The 2015 Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture: John Edwards [Part 3]

Part 3 of John Edward’s Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture

You can read more about the Screen Forever conference here at Mediaweek, including presentations from ABC director of television Richard FinlaysonEndemol Shine Australia’s Mark and Carl Fennessy, and the feature interview with Ten Network chief executive Paul Anderson.

Previous: Part 1 | Part 2

Look at the figures. In the last decade, the volume of drama production has dropped 24%, to 401 hours in 2014/15 from 527 hours in 2004/5. Despite the fact that the number of potential outlets has expanded enormously. Yet the budgeted cost of that decreased content has increased by 42% in the same period! Just looking at commercial free-to-air (admittedly in a low year) the decrease is 39%! If you take the two soaps out of this picture, it’s even more alarming. Only 57 hours on commercial free-to-air television across all three broadcasters! Barely more than an hour a week across the three. A few miniseries, a couple telemovies, the rest short series. Thank goodness that Foxtel and the ABC have increased production, though notably, with budgets increased in line with what I’ve been suggesting. Some will argue the short series form works so well in the UK. But the UK makes much more than 400 hours of drama a year. And there, too, it’s not just the soaps, but long runners like Casualty and Holby City that draw broad and big audiences and provide a platform for drama viewing, and ITV is increasing the number of hours in its returning series.

My view of the present state the drama production industry is that we have run ourselves into a stagnant billabong. Less production, same writers over and over, inflating costs for no apparent quality gain, shrinking audiences and increasingly reliant on subsidy. All the openness and excitement and bringing through of new talent, of new work, has certainly dissipated, and the area that has historically been the largest and most productive sector of the broadcast industry has all but disappeared. And people keep saying it’s the golden age of television drama. If the emperor doesn’t have no clothes, he certainly seems to be wearing very weird underwear.

Before moving on to the main point of how to get the production flow right I need to meander again for a moment. In my production experience, almost nothing goes to plan. Of the thirty-eight shows I’ve done, only maybe three or four proceeded to production as planned and expected, and as it happens, (which may or may not be a coincidence) they were probably the least successful. But you always must have a plan so you have a base, a platform to jump from when the chance appears. It seems to me there’s a curious symbiotic relationship between structure and accident that our business, and I suspect lots of other business, depends on. I mentioned when talking about Screen Australia’s role in fostering the dominance of the short series that emerged from the apparent death of four-hour minis. Now the four-hour mini has come back, but as it happens, the etiology suggests accidentally. Courtney Gibson at the ABC had suggested a series of biopic telemovies. I wasn’t much interested in the biopic form, but was very interested in doing a show set in what my generation regards as “Camelot”, the Whitlam era. We wanted to make ten hours, the ABC wanted two. We ended up settling on four not because we were trying to re-invent the two by two, that’s all they could do. Because the Screen Australia structures were still appropriately in place, the show was financed, Brendan Dahill programmed it very cleverly, and it was a hit that caused not just sequels and prequels to flow on both the ABC and Nine. There’s since been a rush of “true story” two by twos since that have been the real rating stars of recent drama. The accidental dimension flows on though. We all thought we were making a show by and for baby-boomers, and given the ABC drama audience is overwhelmingly 55+, imagine our surprise when the show won every demo band except 55+! (Though it was a narrow second there.) I didn’t even know the seventies had become cool! The right structures in place though will allow happy accidents to bear fruit.

So how to get the flow of drama production healthy again? There’s always a problem in getting our regulation structures working most efficiently, and there’s presently a lot of talk about proportion of broadcaster-spend be a more important criterion than quantity of production. All that I’ve said so far makes it’s pretty clear that I think that’s a bad idea. Another illustration from my experience, (and again forgive me, but to give a true picture we need to look at this situation sideways for a moment) I hope will make the argument compelling.

Over the last eight years, (it goes back further – but the last eight years is continuous and it’s simpler arithmetic) we’ve done an enormous amount of production in Victoria, with the help of Film Victoria grants and investment. [Now as an aside at this point I promised to give a shout out to Courtney Gibson’s session this afternoon, now she’s at NSWFTO, she’s promised to be busting to do the things Film Vic has done]. We’ve averaged $20,994,000 of production per year in Victoria, and an average spend from Film Vic of $772,000. But the Victorian government has got more than half of that back in payroll tax! So at an average cost of $312,590k a year, there has been almost $21 million of production and an average on 1,878 employment notices per year. One hundred and eighty three hours so far. Five series, sixty-seven hours of Offspring (with more to come); four series, sixty nine hours of Rush; three series of Tangle; the pilot episodes for Rush and Offspring; as well as the miniseries Howzat, Power Games, Party Tricks and Gallipoli. Yes of course that’s a very cheap, remarkably efficient spend of public funds. Roughly three hundred thousand dollars a year to make twenty million dollars of activity happen is much, much cheaper than attracting foreign feature films (though of course they bring other benefits). The point is though, this has only been possible because the networks are required to make a certain volume of drama. The shows have to be made, and they have to be made somewhere. That being the case, very little public money can go a very long way. It has been quantity requirement much, much more than subsidy, that has caused this. When it’s volume that matters, very small amounts of subsidy becoming a tipping point.

While I was preparing this address, Fairfax columnist Michael Idato wrote in his Saturday piece (October 24, 2015) “much of Australian drama is best viewed with an open mind, an open heart and an open bottle of wine…Most shows applauded as great are… usually a wee bit short of that”. He goes on to list eight exceptions. Of Michael’s eight shows, only one had a budget over a million an hour, six of them were shot on five or seven days for an hour schedule. Now I usually agree with Michael in about the same proportions as I agree with various network execs, but if you checked with everyone else’s list I suspect you’d end with a similar picture. When Mark Scott first took over the ABC, in one of those introduction meet-and-greets, I ambushed him by asking what were the six ABC dramas that stuck in his consciousness. Five of the six from his seat-of-the-pants response were volume shows, again made at much lower real costs than today’s models. Do your own mental exercise, I’ll be surprised if you get a different result. Pleased as I might be by event dramas I’ve done, by far the most pleasing and proud memories I have are of the series production, realised as well as possible. There are a few great exceptions in our natural collective memory – Brides of Christ, Underbelly, Blue Murder, The Dismissal, but for the most part it’s the series that touch the culture.

There is of course a very important place for subsidised higher budget drama on our televisions, but my experience of making at a higher budget compels me to make the point that might seem obvious, but is easily overlooked. We always want and “need” more than what we get. Work always expands to fill the available space. Fifteen years ago, it was great to have more than three million dollars an hour on the Showtime USA/Seven mini On the Beach, but we could’ve easily spent another million an hour without feeling profligate. Yes, it was good for the industry and good to get a couple of Golden Globe noms, but I have to say the six hundred thousand dollars an hour on The Secret Life of Us pilot shot immediately afterwards, less than twenty percent of the budget of the show we’d just shot, was not just more satisfying, its resonance was much more significant. On the other side of this coin, I’ll never forget when we started on Police Rescue, a volume series but a very high budget one with a luxurious schedule by today’s standards, the line producer stormed in, threw the script onto a desk and blurted “well we can’t make that!!” Well, it turned out we could and we did, just as we can make even more sophisticated and ambitious shows today on two-thirds of that schedule. Necessity makes us inventors very often much more than more than just money does. Making the most from what we have is healthy pressure. With practice we get better at it. And more of us get more practice when we make more volume.

This is an argument to get the mix right, not to diminish pubic support – it’s a plea to draw obvious lessons from how things have played out in the real world. Again in my experience in the earliest stages of my work, I got a foot in the door, and learned while doing, from liaisons between government-funded Film Australia and all of Nine, Seven and Ten. Then a critical step for me was forty five thousand dollars from the AFC, and I’m very happy that six-hundred and fifty plus hours and about half a billion dollars work resulted. If we want to see Australian series on our television, the assistance of public funds is both necessary and good. You may have guessed though, I feel some ambivalence about increasing the offset as an unqualified policy.

I was thinking about the increasing offset possibility recently in relation to the ABC. Starting from the perspective of pure self-interest as we often do, I was figuring out how much further the ABC budget could go as a consequence (and of course, how much of it I might be able to get my hands on). On the face of it, 20% more offset should make its budget spread 20% further. Because the ABC is unhindered by the quota requirements of the commercials it may function as kind of a datum line or an experiment control. Certainly, if the ABC was to shift to volume production at a lower cost than present ABC drama budgets, it certainly would do a great deal of good – very much more would be made. I suspect the same would be true of the commercial free-to-airs – and the volume benefits might just come to outweigh the risks of launching new shows. Everybody would be much better off, new forms of drama would pop up, new people would have to be bought through and the government would collect more tax. If a policy of making six and eight hour series continues though, I fear disproportionately less good would be achieved, and more inflation of the kind that’s categorised the last decade across the industry would result. Not because of avarice or self-seeking, just because that’s how things expand to fill the space. If there’s no incentive to do more, or to drive inventive economies, it won’t happen. Then we face (or I fear, dodge) the question what should be the case.

Maybe I’m being unduly pessimistic. So I’ll argue against myself for a moment. Maybe the market will self-correct. I take great hope in comedy and its innovations, new people are emerging and there’s such intelligent and adventurous maximizing of resources. I have to say at this point that although many of the present short series I’ve enjoyed watching, by far the most impressive show to me of the past year is No Activity. Back in drama it’s interesting lately that Foxtel, who are governed by proportion to spend quota rather than a volume of production are, have been fantastically successful with both Wentworth and A Place to Call Home, their more volume-drama derived and produced shows. You’d gues, they’d follow that road of great success further. And Seven historically has of course easily and very profitably exceeded quota obligations in very successfully building a very network-loyal drama audience that they’ve managed to evolve through different times. As a consequence they’ve been historically much less dependent on subsidy support. But even Seven are not immune to the inflationary pressures not of their causing, as they have done the most drama most successfully, facing the changing landscape will cause something new to pop. Maybe the symbiotic relationship between accident and good structure will come into play. Maybe as one network honcho mentioned in passing a couple of weeks ago, that the two episode-a-week form will return in a kind of zig-while-the-other-zag opposition to reality shows. It’ll be interesting to see whose game to try first. But overall we producers, and we as an industry, need to rely on a foundation of good policy structure more than good intentions or just the vicissitudes and maybes of the market. Commercial networks (with the historical exception of Seven) really make only what they have to, no matter how much they’d like to do more.

I doubt the forty part series will ever return, and certainly the kind of script factories that used to be prevalent on those shows I think have met their natural demise. In my view thank goodness. (It’s my belief that a more appropriate scripting structure at volume could be built, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Still, new drama forms might blossom, be they two parts a week in short runs to compete against reality shows, or maybe “cable real half hours” playing for 45 minutes on the back of them. Maybe even someone very bold will toy with reintroducing a primetime strip. Or some form that no-one’s thought of yet. Our world is changing so fast. But to me it seems a safe bet that it will be the requirement to make volume that will spurn re-inventors, not more funnelling money to ever more expensively repetitive short series playing to ever more diminishing audiences.

I’ll finish by coming back to Faulkner. His last book The Reivers was a long way from his best even though it won the Pulitzer. It was a bit flowery and romanticised, and maybe he was pissed – you’ll remember he was the purported basis for Barton Fink. The Reivers was about a huge improbable adventure which is at least a bit analogous to our adventures as drama producers. It’s a story about the glories of “non-virtue”, and it has a great ending. An eleven year old boy and two farm employees decide to “borrow” the family car, the only car in the town in 1905, travel to Memphis for the weekend while the parents have gone out-of-state to a funeral. It’s a calamitous road trip, then a story filled with heroes and crooks, golden hearted whores and evil ones, of innocence shattered, of dumb trades and scams and crazy racehorses. When it all culminates in a shambolic whorehouse brawl with broken teeth and hearts and the family grandfather has to come and clean up the mess, the hero Lucius is emotionally exhausted, wracked with guilt over the chaos he’s caused, and in shame he breaks into uncontrollable tears. His grandfather tells him “you live with it… a gentleman accepts the responsibility of his actions and bears the burden of their consequences, even when he did not himself instigate them but only acquiesced to them, didn’t say No when he knew he should…now go wash your face. A gentleman cries too, but he always washes his face”. Yes, bizarrely anachronistic, but the point is it’s a rule that makes sense and greatness both of the mess of that particular story and of our lives. The kind of rules we create also create the kind of world we live in. Not just the individual producer rules like “don’t look back” or “keep turning up” – but the broader systemic rules that shape our business. They don’t have to be writ in stone, but like the grandfathers’ rule, they have to confront our circumstances and aim us at a future that transcends the mess of our present and what we can presently imagine.

Looking back can be a dangerous business, especially if you’re an old guy. But I hope this isn’t dismissed as a kind of sentimental reverie. It seems to me to be obvious that our requirement to produce volume has been a much better friend to us than the amount of money we have. Amidst rapid technological and cultural shifting, it really matters just where we put our weight in the dialectical push and shove to develop the best form of regulation to get a healthy mix of drama forms and yet to be discovered models of storytelling, to enable us to be open and ready to jump at the chances that emerge. Our history tells us the requirement to do is more fruitful than the requirement to spend. My maybe narrow but long experience tells me, and maybe us, that if we fail to see this and act on it, our shadow will have gained on us, and eaten us up.

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