The woman who owned the video store in my 1980s hometown also moonlighted as a scriptwriter for A Country Practice. There was a hand-drawn sign on her counter, text in block capitals above an upturned cartoon pig: ‘Who cares who killed Laura Palmer,’ it read, ‘I killed Doris.’
At the time, this sign was an enigma to me. I was too young for auteur–director David Lynch’s surreal soap opera Twin Peaks. Now, though, I read the sign as a rare insider-critique of Australian TV. Look, it declared, look what holds our attention. Cruel flies buzzed around the trotters of the TV event of the decade: the death of Doris, the pig with a drinking problem from Wandin Valley.
Twenty years later we are living in what critics refer to as the ‘golden age’ of television. Today, finishing The Wire is something of a social obligation. The popular and critical acclaim of original dramas such as HBO’s Oz and The Sopranos has precipitated a wave of US television series of unprecedented quality. The last decade or so has seen premium subscription cable networks from the United States vie for critical attention, with productions including The Wire, True Blood, True Detective and Game of Thrones from HBO; Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead from AMC; and (perhaps of poorer quality, but no less addictive) Homeland, Weeds and Dexter on Showtime. These shows have spawned cults, social media obsessions, fights over ‘spoilers’ and a new form of entertainment writing known as the ‘recap’. We watch these shows in gluttonous box-set sessions; we download them illegally and watch them all night. Hobbies have fallen by the wayside because of these shows. Babies have not been conceived. Kitchens are unclean, manifestos unmanifest. We go to work with bleary eyes and nothing to say about ‘real’ life. We see the same enlarged ‘just-one-more-episode’ pupils set low down in the faces of those around us. We regret nothing. TV is not the same thing it was ten years ago. Finally, TV is a valid life choice.
I can watch six or more hours of TV a night in a binge, placing me well above the two hours thirty-two minutes average screen time for a metro-dwelling 24–35 year old female. Yet these viewing statistics—compiled by Screen Australia in 2013—only show the time spent watching broadcast TV and I, like many people I know, no longer watch the networks. I haven’t bought a set-top box. When the analogue signal was switched off in 2013, so was the Australian TV broadcast at my house. I hardly noticed. The choice between a season of House of Cards and a smorgasbord of consumer affairs shows, suburban dramas and weight loss competitions seemed a no-brainer to me.
As a consequence, while I am more of a couch potato than ever, I’ve lost touch with what’s ‘on the box’, particularly in terms of local content. The contemporary local shows that get buzz on Twitter don’t lend themselves to indulgent TV binges. Six hours of Q and A or the Australian version of The Bachelor lacks appeal and I miss a lot of Australian dramas because no-one tells me about them. Everyone I know is too busy making Breaking Bad memes and blogging about Girls. Somewhere between the death of Doris and my terminal teenage night-trips to Summer Bay I developed a prejudice. I don’t watch Australian TV because, rightly or wrongly, I assume it will be boring.
To write this essay I felt I had to correct the deficit. For weeks I spent my evenings on the couch in soft pants watching our nation on the small screen. Some of it was horrible. Some of it was good. None of it blew my mind. In my estimation, The Slap, Blue Murder, Love My Way and Wentworth are the most addictive Australian television shows. But even here the nature of the appeal was very different to that of US or Danish or British TV: I never forgot that I was primarily watching this content because it was Australian, made for Australians like me.
Last year Screen Australia released the ‘Hearts and Minds’ report on audience engagement with Australian screen content. The report emphasised the importance of portraying ‘Australian stories’ on our TV screens and their role in providing the viewer with a sense of ‘cultural identity’. According to the report, the output of Australian television producers could be roughly grouped into five categories: ‘Australiana’ (Underbelly); ‘New Nostalgia’ (incorporating Puberty Blues and all those historical mini-series); ‘Suburban/urban Drama’ (Offspring, Packed to the Rafters et al.); ‘Comedy’ (Kath and Kim, anything by Chris Lilley); and ‘Documentaries’ (Go Back to Where You Came From, Australian Story). Australians like to poke fun at themselves, said the report. They like a good yarn. They can do a lot with a little and they don’t go in for fakery. Australian content was identified as an important part of our ‘media diet’, a description that suggests our local TV industry is the equivalent of Vegemite on Tip Top; comforting but mostly nutritionally bereft. A part of our cultural identity, sure, but if you ate it every night you’d get scurvy.
With a relatively small population, we are lucky to have a local television industry at all. Particularly considering that Australia has one of the highest illegal download rates in the world. One of the biggest challenges for Australian broadcasters is how to get overseas content on domestic screens before everyone’s already seen it. The other great challenge for commercial free to air television is, of course, to sell advertising. The networks must balance the need to appeal to an audience with the need to provide attractive programming in which to place an advertisement. The difficulty of this juggling act is even more pronounced on US free to air TV, where networks have to land advertisers in ‘upfronts’, advertising commitments that are based on pilots of shows that may never make it to production. Cable television, the platform for much of the best content that comes out of the United States, is expensive and has limited availability in Australia. In order to bulk out its programming and to fulfil legal requirements, our major cable network, Foxtel, has developed local dramas such as Wentworth (a remake of the Grundy classic Prisoner: cops and crims in a female prison) and Love My Way (a well-written urban drama). These shows might be the equivalent of Vegemite on sourdough: a classier update to the standard fair.
Given our smaller population and relatively low subscription rates, Foxtel too has to sell ads. A US cable network such as HBO doesn’t need to worry about appealing to advertisers. A wordy, bombastic show such as Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom probably wouldn’t sell many ads but its executive producer, Dennis Biggs, cites the subscription model as key to the show’s quality as it provides a creative environment free from the interference of network executives. HBO doesn’t need to sell ads because it is selling HBO. Aaron Sorkin can be absorbed into that brand and become an ambassador for the network; his reputation becomes a further attraction for subscribers. Biggs also cites the fact that US premium cable networks aren’t ‘hamstrung by FCC regulations’ as a key element of their appeal. The lack of regulation means plenty of sex, drugs and violence, three seemingly unavoidable elements common to all of the most successful new US dramas.
I recently watched one teenager administer a lethal overdose of heroin to another on Wentworth and even in the suburban and urban drama of Love My Way and The Slap there is room for a recreational snort or a simmering undercurrent of alcoholism. But Australian television doesn’t seem to glory in spectacle as our US cousins do. We screen small stories. We rarely portray what Alan Ball, the creator of Six Feet Under and True Blood, calls ‘the moment of shit’; the scene where a moral or sentimental message must be powerfully brought home. But we don’t lack sex, drugs and violence on our screens. What we seem to lack is a broad and courageous vision for what Australian TV might be.
This is not an easy thing to say out loud. I spoke to several people in the Australian television industry—writers, producers and editors—and while they all saw good TV as being about stories with universal appeal, characters that resonate with the audience and situations that pique our curiosity, no-one would point to a specific Australian TV show as an example of a ‘bad’ show, let alone a common attribute of Australian television production that might constitute a limit on what can be achieved. The video storeowner and pig killer is the exception to the rule; despite our allegedly irreverent national character, no-one is disloyal or pokes fun. TV in Australia is a small industry. Even if you think it is predictable, risk-averse and riddled with cronyism, if you work in the industry you can’t afford to say it on the record. The official line is that our TV shows are world class.
But there is a subtle code in the way the industry refers to the different kinds of stories it tells. For example, Screen Australia recently launched the High End Television development grant, implying that there is, indeed, a ‘low end’. The grant recognises ‘ambitious, authorial, emotionally engaging storytelling that can connect with global audiences’. When I spoke to one of the first recipients, Nathan Mayfield of Hoodlum productions, I called it the ‘HBO grant’. He laughed; he’d heard it before. The grant aims to assist ambitious and original television productions to bypass our networks altogether. Prompted by the success of New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion’s crime series Top of the Lake, the grant is aimed at productions whose appeal is mainly ‘international’. That is, its aim is to produce Australian TV shows not aimed at Australian TV audiences, even if Australian TV audiences would like to see them. There is a sense here that if we show our best selves to international audiences, then the domestic market is where we don stained trackie daks and slump on the couch in front of The Block.
It’s difficult to pin down what ‘high end’ or ‘high concept’ television is. When I asked writers and producers to define it, I heard the familiar line about universal storylines and great characters. But people also deploy this line to describe Neighbours. Pushing for something more, Mayfield conjectured that ‘basically, if there is no way you would see it on an Australian TV network then there’s a chance it’s high concept’.
This seems to be at least partly because of a seemingly unshakable belief in what ‘mainstream’ Australian audiences want, which haunts programming discussions in this country. In mainstream Australia, it’s mum and dad and the kids in front of the TV, or, if the ABC is on, it’s over-fifties winding down in the evening with a glass of red. In either case, the consensus seems to be that these folks are not ‘international’ and don’t want ‘high end’. They want Packed to the Rafters or Home and Away or The Gruen Transfer. Of course, this
belief in a monolithic, predictable ‘mainstream’ is an impossible thing to prove or disprove. When we are talking about TV ratings, we can only measure the popularity of what is already on.
Mayfield can’t talk about his high end, internationally appealing, grant-awarded production Tidelands and in Australia, we might never legally see it. The show is being developed for Amazon Studios, the latest online TV distributor, which is not available in Australia at this stage. I know Tidelands will be a ‘supernatural thriller’ but when I try to prompt Mayfield by suggesting that to get the Top of the Lake grant, it might also include elements such as an unusual remote community and the sweeping, magic-hour landscape shots that brand so much antipodean screen production, he deflects the question, ‘All I can say is it’s high concept.’
‘High concept’ might refer to the fact that the whole show is conceived and written by one person, Australian thriller novelist Stephen M. Irwin. This makes it closer to the US system where a team of writers work together on the entire season of production rather than individual writers crafting an episode each with a single ‘showrunner’—an executive producer and writer—who acts as what Mayfield calls ‘the guardian of the story’. It’s a system that the TV writers to whom I spoke hoped to see more of in Australian productions. It allows a more cohesive vision, a greater degree of control over the narrative and, in a small industry where no-one wants to step on anyone else’s toes, it might be what we need to develop a culture of risk-taking and originality in our TV stories.
Mayfield and his production company Hoodlum are early adopters of the showrunner system. Hoodlum often imports showrunners from the United States, who are not only guardians of the story but also guardians of an American TV industry workflow and a real sense of what US networks want to buy. ‘You can’t be parochial,’ Mayfield says, referring specifically to the writing of TV shows, though it applies equally to his business model, which appears to emphasise adapting to the demands of international industries. The High End Television development grant is as much a reflection of the desire to foster connections between the Australian and US television industries as it is about providing new kinds of programming to our audiences.
In the United States, Mayfield says, corporate hierarchies and endless rounds of meetings mean ‘you need to be very, very confident about your story’. To what degree does this apply to Australian television program development? According to Mayfield, Australian television is more reliant on relationships: you get a champion at a network and you’re halfway there. Hoodlum’s last production, Secrets and Lies, found its champions at Channel 10 very quickly. It’s a great story but, like so many Australian productions, Secrets and Lies is weighed down by heavy-handed post-production; relentlessly invasive sound design and the same oversaturated ‘blueness’ in the colour-grade that annoyed me in Wentworth. Despite these familiar visual marks, Secrets and Lies is an interesting, compelling show and a win for its champions. But it rated poorly on Channel 10. You’ll probably hear more about it when the US ABC version starring Ryan Phillippe and Juliette Lewis comes out.
Locally the ‘champions’ system might also explain some of the less interesting examples of Australian TV. An industry defined by relationships can easily result in the continual development of unoriginal, by-the-book productions. It’s no stretch to picture an Australian TV industry in which mates pitch the same stories to mates (at 7mate?) and give mates jobs producing the same stuff they’ve been making for ages, mate. Television, after all, is not foremost a high-minded artistic movement. It’s an industry and it makes a few people a lot of money.
But the industry is changing. In 2013 Channel 10 recorded a loss of more than $200 million. In 2014 Channel 9 is just recovering from its own losses and the budgets of the ABC, SBS and Screen Australia have been cut. Rumours of flagship shows to be axed by the ABC due to budgetary pressure do not bode well for future television development. Across the board, the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century has heralded massive challenges for Australian TV. In his book Broadcast Wars, Michael Bodey chronicles the slumps, changes of the guard and gambles that have kept the networks afloat. He documents how, in TV, economic pressures and a changing technological culture can be just the right environment for new formats to emerge. This is not always a good thing. In the early 2000s, Channel 10 saved itself with the introduction of the innovative new show Big Brother and ‘reality’ became a TV staple. With The Block and My Kitchen Rules as two of the highest rating shows of 2014, it’s clear that reality TV isn’t going anywhere soon. However, the existence of a funding program such as Screen Australia’s High End Television development grant, along with the international success of a local flop such as Please Like Me and the emergence of popular web-series such as The Horizon and Low Life, suggests that there is a growing section of the industry that is responding in other ways to the opportunities and challenges of new technology and aspires to something other than being the dinnertime entertainment for a demographically typecast Australian audience.
The reason program-makers need to define audiences, rather than simply making exciting work and offering it up to the great TV eye, is to make money from the shows produced. It is advertising that insists on precisely mapping the demographics of the 7 pm timeslot. And because the demographic of the ‘suburban family’ is so prized by advertisers, it and the shows that cater for it remain the most visible. This is how we nurture a status quo, by selling stuff to them, including the idea of who they are. But every stereotyped demographic category conceals enormous plurality and difference. Who are mum and dad anyway? Conducting informal studies of my own, I found that while many of the mums and dads I know do sit down to watch prime-time dramas such as Time of Our Lives and Offspring, the consensus is that the shows aren’t interesting because they’re easy to relate to, but rather the opposite: they show an uncanny vision of Australia, one that’s always located just beyond the real in some kind of familiar no-place. As for the reality shows, they are addictive and they are ‘what’s on’.
That producers of different or ‘high end’ television see their audiences as being ‘international’ is most likely related not only to the limiting idea of what the Australian mainstream audience is, but also to the ongoing question (as relevant to film and literature as to TV), what can or should we expect Australian culture to do?
At the moment, much of our acclaimed network programming features some aspect of Australian history (‘New Nostalgia’) or riffs on ideas of national identity (‘Australiana’). We are anxious about our history and identity and these anxieties proliferate in our cultural output across all media. We want to represent ourselves as culturally exceptional, both to each other and to the rest of the world. I think many of our stories are adversely affected by the challenge of trying to present a recognisably ‘Australian’ brand.
The questions that formed the basis of the ‘Hearts and Minds’ report included, ‘What role does [Australian TV] play in the formation of the national identity, and, how does it build towards a sense of belonging and participation?’ Some respondents enthusiastically praised the realism of the suburban Australian lifestyle represented by Packed to the Rafters and the uniquely Australian humour of Kath and Kim and Summer Heights High, while others reasonably noted the absence of whole sections of the population from these shows. Howzat and Puberty Blues were great because they portrayed life in the 1970s and 1980s and everyone seemingly agreed there was a lot to learn from Who Do You Think You Are? and Australian Story. But no-one seemed to think these pressures to learn about and represent an authentic Australia might be as much a limitation as an inspiration in the creation of TV programs. Is Australian identity really something we can ‘screen’? Can Australians tell stories without worrying about how they represent, instruct or reveal ‘Australia’? After all, the writers and producers I spoke to emphasised how a good story needs to be exciting, intriguing and universally resonant.
Culture changes, but well-crafted, exciting stories have timeless appeal. In 2015, Twin Peaks will be resurrected for a final season, long after we have all forgotten Doris. We are capable of making ‘high end’, internationally resonant, important TV here. As the Australian television industry evolves, and productions become marked by their positioning for international or domestic audiences, it will be interesting to see what kind of TV we make when we are not selling ‘authentic’ representations of Australia to Australians. To see it legally though, we might have to get off the couch and onto a plane.