Is Australian Drama losing its ‘Australianness?’

Foreign voices, international stories... it's good for production, but is it bad for Australian storytelling & audiences?

The pandemic has seen a lift in international productions filming in Australia.

Nine Perfect Strangers, La Brea, God’s Favourite Idiot, Young Rock, Joe Exotic, Pieces of Her -Hollywood coming to Australia has received rave reviews.

But even Australian-made productions have blurred the lines about what Australian-made means.

Clickbait was all set in Oakland. Wolf Like Me saw Isla Fisher adopting a US accent in Adelaide. Both Anthony Hayes and Susie Porter did the same alongside Zac Effron in the dystopian feature Gold. And in 2019’s Reckoning, Aden Young & ensemble also assumed Californian characters -despite this the series is still eligible as local drama.

So what’s going on?

Journalist Sandy George, a former SBS film presenter and film critic for The Australian, explores such questions in a new paper Nobody Talks About Australianness on our Screens, published by the New Platform Papers.

In 2020/21 cameras rolled on 95 different homegrown Film & TV productions costing $874 million.

But even when it comes to filming on Australian soil, foreign accounts for more expenditure: $793 million was spent making 10 US dramas in the same period and a further $246 million on post-production for 53 foreign projects.

So what defines ‘Australianness?’ Even George admits that’s a tricky question.

“The only thing that I would say about that is as long as it’s recognisable as Australian. Now, of course, there’s lots of problems with that,” she tells TV Tonight.

“I’m not saying ‘Australianness’ equals cultural value. I’m saying ‘Australianness’ gives the potential for cultural value. But you don’t generally get cultural value, unless other things turn you on about the show. You love it. It gives you an intensity of feeling, whether that feeling is a lump in the throat, or a belly laugh, or laughing at the absurdity. Whatever it is, it’s intense. And it’s got to do with recognising that it’s yours, and it’s where you live.

“So it is really hard to define.”

“Stories that enable Australians to hold a mirror up to themselves and to hear their own voices”

For the report Measuring the Cultural Value of Australia’s Screen Sector, 928 Australians were asked to identify the three most culturally impactful pieces of Australian content.

The heavy hitters of the 271 productions mentioned were Crocodile Dundee, Home and Away, Neighbours, The Castle, Mad Max, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Four Corners, Australia, Gallipoli, Q&A and Rabbit-Proof Fence. Diverse though the list is, the ‘Australianness’ of each drama is as clear as day. Others might call them ‘stories that enable Australians to hold a mirror up to themselves and to hear their own voices’.

But I prefer the word ‘Australianness’, which is more concise and to the point. Cinema owners often say that when an Australian film manages to tap into the zeitgeist it goes off at the box office. Word of mouth can explode around a homegrown series. The intensity of feeling that drives this momentum is because Australia is up on screen in look and feel. The response might be of any kind. It might be amusement, joy, or horror. Some viewers will respond to stupidity, others to seriousness. A damn good belly laugh is as good as a lump in the throat. The intensity comes from a sense of recognition and belonging.

Without recognisable on-screen ‘Australianness’, or an Australian look and feel, value of the kind I am talking about is unobtainable. ‘Australianness’ doesn’t guarantee local cultural value because the drama has to deliver, and different things appeal to different people. But it delivers the potential for it.

“This unmistakeably Australian show for US streaming service AMC+ has Australia baked into every frame”

‘Australianness’ might reflect a sense of place. If creatures as peculiar as kangaroos are in our lives why not flaunt them (though be prepared for some eyerolling). It is likely, however, to be related to Australian characters because human connection is a powerful thing. Those Australian characters might be leading ordinary lives, as in Home and Away, or having fun hunting vampires, as in the eight-part series Firebite. This unmistakeably Australian show for US streaming service AMC+ has Australia baked into every frame via its characters and the gorgeousness of the desert at sunrise and sunset. There are so many things that on-screen ‘Australianness’ can be ––one size does not fit all and ideally there is enough homegrown drama to cater for every taste and sensibility––but it has an underlying unity of soul and, above all, it is recognisable.

For years the Australian drama motherload was on the commercial FTA broadcasters, public broadcasters, and to a lesser extent pay television. Their schedules attracted eyeballs that sold airtime to advertisers, met charter obligations or grew a subscriber base.

All platforms are sensitive to costs, which disadvantages Australian television drama because it’s expensive. It takes a long time to get the scripts right and a small army is needed on set to shoot it. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the per hour cost of newly made Australian drama was $645,700 in 2015/16, compared to light entertainment at $91,900 and news and current affairs at $11,900.25

This helps explain why drama made up only 497 hours or 0.6% of the 87,466 hours of first-release Australian television programs broadcast, while news and current affairs made up 57%. The $645,700 per hour figure includes comparatively inexpensive drama such as Home and Away. In 2020/21, all the Australian FTA miniseries that went into production cost an average of $1.738 million per hour. For six episodes that’s a price tag of more than $10 million.

Bridget Fair, CEO of Free TV Australia, says that, ‘Over the past decade, the cost per hour of producing drama has
more than doubled. Audiences have increasingly demanded higher quality production across all viewing platforms and this has in some cases resulted in series with fewer hours but higher production values being commissioned.’

“Australian drama is dirt cheap to make compared to drama from the US”

Australian drama is dirt cheap to make compared to drama from the US. But as the US has a population of more than 300 million people, the cost of its drama is met from within its own country, enabling it to then be sold on around the world at reasonable prices.

‘An Australian network can generally import a high-quality program for $100,000 to $300,000 per hour,’ notes Supporting Australian Stories on our Screens.

‘Commissioning an equivalent Australian program may cost a broadcaster anywhere from $500,000 to more than $1 million per hour (The full cost is met from a variety of sources). Older foreign content can be imported for as little as $1,000 per hour.’

For decades federal governments have forced the commercial FTAs to include drama in their schedules to address the market failure born out of the combination of drama’s expense and Australia’s small population, and in response to industry lobbying. Anyone who calls it protectionism is ignorant about the economics of the film and television business. During the pandemic, the commercial FTAs were given a temporary reprieve from these regulations then, in October 2020, the points-based drama rules were relaxed. Reducing the obligation on pay television was also

‘The number of hours of Australian drama on Seven, Nine and Ten will be halved,’ the Australian Writers’ Guild (AWG) has predicted: Seven and Ten will now be able to satisfy their obligations by producing Home and Away and Neighbours alone. Nine, without a serial, can reduce its current annual drama production by 50% from
84 hours to 40 hours.

“Several dramas in development were cancelled as soon as the regulations were loosened.”

Several dramas in development were cancelled as soon as the regulations were loosened. Clearly, regulation has a decisive impact. The SVODs not being regulated gave the commercial FTAs the leg they needed to stand on: they could argue, hand on heart, that the playing field was not level. Currently, the SVODs are still not regulated. But a vague plan to do so was proposed in early 2022.

The rule that 55% of all the programming broadcast on commercial FTA primary channels between 6am and midnight, must be Australian, has been retained, as were the transmission rules on the multi-channels (7plus, 9now, etc). Because of an Australian-New Zealand trade agreement, NZ drama continues to be counted as Australian for the purpose of the content quotas. Weird but true.

In 2020/21 cameras rolled on 21 adult dramas first shown on Seven, Nine, Ten, the ABC, SBS or Foxtel channel FX. At the beginning of this paper I noted that 95 dramas went into production in this period: the remainder comprised 42 features, seven shows for children and 25 for online (nine for SVODs, and sixteen shorter, cheaper dramas for social media platforms and broadcast video on demand services or BVODs). The 21 dramas amounted to 329 hours, or less than one hour per day of new drama across all broadcast and associated channels. This is down on the fiveyear
average of 31 dramas amounting to 395 hours, but not when the nine SVOD dramas and the 37 hours they represent are added.

It is sobering to look back 20 years, however. ‘Notwithstanding yearly fluctuations, the number of hours [of drama] produced has been in steady decline since 2000/01, when 715 hours of content was produced’. A decline in long-running series, in favour of shorter run shows with higher production values, is one reason for this.

The key point is this: the amount of drama being made in the last few years is static and letting it slip below a certain level undermines opportunities for Australians to see themselves on screen.

Edited extract from “Nobody Talks About Australianness on our Screens”, by Sandy George, published by the New Platform Papers. Download free at currencyhouse.org.au

12 Responses

  1. An interesting article. There were several problems though, the fall in drama in 2020/21 was due to Covid 19 increasing the cost of production and exemptions. The 55% local content requirement and the 250 points of premium content have been restored. Australian cinemas have been in trouble for some time due to SVOD. People say they are important, but won’t pay to watch them. George concedes that main audience for Australian films is over 55, they will be streaming and not sitting in cinemas until there is a vaccine that supresses transmission, nor would we want them to. Economically cinema is about first weekend grosses for blockbusters for young people. The peak $92m, the few hundred million in subsidies and the small amount the FTA spend in a $1.9b industry is tiny. It is to compete against other countries for Hollywood and other Globally owned producers in the game, it won’t control them. They will favour the mediocre with global appeal for profits.

  2. I consider taking Australian (written, devised etc) stories and re-setting them elsewhere as a form of cultural appropriation. Iconically Australian books such as Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers are the clear example.

    Big Little Lies secures most of its storyline and humour because of the Australian writing voice of its author, Liane Moriarty. Moving the setting of the story to the USA resulted in complete loss of its Australian identity and, I believe, an inferior result. In essence, Moriarty’s ideas were taken, and a new script written using her characters. This was a precedent that US producers have been only too willing to follow.

    When a show is made from a popular book, then the show should follow the book in setting and culture. Will increasing Aussie quotas help that? Maybe.

  3. It’s so disappointing that Australian funding is going into making shows in foreign settings or characters with foreign accents. In many cases, even when they do make Australian drama, it seems they have to have a British or American actor in a headline role.

  4. In my opinion ‘Australianness’ is for overseas audiences at least the sub tropical weather and some unique locations, but there is much competition from NZ and South Africa for providing these locations as well, including some excellent movie making studio facilities and technology.
    When it comes to writing screenplays and the choice of home grown stories available the old favourites like period dramas and crime thrillers are always attractive propositions for gaining overseas sales, a quick look at Nordic Noir provides a clue that selling generic police/crime shows is a priority for their studios, not so much selling local culture, though the opportunities to feature local indigenous issues is always on offer with examples to be seen in South African and NZ productions as well.
    For me ABC’s Mystery Road ticks all the boxes for making prospectively successful commercial franchise shows with diversity and good sales prospects.

  5. Having Australian actors doing American accents in Australian-set pieces is especially galling.
    Americans cope with Bridgeton and Squid Game, will they not cope with Isla Fisher with an Australian accent?

    1. Any Australian who has been in the USA for a while develops a hybrid Australian/U.S. accent similar to Greg Norman, I also spoke to someone who had a broad East-End London accent after four years working as a chef in England, I’m not sure what that says about Aussie culture, you never find a Scot or Italian or French person who have lost their accent.

  6. A valuable article.
    Thanks for sharing
    I have been lamenting the lack of Australian dramas and even more now they’re prioritising pay per view streaming platforms over free to air.
    I miss the regular viewing of Aussie Dramas

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