The amount of Australian TV drama broadcast has dropped significantly in the past two decades despite the proliferation of extra channels and the arrival of the streaming services in 2015.
A new study by QUT, Australian Television Drama Index, has found that the number of hours broadcast on commercial television – Seven, Nine and Ten – fell by 68% between 1999 and 2019, declining at a compound average rate of 7% a year.
The broader industry picture for Australian stories on TV is also bleak.
Across all broadcasters, including the ABC, Foxtel, Netflix and the commercials, the total hours of adult TV drama dropped by 20%.
In 1999 the commercial networks were producing multiple long-form dramas that were popular with audiences and supported by a strong advertising market.
But the advent of digital multi-channels, streaming services, the competition for advertising dollars from Google and changes to the global TV business rendered TV drama less profitable. Reality TV such as My Kitchen Rules and The Voice had become more popular with audiences than local prime-time drama.
The arrival of Netflix and more recently Stan, Apple+ and Disney+ had not resulted in an explosion of new local content. Only 22 hours of drama was commissioned by all the streaming services combined in 2019, about the same amount as was produced by Foxtel.
The struggling screen industry says 20% of the streaming services’ local revenue should be spent on new Australian drama, documentary and children’s content, to bring us into line with France and Canada.
The decrease in drama hours has not been obvious because the number of titles has not decreased as significantly as the number of episodes per series.
Long-form series such as McLeod’s Daughters on Nine and Blue Heelers on Seven once dominated schedules and attracted audiences in their millions. The average series dropped from 21 episodes per title in 1999 to just seven in 2019, a 60% decrease.
Researchers say that despite budget cuts the ABC has been the strongest source of Australian drama since 2009. The ABC told the media reform green paper it is the nation’s largest commissioner of new Australian content, investing more than $468m in the independent sector in the past five years.
“The ABC’s commitment to Australian drama and its success making it available suggest that a more robustly funded ABC is an efficient and effective tool for modernising cultural policy aims for 21st century dynamics,” the QUT report said.
The QUT figures do not include long-running network soaps Home and Away (Seven) and Neighbours (Ten) however, even when they are included, the number of hours still fell, from 531 hours in 1999 to 291 hours in 2019, or a drop of 45%.
Free TV, which represents the commercial broadcasters, said the cost of producing an hour of drama had more than doubled in the period with audiences demanding high production standards.
“Every year, we broadcast around 25,000 hours of Australian programming in every market across the country,” the Free TV chief executive, Bridget Fair, told Guardian Australia. “In 2020 Free TV broadcasters showed over 358 hours of drama programming. Every commercial television network met its drama quota obligations, despite the impact of Covid on production activity and revenue.
“It is disappointing that the QUT report does not acknowledge commercial broadcasters’ full contribution to Australian drama production, to Australian content more generally, or the realities of drama consumption in the modern media landscape.”
Fair was also critical of the researchers’ decision to exclude the soaps, which were the “powerhouses of Australian scripted production”.
“Commercial broadcasters spent more than $1.5bn on Australian content in 2019/20. The latest ACMA program expenditure reports showed that commercial broadcasters spent over $84m on Australian drama, more than any other sector.”
Levels of kids drama was expected to fall dramatically after the government introduced a “simplified” quota system for drama, kids TV and documentary in September.
The quota system which was temporarily paused during the pandemic in 2020, had been restored but there was now no requirement for networks to produce kids TV.