Netflix is coming to Australia next March. That's good news for people dissatisfied with our lacklustre local TV networks -- but it's potentially very bad news for the production of dramas showing Australians, not Americans, on screen.
There is a lot of gushing about the handful of original shows that Netflix produces, but by and large it's a library service that draws on existing content that other people have paid to produce. It has broadcast just seven original drama series so far in the US. It would be massively naive to assume that it will commission anything like that number in Australia -- if it commissions anything at all. With the cost of producing drama in Australia sitting at almost $600,000 an hour, there's no way we'll see a lot of it.
But let's assume Netflix does attract a large audience of paying customers in Australia. That doesn't seem a particularly risky assumption; estimates suggest as many as 200,000 people are already using the service in Australia, paying for a US subscription and using a VPN to work around its geo-blocking. (I asked Netflix today if it was planning to try and migrate those customers onto its Australian service, but was told that no aspects of its launch beyond the official announcement are up for discussion.)
People watching Netflix will mean fewer people watching TV, which means TV ratings will continue to decline, which means there will be fewer advertising dollars and less money to fund shows. And the first shows to be cut will be dramas -- because those are the most expensive. Even successful dramas often get the axe, as evidenced by Seven dumping A Place To Call Home after two series where it regularly won its timeslot. (Foxtel, oddly, is reviving that program, but that's unlikely to placate the large and vocal group of Australians who already consider the pay TV service overpriced.)
Picture: Getty Images/Gareth Cattermole
To be clear: this trend is happening even without Netflix being officially available. Local commercial networks have already heavily cut back on their production of dramas, favouring reality TV franchises that can be stripped across multiple nights a week as they grapple with audiences who now have many other choices.
There are two reasons for the reality-first approach. Firstly, those shows are much cheaper to produce. Secondly, their competitive nature means audiences feel compelled to watch them live, rather than recording them or downloading them and watching them later (and skipping the ads, which are what fund these shows, in the process).
Admittedly, there's not much repeat or resale value in reality franchises, but that's also true of Australian dramas. Outside of Home & Away and Neighbours, their visibility overseas is patchy at best (and even in the UK, both shows are now on the smallest commercial networks, a far cry from the 1990s when they were much higher-rated).
The most recent Australian Television Drama Report shows the existing decline clearly. Expenditure on dramas (including scripted comedies) in Australia fell 8 per cent in 2013-2014. A total of 49 shows were produced, comprising 595 hours. At a cost of $343 million, that equates to $576,470 an hour.
So does it matter if we lose every Australian drama apart from Home & Away? I would argue strongly that it does. We're not just the 51st state of America. We deserve to see our local culture, our local language, our local habits, displayed on screen. Australian shows consistently out-rate most US (and UK) shows, but the costs make drama less attractive than news or sport or reality franchises or cheap panel shows.
If the commercial TV industry can't fund drama, then it might be seen as the role of the ABC. Already, the ABC is the only consistent local producer of comedy, and it offers a more diverse slate of drama than any of its commercial rivals.
Unfortunately, the ABC is about to have its budget slashed. One of the Coalition's pre-election pledges was "no cuts to the ABC", but this turned out to be a bare-faced lie. So there won't be much help in that quarter.
We don't yet know exactly what Netflix will do. Tt seems likely it will acquire rights to some older Australian shows to sweeten up its offering, and it might decide to launch a new series of an existing show to attract subscribers. But it's hard to see its arrival as doing much for the decline of Australian culture on screen in the long term. That ship may already have sailed.
Lifehacker's weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.