One of the bigger shifts in Australian television over the last decade or so has been the rise of local drama. History time: it wasn’t all that long ago when “Australian drama” was such a low-rating joke that Channel Nine – the biggest network in the country – was only meeting its required quota of Australian drama [part of the requirement for holding a television licence is a certain number of hours of locally produced drama each year] by running 20 hours or so a year of late night sketch comedy show Comedy Inc. Thanks to a loophole in the regulations, sketch comedy somehow counts as drama, and with local drama being held in such low regard it was easier for Nine – which, unlike Seven or Ten, didn’t have a half-hour weeknight soap like Neighbours or Home & Away to make up the quota – to churn out unwatched comedy than spend the money on actual drama. Newspaper columns regularly lamented the death of Australian television drama; even the ABC, suffering under big budget cuts from the Howard Government, struggled to put much of anything to air.
What started to turn things around was the success of Nine’s first series of Underbelly: it turned out that Australians would watch local drama so long as it was a) based on actual events and b) featured a bit of sex and violence (later this was expanded to sport and/or Kerry Packer). But perhaps more importantly in recent years, it’s turned out that local drama is one of the few things Australians can’t see ahead of time via torrents; with the idea of rush-releasing shows from overseas here to try and defeat downloading, having largely been discarded (the ABC and Doctor Who aside), local drama series are some of the few shows Australian networks can reliably expect local audiences to tune into. Which is why it’s a bit of a worry that Ten hasn’t yet been able to announce a single new locally produced Australian drama series for 2015 – even SBS has been able to let people know they’re doing The Principal (a quasi-sequel to The Heartbreak Kid, only now the Kid is all grown up and the head of the school).
To be fair to Ten, they do have a couple of shows that will probably be back, in the form of Offspring and Party Games – well, Party Games might very well be back; Offspring has been going so long now that the various government funding benefits and tax breaks for a drama series no longer apply, which is the same problem Underbelly faced (and which is why the final series of Underbelly was renamed Fat Tony & Co, fooling the tax office and no one else).
Basically, all Ten’s drama series since Offspring – Mr & Mrs Murder, Wonderland, Puberty Blues, Secrets & Lies – have struggled ratings-wise, so much so that now that Offspring’s almost certainly too costly to continue with, they don’t have anything established to go on with. And while this wouldn’t have been a problem a decade ago when Australian drama was dead and Neighbours was all they needed, today it’s just another black mark for a network that really needs to lift its game. And I’m not talking about Family Feud.
By Anthony Morris