Drama’s Uncertain Future: How Cultural Policy is Failing Australians, found that although there has been an increase in federal government investment in TV drama, Australians are getting less back in return.

QUT researcher Professor Anna Potter said the failure of governments in dealing with the impact of digital technologies has led to a situation “in which corporate interests have been prioritised” over Australian culture and identity.

“Australians once enjoyed freely available, long-running series like Blue Heelers (Seven Network, 1994-2006), Water Rats (Nine Network, 1996-2001), and Offspring (Network Ten, 2010-17), as well as mini-series such as All the Rivers Run (Seven, 1983), The Dismissal (Ten, 1983), and Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (Nine, 2012),” Potter said.

The reports says this is no longer the case and the Australian dramas we now see instead are increasingly not stories specific to our continent.

Co-author Professor Amanda Lotz said: “There is … growing federal support for productions commissioned by multi-territory streamers like Netflix for global audiences.

“These dramas may be set here but rarely engage with Australian social and cultural themes in any meaningful way.

“Such services are focused on maintaining international subscriptions and are not concerned with returning value to Australians in exchange for the funds and tax offsets they receive.”

‘Patently wrong’

A Seven spokesperson told The New Daily the assertion that current Australian dramas were increasingly not stories specific to this country was “patently wrong and designed to grab a headline rather than contribute to a useful discussion”.

“Seven Network alone in recent years has shown local dramas that tell local stories such as RFDS, [The] Claremont [Murders] and the biggest Australian-made drama on TV, Home and Away,” they said.

It was one of the most-watched programs and the longest-running continuous drama series on Australian TV.

“It is also one of the most successful programs on any streaming platform in Australia,” the spokesperson said.

The Ten network told TND in the past two years, 27 local productions have been commissioned, including half being scripted drama.

The Last King of The Cross and  NCIS: Sydney, shows “that showcase our ability to create high quality and compelling content that appeals to local and global audiences”.

“Audiences have more choice than ever before and are consuming content from a myriad of free and paid sources across free-to-air TV, broadcast video on demand, streaming and social media.

“We invest in local content because that’s what our audiences want to see.”

The desire for a Blue Heelers-style TV drama has diminished due to content from streaming services. Photo: AAP

Spending on sport, news

According to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, our commercial TV networks spent $1.67 billion on Australian programs in the 2022-23 financial year, an increase from $1.54 billion in the previous year.

With data voluntarily submitted on behalf of 69 metropolitan and regional commercial TV broadcasters, the biggest increases in spending were on Australian sport, and news and current affairs.

Light entertainment, Australian documentaries and overseas drama remained at similar levels to previous years.

“In the past, commercial broadcasters Seven, Nine and Ten competed by commissioning hundreds of hours of drama to attract Australian viewers’ attention,” QUT’s Professor Kevin Sanson said.

“This allowed policy including content quotas to deliver economic and cultural outcomes.

“With less drama now funded by commercial broadcasters, its costs are increasingly being subsidised by Australians through tax rebates to the production sector.”

Networks’ dilemma

TV expert Steve Molk told TND it was a dilemma of the networks’ “own making”.

“They’ve been at various governments for years bleating about how expensive it is to be a commercial TV network, such that they have whittled down what they have to pay to ‘zero’ and then they turned their eye on targets of content they have to produce.

“This is why they make no commercial children’s content – they don’t have to … this is why they make less and less Aussie drama – they don’t have to.

“It is a dilemma of their own making and they wonder why nobody watches some of their ‘big new reality formats’ and the majority of the audience rush over to streamers like Binge, Netflix and Stan (all of whom are making Aussie drama/comedy/content).

nine perfect strangers

Nicole Kidman starred in Nine Perfect Strangers. Photo: Prime Video

Anywhere stories

Many drama series that receive tax rebates are set in Australia but tell stories that could take place anywhere.

Wolf Like Me (Stan) is a romantic comedy about two Americans set in Adelaide, and Lie With Me (Ten) is an adultery thriller set in Melbourne where a couple has recently moved from the UK.

Some are filmed in Australia but set in other places, like Clickbait (Netflix) and Nine Perfect Strangers (Prime Video).

These series receive as much as 30 per cent of their spending back in tax rebates from the federal government.

State governments often chip in as well.

“The government is now one of the most important investors in Australian drama, but few guarantees exist that the tax revenue forgone is generating benefits for the Australian community,” Sanson said.

Topics: TV
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