How Netflix Will Help Destroy Australian Drama

How Netflix Will Help Destroy Australian Drama

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.

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  • More choices is great but means smaller audiences on each channel (whether it’s TV, streaming or whatever). We are well past the time of having a small number of national TV channels paying for big budget Aussie shows. I wish only good luck to Australian creators and performers but it looks like specialist shows, small budgets, short run times and flexible thinking are the future of visual entertainment.

  • I dislike the Americanisation of Australia, but frankly Australian tv has always been utter garbage. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to watch an Australian tv show. Depressing, and boring, are the descriptors that come to mind to describe them.

    We’re fast becoming a worldwide society, and a worldwide marketplace, and American tv is so vastly superior to Australian that it’s no surprise it’s winning. Protecting Australian tv simply because it’s Australian isn’t going to work.

    • The Code is an incredible Australian Drama, smart, complex and absolutely compelling.

      However, the writing is on the wall, and it has nothing to do with Netflix, it is the Networks own disrepect for the shows they create.

      FFS, even the ABC puts an ‘ad’ overlayed on the screen during the last few minutes of the show to tell you what is coming up next. WTF? This is usually during a climactic scene, and totally ruins the immersion in the show.
      With the inappropriate and loud ads, too many ad-breaks and overlays during the shows, it is not a wonder people won’t tune in to watch them any more.
      The networks have destroyed it themselves, Netflix won’t do anything except maybe be there to witness the end of the era.

    • “I dislike the Americanisation of Australia”

      This is such a hyperbolic term thrown around by people.

      You use either a PC or a MAC I’m guessing, the OS was developed, either way, in America. You eat fast food, it’s developed in America. Most of your clothing is designed in the States. Half your favorite shows (though I expect a futile rebuttal of ‘no they’re not!’) actually come from America.

      Your computer is made overseas in Asia, your phone too. Your clothing is put together in sweatshops. Your food is made in factories possibly in south America or Asia, then repackaged as ‘made in Australia’ half the time and it’s all done by people paid a buck an hour.

      We utilise everything from *around the world* not just America. We’re a global system now, not just one country, not to mention the fact that if I asked you to explain to a tee Australias national identity, it would be an impossible task as there is literally noone who has succesfully done so at this point.

      Xenophobic attitudes such as ‘the americanisation’ etc make it sound like it’s forced on us. It’s only ‘forced on us’ to the extent that we accept it and seem to want it. This country is no longer insular. It’s time we stopped being so and acting so.

      • Well said weresmurf. I don’t like that we adopt some of the negative elements of American culture. However, you’re absolutely right. I prefer British Humour to American humour – and that fact that I can choose is fantastic.

      • Did you bother reading anything after the first comma in my post? It doesn’t look like it.

        ALL my favourite tv shows are American.

        The source of goods and of their invention is not “Americanisation”.
        Americanisation is the change in our CULTURE: attitude, behaviour, language, ideals, etc.
        Ours is slowly becoming closer to the culture we see portrayed in US tv shows.

        • Absolutely I did, but you still included the ideal of ‘I hate the Americanisaton of Australia’. Again, it’s a global world now, not an insular one.

          • Hard to believe, given that you thought I’d claim not to be a fan of US tv, but assuming you read the whole post I can then only assume you were incapable of understanding it.

            I support American tv shows here. I’m in favour of of what’s happening in the Aus vs US tv competition (quality wins). I have no sympathy for Australian tv, no desire to see it, nor support it. Like I said in the first sentence of my first post, I think it’s garbage.

            I dislike the effect US tv has on our culture (i.e. “Americanisation”), but those changes are to be expected when US media dominates, and it’s a price we just have to accept.

            I’ll repeat myself, and spell it out for you:
            – I like watching American tv.
            – I dislike the Americanisation it causes in Australia (culture shifts)
            – I dislike Australian tv, and have no sympathy for the Australian tv industry.

          • So he would rather a global aus not an americanised one, is what you’re missing. He is objecting to a culture leaning towards aping the culture of one country rather than being exposed to the rest multiculturalism has to offer. Instead of – shock, horror- developing a national identity beyond simplistic nationalism. The Canadians manage it, so can we. You’re off track for the sake of being right.
            Now don’t let me catch you doing that again. Here, have a cookie.

    • Clearly, Australia needs to produce better television. If it could produce things that people worldwide would want to watch, the industry is more likely to survive.

      • There doesn’t seem to be much effort put towards selling quality product overseas, or we sell the concept and a (US) remake is attempted. Most of my friends across Europe would like to see Rake but with the main legal option being a Region 4 DVD there’s small chance of that.

      • Underbelly is probably the only one I can think of, I know a few people overseas that got into that.

        That’s what the Aussie producers don’t seem to realise, the edgy stuff like that is what works, not these family, hospital, soap drama types of things. Look at the top U.S. dramas over the years, The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, etc. These all had very adult, dark subject matter and storylines. They need to cater to that market!

        Same goes for Aussie film, all these cheesy comedies and Wolf’s Creek cash-ins flop, yet gritty films, like Animal Kingdom, Chopper, Candy and so on are highly praised.

        • Those gritty films might have been winning awards at Cannes and sundance but they were not overly succesful. Looking at the 10 most successful Aussie films there is a hell of a lot of the “cheesy comedy”
          1 Crocodile Dundee
          2 Australia
          3 Babe
          4 Happy Feet
          5 Moulin Rouge
          6 The Great Gatsby
          7 Crocodile Dundee II
          8 Strictly Ballroom
          9 Red Dog
          10 The Dish

  • I was recently asked to agree to the terms and conditions of using NetFlix again. My theory is that these T&Cs mention needing to be an American resident to use the service so that in March they can point this out and kick me off that service and onto the Australian one.

  • Netflix produces it’s own content as well, remember. It has done so now in a number of different regions where it’s set up. It’s quite possible/probably that if Netflix does damage local FTV viewships to the point where local drama needs to be cut, Netflix will pick up production of such shows themselves.

  • Alternatively, we could see Netflix picking up Australian content and delivering it to the US unfiltered – as opposed to needing to re-do shows for the US.
    It’s not highly likely, but possible.

  • Remember the British show The Goodies? “For years we’ve been looking at the united Kingdom as a potential 52nd state – so we could write it off as a tax loss”.
    Aussie drama should be considered the same way.

  • With the internet speed we are having here in Australia (or at least where I live in Melbourne) I cannot even watch a Youtube video without having to wait for 30 minutes. Let alone stream Netflix. :$

    • You’re describing a connection quality you would normally get on a farm!
      That said, Netflix seems to do an excellent job compressing their video as I’m on a connection that tends to max out at about 900kbs, and we stream 2 Netflix video’s in the house simultaneously at which the quality appears to be equivalent to 720p.

  • ah Australian drama – where you see the same handful of actors cast in various shows that play at the same time on different channels. Sorry, we have to stop kidding ourselves that we have a local drama strength, especially with the ABC having it’s funding assaulted. Mainstream channels want the same tired old stories with the same tried and true faces, that’s unsustainable.

  • So maybe a swift mercy killing is a blessing, rather than the dragged-out, torturous death already in progress?

  • What does Netflix have they AppleTV doesn’t? Had AppleTV for 2 years. Movies, tv series. Don’t get the hype!

    • Most current shows are on there plus a pretty wide library which is on demand. all for $10 (12 I’m Aus id assume) a month. Much, much, much cheaper than iTunes.

    • Netflix is a cheap subscription (currently US $9 per month) providing unlimited access to their massive library of TV shows and movies. As far as I know apple TV is pay per view isn’t it? The result is much better value.

  • Back in 2010, Pay TV executives told the audience at SPAA Fringe that they had to stop investing in Australian films because they didn’t feel they were reaching an audience.

    “Nobody knew we were making movies, so we decided t move into TV series,” said Tony Forrest, CEO of the Movie Network Channels.

    “We also felt that the films we were investing in were unsullied by human eyes, so we moved to TV,” added Peter Rose, CEO of Showtime Movie Channels.

    “We spend a crapload of money on Australian production and we try to make it work,” said Forrest. “We don’t do it [spend on local product] because we’re lovely people. We do it as a marketing spend; our successful investment in Australian content gets loads of promotional support, free advertising.”

    Although Pay TV revenues are falling, that line of thinking might sustain local production, especially the best of overseas content is already tied to streaming services and FTA TV.

  • Free View and a large portion of Australian TV is painful to watch; not saying there aren’t exceptions but the vast quantity of commercial breaks, their length, the fact that they have an increased volume and that you have to watch on their schedule means I just won’t bother. These days I use Netflix, Hulu and rarely will rent something on Google Play. But If I didn’t have these services I would simply go to piracy or wouldn’t watch at all.

    I think products like Steam did great things for gaming and re-inventing distribution and development. I hope products like Netflix force producers to innovate rather than cling to their old ways…or they can just go out of business 🙂 their choice.

  • Wentworth is a great Aussie drama (produced by SoHo and thus exclusive to Foxtel). I…can’t really name another Aussie drama besides that. I don’t watch a lot of free to air though.

    Perhaps I have been ‘Americanised’ as someone above complained about but I don’t feel underserved. I’m after quality content not Australian content. My Australianness is served by my life, and to a lesser extent by Neel Kolhatkar, Michael Cusack, and Fat Pizza/Housos.

    That’s no comfort for Aussie actors/producers etc but…meh, creative destruction brah.

  • As Australians, I imagine you all get a much more global set of programming than we do in the US. On American TV, it is 100% American programming…all the time. Its a rather stifling lack of variety and exposure to other cinematic styles, cultures, accents, lifestyles, etc.

    As an American, the Netflix foray into Australia/NZ has meant that we are finally getting access to ‘down-under’ programming; movies and tv series! And these shows and films are being increasingly well received.

    So while Netflix may be seen as dumping mass amounts of American content on Aussie audiences (who probably already had access or exposure to US programming), Australian content being picked up by Netflix is finding a massive new audience that never had access to it before in the States. I don’t really know the Netflix business model, but I’d love to see this become a boost for Australian/NZ programming, giving it an international platform that it may not have previously had. (??)

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