A Dramatic Decline


Last week’s appointment of Australian Film Commission chief Kim Dalton to the position of Director of Television for the ABC has come at a crucial time, for both Aunty and the wider Australian television industry.

Dalton, a drama graduate from South Australia’s Flinders University, has more than 30 years experience in the production of Australian screen content, having worked for many years for production powerhouse Beyond International.

Kim Dalton

For the last six years, as Chief Executive of the AFC, he has been the leading figure in policy development and advocacy for Australian-made film and television. Dalton proved his commitment to Australian television production with his vocal and energetic opposition to the changes to local content requirements mooted by the Free Trade Agreement with the USA in 2004.

The Australian responded to Dalton’s appointment with an opinion piece by Paul Gray, who used the occasion as an excuse to ‘reflect’ on the broadcaster’s future by spuriously launching another narrow-minded attack on the perceived ‘left values bias’ at the ABC.

Dalton’s appointment certainly gives cause for reflection, but on far more practical matters than perceptions of cultural bias.

Dalton takes the reins at ABC Television at a time when local production across all Australian free-to-air networks seems to be in terminal decline. Friday’s announcement that Seven’s Blue Heelers— arguably Australia’s most successful homemade drama series — has been axed signals what Ross Warneke declared in The Age to be ‘the end of the glory days of local television drama’.

Whether this pronouncement is hyperbolic or not, it’s certainly true that Australian-made drama is pretty thin on the air.

The AFC’s own surveys (link here) show that the proportion of Australian screen content comprised of original ‘drama, situation and sketch comedy’ fell from 19 per cent in 1999/2000 to 12 per cent in 2002/2003, the last year for which figures are available.

With the subsequent demise of such shows as Stingers, MDA, The Secret Life of Us, and now Blue Heelers, statistics for the past two years will surely show an even further decline. None of the networks — commercial or public — have announced plans to make a new weekly drama in 2006.

In a year that saw it make significant inroads into Nine’s market dominance, Channel Seven made some bold investments in Australian drama in 2005, but with poor ratings results. Last Man Standing was arguably the finest new weekly program to hit our screens since Sea Change, and certainly since The Secret Life of Us, but a combination of poor programming and lacklustre marketing doomed the first series to less than stellar audience figures and it has not been renewed.

Similarly, Seven’s summer season of Headland, which appeared to be an up-market version of the network’s nightly soap Home and Away, failed to make an impact with its broader target audience, and is unlikely to continue in 2006.

Whether Kerry Packer’s death-bed entrapment of Seven into a financially ruinous deal to secure AFL broadcast rights is a factor in the network’s axing of Blue Heelers and, potentially, of Headland, is unclear, but the losses expected to flow from the poisoned chalice handed to Seven and Ten can only mean less money for local drama production.

And money — or lack thereof — is the root of all the Australian production industry’s woes. Despite the fact that the cost of producing Australian content is low by international standards (at around $500,000 per hour), it’s still a lot cheaper to import US and UK made programs, which are commercially successful within their domestic markets and, through overseas sales, sustain thriving industries with which it is impossible for the Australian sector to compete.

In a market of only 19 million viewers, and with ratings routinely well below those enjoyed by imports such as the CSI and Law and Order franchises, few Australian-made programs pay for themselves, let alone make a profit. Despite the fact that local drama production is heavily subsidised, many networks are increasingly turning to cheaper formats, such as panel and quiz shows, to fulfil federally mandated local content requirements.

The result is the loss of Australian stories and culture from our screens.

The ABC hasn’t had a successful home-grown series since Sea Change, the last episode of which screened more than five years ago. 2004’s Fireflies was a flop, and, apart from the anomalous phenomenon of Kath and Kim, Aunty hasn’t made much contribution to the expression of Australian culture through fictional television in the 2000s.

Whether Dalton can reverse the decline remains to be seen.

Widely respected as a pragmatic and resourceful manager, the new ABC Television chief can be expected to slash bureaucracy in order to free up funds for local production. His controversial attempt to drastically down-size and decentralise the AFC’s archive operations in December 2003 was thwarted by union action, and he can surely expect to encounter similar resistance from the MEAA, which has a powerful presence at the ABC, if and when he attempts similar reforms at Aunty.

But, as acknowledged by the Friends of the ABC, ‘… no film and television director no matter how talented and experienced can make programs out of thin air. For the ABC to live up to its past glory and future potential, it needs funds funds funds.’

If the Federal Government maintains its recent practice of cutting the ABC’s budget at the upcoming triennial funding review, then Dalton will have no choice but to make cuts in other areas, or to abandon his commitment to the production of new Australian fictional content, at least under the current ABC model.

Suzie Porter in RAN

However, there is one example of an Australian production model that is, comparatively, thriving in our otherwise moribund market. Aunty’s younger cousin, SBS, continues to lead the way in finding creative, vibrant and viable opportunities to tell Australian stories on screen.

Two weeks ago, SBS premiered the locally made mini-series RAN. Filmed entirely on location in the Torres Strait, it tells the story of Remote Area Nurse Helen Tremaine (Suzie Porter) and the uniquely Australian community in which she lives and works. The first two episodes of the series have shown a side of Australian life that we rarely get to see on our television screens, complete with gripping storylines, captivating characters and production values that rival the best in the world.

It’s a story that could come only from Australia, and SBS’s commitment to bringing it to life is just the latest example in a 25-year history of representing the best, and most contemporary, Australian culture on television. The first two episodes have drawn a passionate and grateful response from viewers, and the television program is complemented by an informative and educational website.

Of course, SBS enjoys a certain freedom from the expectation of high ratings that enables it to take risks with its programming, but this principle — a fundamental element of public broadcasting — should also apply to the ABC.

Where SBS enjoys an advantage is in the semi-commercial nature of its charter, which allows limited advertising, much of the revenue from which is channelled into the broadcaster’s independent production arm, SBS Independent. In 2003, SBSi and local production were combined under the direction of the recently departed Glenys Rowe, who oversaw some of the most innovative and successful Australian productions of recent years, including 2003 Academy Award winning animation, Harvey Krumpet.

The SBSi model is one Dalton would do well to learn from, even if emulation is not possible under the ABC charter. Perhaps the most valuable lesson is to be found in the nature of the content commissioned by SBSi.

While commercial networks and the ABC continue to churn out local dramas that represent an image of Australian life increasingly unrecognisable to most of their audiences, SBS’s bold approach to telling the contemporary stories of Australian culture results in internationally acclaimed and award-winning film and television.

Last year’s Jewboy, commissioned by SBSi from the independent Porchlight Films, was selected for four international film festivals, including the prestigious Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2005. The 50-minute picture was an intensely moving and beautifully constructed tale of the cultural confusion experienced by a young man from Sydney’s Orthodox Jewish community, and enjoyed a commercial theatrical release via the Dendy cinema chain prior to being screened on SBS television late last year.

By telling original and innovative stories from Australian life, rather than chasing ratings by imitating the ‘cop and hospital’ dramas of its commercial competitors, the ABC may once again justify its claim to be ‘the most important cultural institution in Australia’, as its new Director of Television believes it to be.

To do so, the ABC must focus on telling the stories of contemporary Australian life — stories that shine a light on those corners of our society we might otherwise not see. If Kim Dalton can make this happen, his appointment will make all the difference to Australian television.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.