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Australian TV drama spending is up – and it shows

Redfern Now is one of a new crop of successful Australian dramas. ABC

Australian TV drama spending is up – and it shows

Australian TV drama expenditure has increased by 27% in the last year, according to a Screen Australia report released today, accounting for 50% of the A$752 million spent on big and small screen drama in 2012/13. But could we say this corresponds with significantly better home-grown drama? I’d say the signs are extremely positive.

Next week, the second series of the prize-winning ABC drama Redfern Now, goes to air. Drawing together some of the leading lights of Indigenous TV production, Redfern Now will be screened in an environment of renewed optimism about Australian television. Critics loved the first series, and it won an audience-voted 2013 Logie for most outstanding drama in April.

It’s not the only Australian show enjoying critical and commercial acclaim both here and overseas. So what’s driving the current swathe of quality Australian TV drama?

Indigenous stories

At the 2013 AFI Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards in January, Indigenous practitioners scooped the pool. Redfern Now, which explores the lives of six households in the Sydney suburb of Redfern, was nominated in five categories and Wayne Blair’s film, The Sapphires, about an Indigenous girl-group entertaining American troops in Vietnam in the late 1960s, won the award for best film.

Redfern Now, season 1 (2012)

Since the early 2000s, there has been a suite of successes in Indigenous screen stories, including Mabo, The Straits, The Circuit and First Australians, culminating in Redfern Now - and The Sapphires on the big screen.

As Indigenous scholar Marcia Langton has observed (invoking Allen Ginsberg), Indigenous people “recognise the power of visual media not only for their own communities, but also for changing the consciousness of the nations that encompass them”.

Indigenous writers, producers and directors have seized the opportunity to tell their own stories. And those stories are prompting all Australians to rethink our history and to better understand ourselves as a bi-cultural nation.

Female stories

In March this year, Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake launched on Foxtel in Australia. The show, a murder mystery set against the backdrop of the stunning New Zealand landscape, has been acclaimed internationally, winning one Emmy award and earning another nine nominations.

A New Zealander working from Australia, Campion typifies the transnational career path of many screen professionals. She works with both local and international money and talent across film and television. Narratives with women at their heart have been a consistent feature of her work.

Top of the Lake (2012)

Women such as Campion have historically been in the minority in key creative roles in both film and television — but that’s changing. According to Screen Australia data, women’s participation in TV production has been growing. It now stands at 44%.

A 2007 UK Film Council report concluded that greater female participation behind the cameras changed the gender balance on screen too: “when women are involved in writing, production and directing, they create more female characters”. We’re seeing a similar trend in Australian television production.

Women are writing, directing and producing more Australian TV shows. As a result, we are seeing a new array of female characters on screens: the housewife (Packed to the Rafters), the career woman (Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo), teenage girls (Puberty Blues), Indigenous women (Redfern Now), female prisoners, (Wentworth), and a female prime minister (At Home with Julia).

TV for the whole world

As a government-subsidised industry, the Australian film and TV sector often reflects government policy. In 2012, the Gillard government’s plan to address the “transformation of the Asian region into the economic powerhouse of the world” in the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper were matched by key players in TV.

The then head of the ABC, Kim Dalton made it clear that the Australian production industry was in the box seat for the Asian Century.

Dalton put in train plans to expand globally with HBO Asia. One of the results is currently screening - Serangoon Road,, the ten-part, A$10 million drama series about the British withdrawal from Singapore in 1964-5.

Serangoon Road (2013)

International partnerships of this sort now provide important funding avenues in a highly competitive marketplace. It is overdue for Australian producers to look to Asia - not only for revenue and funding, but for story sources to explore how we fit into the region.

Australian drama is also making some inroads in the United States. The ABC drama Rake, starring Richard Roxburgh as the eponymous rake, barrister Cleaver Green, has been rebadged for the American market, as has local man-in-a-dog-suit comedy Wilfred. The TV adapation of Christos Tsiolkas’s novel of the same name, The Slap has received rave reviews and strong ratings in the UK; and, as with the small town crime series, The Doctor Blake Murder Mysteries, it has been sold to networks around the world.

It’s generally much cheaper for broadcasters to buy overseas productions than make shows in Australia, so the recent successes are all the more impressive.

Something particularly Australian, and particularly significant, is coming out of the mix – so tune in and enjoy it.