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.
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