Last chance saloon: ABC crucial to the survival of local TV production

Dec 9, 2021
Bluey ABC
The ABC's successful Bluey is one of the local productions contributing to the Australian economy. (Image: YouTube)

A new report commissioned by the ABC reveals that the public broadcaster’s local productions contribute at least $744 million to the Australian economy.

With global video streamers capturing more and more Australian eyeballs, the ABC has emerged as perhaps a last chance saloon for original local drama, documentary and entertainment programs.

An ABC-commissioned report by Deloitte Access Economics just released reveals that from 2017 to 2020 the ABC’s taxpayer investment contributed “at least” $744 million to the Australian economy and supported more than 8300 full time equivalent jobs:

“About 6000 of those roles worked directly on those productions (including ABC and non-ABC staff) while a further 2400 roles were supported by those productions through spending on goods and services”.

For each dollar of ABC investment on external commissions Deloitte estimated this “catalysed a further $1.11 from other funders on average”.

The Deloitte report was released before the annual AACTA Awards for Australia’s top screen prizes, with ABC-commissioned programs nominated for more than 60 awards.

In an email to the ABC’s “production partners” Michael Carrington, ABC director of entertainment and specialist said: “The report concludes that ABC-commissioned content is critical for the viability of the Australian production industry and workforce.”

While the video streamers like Netflix and Stan are starting to invest in some high-quality local productions, so far the current federal government has not expressed an intention to impose local content quotas on them. It has waived the 10 per cent local content quota originally imposed on Foxtel. Recently the Canadian government imposed on the global video streamers a legislated requirement to spend 30 per cent of their Canadian derived revenues on Canadian production.

ABC managing director David Anderson has seized on the Deloitte Access Economics report as validation of the public broadcaster’s contribution to what remains of the Australian arts and performance industry after the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, the market incursions of the video streamers and ABC defunding since 2014:

“While almost half the nation watches programs on ABC TV and ABC iview each week, this report quantifies for the first time the substantial economic benefits of those screen productions, as well as outlining their important social and cultural benefits. We’re proud to back more homegrown content than any other broadcaster and to provide content and services that build the economy and brings Australian stories to all Australians now and in the years to come.”

The report found that the ABC broadcasts more Australian content than any other broadcaster. In 2020 the share of Australian content on the ABC’s main TV channel increased to 80 per cent, said to be a 10-year high.

In the three years to 2020, a combined total of $765 million was spent on 433 ABC-commissioned productions involving third party partners and screen agencies. This quantum included wages of cast, crew and purchases essential for production.

Partners include the South Australian Film Corporation, Film Victoria, Create NSW and Screen Australia.

In some cases, the ABC’s foundational involvement helped to attract additional funding from other government agencies, the BBC and now also including the video streaming platforms themselves.

In information and educational programs there was the internally produced You Can’t Ask That and Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds, and Love on the Spectrum produced for the ABC (and Netflix) by Northern Pictures.

High quality drama included Mystery Road and Total Control highlighting Indigenous story telling.

Comedy and factual programs included Rosehaven and Miriam Gargoyles: Almost Australian showcasing regional and remote Australia.

Children’s programs included Play School and the now internationally successful animation Bluey.

Local drama production costing $3 million to $4 million a broadcast hour is the most expensive.

Other key points from the report:

  • Olsberg SPI research found the Australian TV production sector (including news, sport and current affairs) directly contributed $481.5 million in value added to the Australian economy in 2017-18. The ABC’s external productions in the same year directly contributed $136 million in value added, or 28 per cent of this total.
  • “Screen Australia’s annual drama report confirms that the ABC is the nation’s biggest backer of home-grown content, financing more Australian drama than any other broadcaster. Between 2017-18 and 2019-20, for example, the ABC accounted for nearly half of the 131 TV drama titles (including comedy and indigenous titles) produced in Australia and a quarter of total spending of $1 billion over this period”.
  • The Australian drama index published in August by QUT and the University of the Sunshine Coast found that the hours of adult Australian drama on the commercial TV networks declined 68 per cent from 1999 to 2019. Over the same period the ABC increased its number of drama titles and broadcast hours — particularly after 2009 when the ABC received an extra $70 million in funding for adult drama.
  • In documentaries, Screen Australia reported that 385 documentaries were produced from 2017 to 2019, costing $36 million. ABC commissioned documentaries accounted for almost a third of total spending.
  • Total expenditure on ABC internal and external productions (including investment by third parties) was $284.6 million in 2017-18, $297.1 million in 2018-19 and $183.3 million in 2019-20.

The ABC, now in a hostile relationship with the current federal government mainly over contentious political and accountability coverage, has been under pressure to accept a local content quota which would necessarily skew the ABC board’s discretion in resource allocation under its ABC Act charter obligations.

The report finds: “The imposition of an explicit content obligation risks affecting the ABC’s operational independence, as it will constrain the ABC from flexibly allocating funds to best meet its charter remit in a changing media environment.”

It appears that the Deloitte Access Economics report was commissioned with the objective of countering that pressure. Its clear implication is that reinvestment in the ABC would benefit national cohesion through Australian storytelling, as well as the entire local TV production industry and the economy.

Sandra Levy, one of Australia’s most accomplished screen producers and a former ABC director of television, told ABC Alumni that regardless of the increasing dominance of the video streamers the legislated content obligations on commercial TV networks should continue. “Their licence requires them to ensure local content.”  She noted that Netflix was now supporting some “very good” Australian drama, including the Jane Campion dramas. Stan was also looking for its place in the local market by supporting Australian drama.

Levy makes the point that while ABC investment in drama is necessary, it has never been sufficient. The ABC, she says, “has almost never fully funded its own drama … it puts in the minimum it can get away with. Producers then have to find other sources, sometimes from screen agencies plus another finance body plus an international distributor.”

But a pre-sale to an Australian television network is an absolute pre- requisite. Without that, no other investors will come on board. In that sense, with the commercial TV channels focussing so much on reality programming to pull in live viewers, the ABC is indeed becoming the last chance saloon for Australian TV drama.

Quentin Dempster is a director of ABC Alumni Limited.

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