One of the ABC's primary responsibilities has long been telling Australian stories to Australian audiences. But rising costs and increasing competition from the giant streaming companies are making it harder and harder for the ABC to air home-grown, high-quality drama.
ABC Alumni Board Member, former ABC Director of Television and award-winning independent drama producer Sandra Levy outlines the size of the challenge.
“Stories have been told on this continent for thousands of years. We want Australian stories told on Australian screens by us, to us, about us because no one else will tell the stories of the diversity of Australian experiences in our unique Australian landscapes.”
This is a statement from the Australian Writers Guild, and one that I heartily endorse.
In fact, no one else can tell Australian stories except Australians!
Under threat? Yes!
English language drama internationally has doubled in the last few years, driven by the emergence of more and more streaming services - Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, YouTube TV, Tubi, Britbox, Disney, Apple TV, Paramount +, Stan and more.
This has led to more and more demand for projects from drama producers with a well-known cast and big stories to tell. As a result, we have seen a significant rise in drama budgets all around the world. For instance, the budget for the six series of The Crown is reportedly over $700 million, at an average cost per hour of $13 million.
In the face of that sort of competition, some public broadcasters around the world have had to pull out of drama altogether because of rising costs and competition.
In Australia in the financial year 2021/2022 the enormous amount of $1.51 billion was spent on Australian titles that started shooting that year, of which $655 million was spent on TV and video on demand (VOD) drama.
Of those, 24 drama productions worth $208 million were made for free-to-air while 29 titles worth $445 million were made for subscription and streaming services.
The streamers typically spend more money on more shows than free-to-air TV, both in total numbers of shows and dollars per hour. The average cost per hour of drama on the streamers is $3.3m while the ABC's is less than $2m.
In Australia, as in the rest of the world, the streamers are increasing the cost of drama and changing the audience for whom it’s made. Audiences now have access to screen drama with the best actors, directors, writers and composers in the world, attracted by the bigger budgets and more ambitious stories. The stories need to appeal internationally as that is the remit of the streamers, to attract big numbers of viewers in any country and from any language and cultural background. This affects the choices of stories, the need for a kind of universalism - more of an airport book than a small local story. It’s a trend that’s continuing to grow.
The ABC can afford to spend about $300 million a year on ALL content on all platforms – screen, audio and text – apart from news and current affairs. That’s less than the streaming services spend in Australia on drama alone.
The implications of that for the ABC are clear, but to fully understand what it means, an explanation of financing drama is useful.
Producers here only get part of the cost of drama production from the TV networks. The rest of the budget needs to be raised in other ways. At the ABC, producers generally get about a third of the total cost and need to raise the remaining two-thirds elsewhere.
There’s nothing new about that: the ABC has not fully financed its drama slate for nearly 40 years.
But as budgets rise and rise due to the huge demand and competition for drama from the streamers, the gap between what the ABC can afford to pay and what a well-made drama actually costs will continue to grow and grow.
Before too long, the ABC will only be able to pay a quarter of the cost, or a fifth, making it an increasingly unattractive place for the producers to do business.
The risk is that ABC drama becomes a kind of low budget ghetto, restricted to choosing only those stories that can be made for less money, thus restricting the range and genre of their content.
At this point you may be wondering about the role of bodies like Screen Australia, and whether they can assist in delivering Australian dramas from Australian producers for Australian audiences.
Screen Australia is a government body set up to support the production sector with funding that’s only available to independent Australian production companies.
No broadcasters, whether they are free-to-air or streamers, can apply for Screen Australia funds directly.
This is not a problem for the streamers, as they fully fund most of their drama themselves. They can afford it. For example Netflix spends about $17 billion a year around the world on new content for its 247 million subscribers.
At the ABC, on the other hand, all of the local drama it airs is partly funded by Screen Australia through independent production companies. The problem is that its own lack of funding increasingly means those production companies look elsewhere for partners.
It is a troubling scenario. Both the ABC and Screen Australia are funded by government and their funds are finite. It is not possible for Screen Australia to be able to fill the funding gap increasingly created by the shortfall in ABC funding.
Free-to-air audiences are shrinking at the same time as the audiences for streaming services are growing and growing. With a lack of additional funding to fill the gap, it seems the ABC is facing a future of less and less drama, and the drama that it does acquire will be lower-cost, in fewer genres and with more limited ambition.
The ABC, once the proud home of abundant high-quality drama across all genres of storytelling, is at risk of being comprehensively sidelined.
What should the ABC do?
Chris Oliver-Taylor, the newly appointed Chief Content Officer responsible for all content except news and current affairs, is committed to a future ABC that includes drama, and hopes for more of it.
He is responsible for all the decisions about where the $300 million of content money is spent each year, but with only 44 hours in the last financial year of all drama, scripted comedy and scripted indigenous stories it is hard to see that there will be sufficient funds to make much change in these numbers.
Chris notes that the BBC earns enormous amounts of money through its international sales, over $3 billion each year.
So sales of programs is one area he hopes that the ABC might be able to increase its activity and grow its income.
There’s another possibility. As Chris told the Alumni in his September webinar: “the ABC is looking for significant money from international distributors that are NOT streamers, or not in Australia anyway.”
Extra funds from either of those sources would be good news.
The Australian production sector has been hard hit in recent years as the quotas on commercial television for minimum hours of Australian drama were dropped by the last government, along with a decision to drop minimum requirements on children’s content as well. The cuts to ABC funding, with fewer hours commissioned there, and with increased costs of production across all genres has led to a crisis in the sector.
The independent production industry sees its future tied to the streamers and to a requirement for an increased spend on Australian content, which would compensate for the decline in free to air commissions.
On 17th October this year, the “Make It Australian” campaign went to Parliament House in Canberra to lobby for change.
The whole production sector, including performers, producers, writers, directors, and the Media Alliance have joined forces to campaign for the streaming services to spend at least 20% of their Australian revenue on Australian stories. They want the local industry supported and their intellectual property protected.
A government review into media issues, including quotas for streaming services, has been under way this year with a decision now promised in 2024.
In 2023, the government released a National Cultural Policy titled Revive which states that Australian stories should be seen and heard, regardless of platform, and that there be ‘a place for every story and a story for every place.’
Without additional support for the ABC in the increasingly expensive and competitive broadcast sector, it may not be able to meet these admirable goals and play its part in the aspirations of the National Cultural Policy, and the future of storytelling in this country.
Sandra Levy AO is a film and TV producer, a former Head of ABC Drama, and a former Director of ABC Television. She is a member of the ABC Alumni Board of Directors.