Cheap and nasty — and even worse, boring — is what Australian-made free-to-air television was looking like for a few years. Big Brother with its turkey-slapping pants down was probably the lowest point … along with that great trite hope of locally made drama, The Alice, a pretty-looking stinker with its travelogue photography and toothless characters born from a drongo dreaming.
"It was looking pretty ordinary for a while," says commentator Greg "Media Man" Tingle. "But what a difference a year makes. We now have what's almost an epidemic of Australian-made shows. Just look at Underbelly on Nine, Rush on Ten, and Packed to the Rafters on Seven. They're mixing it with the best foreign imports and coming out on top.
"There are so many quality shows being produced, it's hard to keep up with them."
Tingle says the unsettled mood of the free-to-air networks during the late '90s and early 2000s — unnerved by the threat of cable TV and the internet revolution — has been turned around such that "there's a feeling we're entering a golden age of Australian television".
Seven's homey sitcom Packed to the Rafters has been watched by an average of 2 million viewers since it debuted Tuesdays at 8.30pm just after the Olympics. Many of those viewers stay tuned for the enduring hospital soap All Saints. Seven is also quite gleeful about the 1.6 million who regularly watch Monday's gritty City Homicide.
At Nine, where the ratings are sustained right now by endless repeats of Two and a Half Men, the good ship Sea Patrol held its own in the first half of the year with more than 1 million viewers. And we learned that almost 600,000 Victorians had not yet downloaded Underbelly illegally when they tuned in to the first pixellated episode last month; add them to the million interstate viewers who watched in April, and it may have earned back its legal fees.
While the two newest cop dramas, Nine's The Strip and Ten's Rush, are struggling, the numbers show that Australians have rediscovered the habit of watching dramas with a local accent.
The turning point came a year ago, Tingle says, with the return of David Gyngell to the helm of Channel Nine. "What the Australian networks desperately needed was a creative boost to competition," he says. "Without a strong Nine asserting itself, the industry doesn't flourish. The other thing that's happened is the networks have stopped just looking at numbers and started focusing on quality. That's what healthier competition has achieved."
Dr Vincent O'Donnell, an honorary fellow at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology's School of Applied Communication, agrees Australian TV has had a resurgence in the past year as a result of increasing competition between broadcasters.
"Historically, Channel Nine was always regarded as the home of well-written drama shows that were well-received by audiences, while Seven liked to consider itself as the broadcaster which excelled at sports," he says. "But a few years ago those perceptions started to change as Nine faltered. I believe when they commissioned Underbelly, it was probably as a result of that shift. It was an attempt to reassert themselves in this area of fast-moving, well-written drama."
O'Donnell says commissioning a big-budget program such as Underbelly "is a gamble for networks but one which hopefully they'll continue to make.
"A big-budget drama like that would cost … $300,000 to $400,000 for an hour of television. If a network bought a drama in from America, they'd probably get something for little more than a tenth of that. But it's important to remember that Australian audiences have always tuned in to these well-written locally produced shows, so hopefully networks will have to keep investing in them, even if they do cost a lot."
According to Geoff Brown, executive director of the Screen Producers Association of Australia, the Underbelly strategy was the result of a change in attitude to project financing by the major industry players. "A few years back, the Film Finance Corporation made a decision it would invest in 13-part Australian mini-series, along with the network licensees. What it did was ramp up budgets and led to shows like Underbelly, with substantially better production values and better writing.
"In film production, the critical relationship is between producer and director; in television, it's between producer and writer. We have very good writing teams in television, and certainly the investment in writing is one of the main reasons why the current crop of Australian productions are doing so well. A good idea doesn't work without good writing."
Brown points to programs such as The Circuit, Rush, Sea Patrol and East West 101 as examples of good writing translating to success with viewers and critics. "We make the best drama for the cheapest dollar anywhere in the world. We have to compete with the CSI franchise, which costs … $5 million to $6 million an hour to make. For the high-end of Australian drama, you're looking at $600,000 an hour … so our stories have to be more narrative-driven."
Brown says Australia has a history of producing good television "but the networks lost their way in the '90s and early part of this millennium. They backed away from Australian drama in particular and put their focus on infotainment and reality programming. They kept serving up more Big Brothers and in the end this didn't work for the networks. The audience has shown itself to be more sophisticated … and now Seven and Nine are re-establishing their brands on the back of good old Australian drama."
Some analysts point to a lack of quality programs from the US — a result of the writers' strike that crippled Hollywood — as a key reason behind the resurgence of Australian-made drama.
"This makes our local offerings even more appealing," says one industry insider. "There was also a hiatus where few local programs were being made, so again, when new ones came around, there was even more interest in them.
"The shows are actually good. The networks have invested heavily in them: probably figuring that they have to meet their local content quotas, they might as well invest and do it properly. The scripts and the acting have reflected this willingness to take it seriously and make hits."
And that added slice of healthy self-image — attributed to the efforts of former prime minister John Howard — is another reason audiences are keen to watch shows for Australians, by Australians, about Australians.
"We're not selling shrimps on the barbie any more," says Greg Tingle. "We're a more sophisticated society and our television programs demonstrate that.
"Our locally made shows are hot exports in their own right, and they help sell the country. Our entertainment is part of the tourism spiel … the rest of the world sees us moving ahead with quality. The confidence for that was certainly bolstered under the previous government."
Jonathan Nolan, chief executive of Pisces All Media, which runs the Hottest on TV website, agrees. "No matter what else you might say about him, John Howard made Australians feel great about themselves. It really started with the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but Howard actually presided over a cultural shift that saw the death of the cringe factor — the adolescent craving for approval from America and Britain," he says.
"Even the dumbest talking-heads on TV have the confidence not to cringe and fawn all over celebrities visiting from overseas. Compare that to the old days, with Molly Meldrum constantly saying how wonderful it was that such-and-such a pop star was in the country."
Nolan says evidence for this new-found confidence can be seen in private investment in television production. "We had a sheltered workshop here, where everything was driven by government grants. All that did was compomise quality. That's no longer the case. People invest in these shows because they believe in them, not just because they're getting a tax break …
"The pay-off is that we now perform extremely well on the overseas market. You get a show selling well overseas — like Stingers or Police Rescue — (and) you have an earner for life. At the Roma Fiction Fest (a television awards and buying festival) in July, there were buyers from all over Europe looking at the Australian shows with the greatest interest.
"The Italian shows looked like something from the '70s … they were desperately clinging to their own culture, while the Australian shows were more sophisticated and well-placed for the international market."
Dr Sue Turnbull, co-ordinator of the Media Studies Program at La Trobe University, says the Australian push into the global market was pioneered in the '80s by Neighbours, Home and Away and older programs such as The Sullivans and Prisoner. One British critic whinged at the time that UK television was overrun by Australian content. "There were 11 different Australian soap operas being shown on British TV in a week," says Turnbull.
In the '90s, the Australian invasion died down such that only Neighbours and Home and Away held a significant audience. We were making some good shows, but the Brits weren't interested. "There was the great failure of Sea Change to find a market in the UK. It never got a release."
Now, Aussie producers are deliberately targeting the global market ahead of local viewers. A second series of Sea Patrol was planned ahead of the first series release, with a view to an international release — which it gained through Hallmark.
Turnbull says that the later episodes of Kath & Kim were blatantly written for the UK, featuring appearances by Kylie Minogue "and the fellows from Little Britain".
While Australian-made "usually goes well at home — from the days of Graham Kennedy on IMT to Packed to the Rafters — audiences won't watch bad Australian TV. Like The Alice."
With MICHELLE GRIFFIN (Credit: The Sunday Age)