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Streaming services outspend free-to-air TV on making Australian drama for first time

The number of Australian dramas produced by subscription and streaming services has tripled in a year to 29 titles with a total budget of $446m, eclipsing for the first time the $208m spent on free-to-air programs.

Foxtel, Amazon Prime, Binge, Disney+, Netflix, Paramount+ and Stan are all competing for subscribers by offering new local dramas such as Heartbreak High, Bali 2002 and Five Bedrooms, with an average budget of $3.3m an hour, according to Screen Australia’s 2021-22 drama report.

While broadcasters Seven, Nine, Ten, SBS and ABC produced more hours of drama – 278 in total – the number of hours will halve in the next financial year when daily soap Neighbours is removed.

Graeme Mason, the chief executive of Screen Australia, welcomed the sudden burst that saw the number of locally produced subscription television shows grow from nine to 29 in the financial year, but warned it did not mean the streamers should escape Labor’s proposed local content obligations.

“One swallow does not a summer make,” Mason said ahead of the report’s release on Thursday. “A lot of these players are new and so when you come into a market … you try and make a splash.”

Unlike free-to-air, the streaming services are not subject to Australian content regulation. The Australian Screen Industry Group and the Greens have called for a 20% Australian commissioned content expenditure requirement.

Labor has not specified what the quota should be.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young told Senate estimates this week that Australian audiences can’t afford to wait any longer to see the big streaming giants regulated and called on Labor to speed it up.

“Self-regulation does not work,” Hanson-Young told Guardian Australia. “To protect Australian jobs, our stories, and our cultural identities, we need legislation.”

The number of hours produced for free-to-air broadcasters has been dropping since 2000-01, when 715 hours of general drama was produced, compared with just 278 hours in 2021-22. Audiences have much more choice now and their drama viewing is migrating away from linear television.

The commercial broadcasters are now spending their budgets on reality formats like Married at First Sight and MasterChef as well as sport, which attracts the biggest audiences and advertisers.

“ABC iview has been incredibly successful with drama,” Mason said. “Mystery Road Origins was the No 1 show; bigger than even their imported dramas. (Valium) But a commercial network would tell you it’s harder to make a drama show pay so they’re doing fewer rolls of the dice.”

But it’s not just drama that is decreasing on free-to-air. Children’s programming has all but been abandoned by the commercial television networks after the effective abolition of the quota by the Morrison government. There was only one title financed by the commercial free-to-air broadcasters in the period: Rock Island Mysteries (Network 10). Another children’s show, Gymnastics Academy: A Second Chance!, was financed by Netflix.

Of the 11 children’s shows, the ABC financed eight and NITV financed the live-action series Barrumbi Kids.

Hanson-Young said children’s television should be a priority.

“Any government that cares about the future of our nation’s soul should nurture local stories so that Aussie kids can see themselves reflected on screen, not just low-quality rubbish from America,” she said.

The report found a record $2.29bn had been spent on drama production in Australia overall, when feature films and the $777m spent on foreign productions were included.

The $2.29bn was spent across 162 drama screen productions that commenced production or post production in 2021-22 – up from $1.94bn.

As well as the boost in streaming productions, the increase was driven by a record spend on Australian theatrical features of $786m, up from $495m last year. However, the number of feature films going into production has dropped to just 24, which is 35% below the five-year average.

The minister for the arts, Tony Burke, said the record drama result was a testament to the strength of the local screen industry. “It shows the importance of the creative sector and the appetite for Australian drama. It’s fantastic to see Australian stories being told here at home and to global audiences.” The Guardian

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