Documentaries Are On The Decline On Free-To-Air TV

Documentaries Are On The Decline On Free-To-Air TV

A good documentary can entertain and inform you like few other mediums, but we’re seeing less and less of them on Australian television. What’s going on?

According to government body Screen Australia, which tracks documentary production and broadcast, a total of 390 hours of new documentaries were broadcast on Australian free-to-air TV in 2010. That figure is on the decline: in 2009 it was 428 hours, and in 2008 it was 445 hours. (Documentaries in this context include both one-off productions and series such as Border Patrol and RPA, though shows whose primary purpose is to entertain, such as The Biggest Loser or Masterchef, are excluded.)

Those figures cover both local and international productions, but there’s a clear and growing preference for Australian docos. The entire top 10 list of highest-rated documentaries consisted of Australian productions in 2010. Back in 2001, only two local productions made the same list. (The top-rated documentary was Such Is Life: Ben Cousins, which attracted 2 million viewers, an enormous number by Australian standards, where a program rating above 1 million is considered a hit.)

That preference for local content might explain the decline in overall hours on screen, since stations could prefer to focus on higher rating local productions, rather than buying in overseas productions that attract lower ratings. However, the decline has also occurred while free-to-air stations have rolled out additional digital TV channels (which are included in the total count). That means that while there are far more hours of TV being broadcast, documentaries are not forming a major part of that expansion.

Unsurprisingly (and as you can see on the graph above), there’s far more emphasis on documentaries at the government-funded ABC and SBS. I don’t imagine that will change in the future, but given the ratings potential of a topical documentary, it’d be nice to see commercial networks paying a bit more attention. Do you think we need more documentaries? Tell us in the comments.

The Documentary Report [Screen Australia PDF via TV Tonight]

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  • I remember Susannah Carr’s World Around Us being on every weekend and watching it religiously. I wish they still had regular wildlife docos on free to air TV. Closest I’ve seen is those survivalist shows.

  • Television is full of garbage, it always has been, and is only getting worse. Whenever I watch TV, I watch the SBS because they have quality non-Hollywood films and documentaries. There is a comedy coming up on ABC that I will be watching. It’s not about being some alternate type of person, I just end up watching these stations because I find their content more valuable.

  • What they class as documentaries is completely different from what I class as documentaries. Really, Border Security is a documentary? The Force: Behind the Lines? RPA? Those are nothing more then perverse invasions of privacy, editorialised to the nth degree. First Australians, that was a documentary. Not “Worlds Strictest Parents”.

    • Yes, the inclusion of such reality shows makes these figures pretty useless — for all we know, it could simply mean that reality shows are on the decline, while actual documentaries are one the rise (unlikely), or at least remaining constant (more likely).

      • Yeah, Channel 10’s figures 2006-2008 will be massively skewed by the inclusion of big bother (not a typo, I just hated that show as much as the rest of the world).

        Saddest part is that there are some really great documentaries coming out that are taking so long to come down here, and when they do, they receive little to no marketing, and then perform as you would expect – poorly.

        My biggest example would be the 3 part “Invisible Worlds” with Richard Hammond – one of the most amazing sets of docos ever. Followed by BBC’s Polar Bear Spy on the Ice.

  • I and many friends love watching doco’s, the problem is there isn’t enough on TV, so we turn to sites like and to watch them online and have more choice in the genre of documentary we watch. TV in my mind is fazing out, i prefer online media to watch what i want, when i want.

  • It’s unclear from this article if you are talking only about docos that are made in Australia or if the quoted figures include OS-sourced documentaries as well.

    As others have noted to call RPA, Border Security and Behind the Lines, etc. docos is absurd – they are particularly poor examples of the fantasy genre known as “reality TV”.

    Docos are shows like the recent “How Earth Made Us”, “First Life” and “Wonders of the Solar System” (each brilliant btw). As long as we keep getting these quality documentaries we’re doing okay.

  • It’s the Idiocracy. Cooking shows, mindless sitcoms and faux-dramas. We’re only a few years away from the “batin” channel.

    Channel BT is an awesome repository for smart programming, and other than SBS or ABC, there’s not much worth watching on FTA.

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