After years of reality TV, more Australian drama is on the way, writes
REVIEW’S photographer is coaxing a cheesy grin from Hal and Di McElroy, urging the husband and wife producers to imagine their new $ 15 million drama has just topped the ratings. ‘‘ More like ‘ thank Christ for that’!’’ says Hal, grimacing, perched in front a model of the ageing navy patrol boat that plays a starring role in the couple’s latest venture, Sea Patrol .
The McElroys are in their office on Sydney’s eucalypt- speckled north shore soon before Sea Patrol ’ s debut earlier this month on the Nine network. The 13- part series, made with help from the Royal Australian Navy, is Australia’s most expensive television drama to date. At more than $ 1 million an episode — a significant portion of this is in- kind support from the navy — the McElroys clearly need Sea Patrol to resonate with viewers ( more of which later).
It has taken four investors, approval from two navy chiefs and Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, two patrol boats, a navy crew and one broken ankle to launch this seafaring drama on to the small screen. ‘‘ It took damned near four years to make,’’ says Di, a warm, gregarious woman given to the odd burst of ferocity.
The McElroys are seasoned program- makers, with production credits ranging from longrunning prime- time hits ( Blue Heelers , Water Rats ) to left- field experiments ( SBS’s Going Home, set entirely inside a train carriage).
But Di knew she was in for unprecedented, logistical hurdles when she slipped and broke her ankle on a navy vessel during a research trip for Sea Patrol . The series, which taps into the public’s preoccupation with border security, is largely shot at sea.
During four months of filming in unpredictable tropical waters off north Queensland, a vast catamaran served as a floating wardrobe and make- up department. Every day about 60 actors, production crew and sailors grappled with six tonnes of equipment on a patrol boat built for 24. The cast, including Australia’s
SPAA executive director Geoff Brown says enduring Aussie dramas such as Blue Heelers and McLeod’s Daughters have always branded the networks and ‘‘ I just think they lost sight of that’’. He says that during the past five or six years, TV executives were blinded to the potential of local drama by reality TV, which is often cheap to make and highly popular.
They were also put off by a tougher international marketplace, as countries that once defrayed the high costs of Australian drama by co- producing or importing it poured all their resources into their own productions. small- screen sweetheart Lisa McCune, learned how to perform their own stunts.
If the McElroys have a lot riding on the success of their big- budget drama, so does the broader industry. In recent times, production of Australian TV drama has fallen alarmingly and industry insiders hope Nine’s investment in Sea Patrol is a sign of restored faith in the form.
The influential Screen Producers Association of Australia is not so much encouraged by Sea Patrol ’ s hefty budget as by signals from TV executives that they once again believe in Australian drama.
But McElroy, who produced the classic film Picnic at Hanging Rock in his 20s, believes the local industry went into decline because it failed to create stories that connected with mass audiences. ‘‘ What’s sadly true is that in recent years the industry hasn’t had that lightning strike,’’ he says.
In 2005- 06 the Australian Film Commission found that budgets for local adult drama totalled $ 129 million, significantly down on the five- year average of $ 168 million. In 2005, SPAA complained that drama production at the commercial networks was at a 10- year low. At the ABC — traditionally the torchbearer for quality local drama — drama production had dropped to unprecedented lows.
ABC head of television Kim Dalton admits that last year the national broadcaster screened just seven hours of new home- grown drama, down from 102 hours in 2001. That’s eight minutes a week. Dalton calls this ‘‘ a completely unacceptable situation’’.
Brown says it is ‘‘ hugely inadequate and an embarrassment to the ABC and to the industry, and it just makes it tougher all round’’. He fears that if the ABC’s drama output stays low, the commercial networks will rebel against the local drama quotas they must meet to retain their licences. ( The commercial networks screen 100 to 200 hours of home- grown drama every year.)
Dalton, who joined the ABC in early 2006, says that even though the national broadcaster
lacks the resources to make a lot of high- end drama, in recent years ‘‘ there is no doubt that the ABC prioritised its funding away from drama to other areas. The story is there if you look at the statistics.’’ Dalton wants to change that. He says 14 hours of new Australian drama will be screened on the ABC this year. The miniseries Curtin and Bastard Boys have already screened and ‘‘ rated extremely well’’, he says.
Soon to screen on the ABC are Rain Shadow , a six- part miniseries about the drought starring Rachel Ward, and a new comedy series, The Librarians . ‘‘ It ( the total) is still quite low,’’ Dalton concedes. He wants to lift the ABC’s drama output to 20 hours next year, ‘‘ and I would hope that we will stay like that for the next couple of years. The only reason we will be able to get back up to that level — I still accept the level is low — is the effect of the money we got in the federal budget last year.’’
He is referring to the extra $ 30 million over three years Canberra granted the ABC. It sounds substantial, but only half — or $ 5 million a year — will go to adult drama. The other half will be spent on children’s TV and documentaries.
Brown says the extra funding ‘‘ is still far from adequate, but it’s a start and the ABC needs to build on it’’.
Talk of a home- grown drama revival is also being driven by the federal Government’s new 20 per cent tax rebate for investment in local film and TV drama, announced in the last budget. Dalton says the tax rebate ‘‘ will increase output but to what extent, we don’t know. I think it’s a positive step.’’ The SPAA is sceptical because only TV series that cost $ 600,000 an hour will attract the tax deduction. ‘‘ That is too high for TV drama,’’ Brown says. ‘‘ For an organisation like the ABC, it’s unattainable.’’
Although the international market has been resistant to Australian stories ( apart from soaps), Sea Patrol has been sold to Hallmark, an American pay- TV operator that reaches 100 territories. And this month Channel 7’ s longrunning hospital drama All Saints was picked up by the BBC.
Nine has committed to a second series of Sea Patrol , though the go- ahead is contingent on further funding from the Film Finance Corporation. Nine is also filming two new local drama series: Underbelly , about Melbourne’s murderous gang wars, and Canal Road , a medical- legal drama. Both will be screened next year.
However, the network that has traditionally dominated the ratings has not always been so supportive of local drama. Late last year, SPAA accused Nine of being ‘‘ outrageous’’ and ‘‘ cynical’’ when the network launched the New Zealand drama Outrageous Fortune in a 10.30pm timeslot in a non- ratings period. It was thought Nine wanted to use the Kiwi series ( funded by NZ taxpayers) to help meet its drama quota. Following a 1997 High Court decision, NZ programs can count as Australian content.
In the end, Nine didn’t need to factor in the Kiwi drama to meet its drama quota. It did, however, include 11 local feature films, most screened late at night with little promotion. ( Nine head of drama Jo Horsburgh did not respond to a request for an interview.)
Meanwhile, Seven — poised to trump Nine this year as the highest rating network — has headhunted the nation’s foxiest hornbags, Kath and Kim, from the ABC. Seven’s new urban police drama, City Homicide , will also air soon.
Accelerating the charge to put Australian accents and stories back on the small screen are SBS and pay- TV channels including Fox 8, Showtime and UKTV. This year, pay- TV channels have broadcast the third series of the award- winning Love My Way and Dangerous , a drama about ram raiders from Sydney’s western suburbs. The 10- part series Satisfaction , which explores the lives of five women who work in a brothel, will air on Showtime later this year.
‘‘ Pay TV is now recognised as a real force in Australian TV drama,’’ Brown says, particularly when it comes to edgy, youth- oriented drama. SBS, he adds, ‘‘ is a fantastic commissioner, given [ its] limited resources’’.
Despite being overlooked in the federal funding round that gave the ABC extra drama money, SBS has more than doubled its drama output during the past two years.
‘‘ We were devastated ( to miss out on the extra funding). We would love to be doing a lot more. We are capable of doing a lot more and it is very frustrating that we don’t have the budget to do it,’’ says Carole Sklan, a commissioning editor for drama at SBS.
Sklan explains that during the past two years SBS has shifted its resources from supporting one- off telemovies and feature films, such as the award- winning Ten Canoes and Look Both Ways, to TV drama. ‘‘ We wanted to make audiences more aware that SBS supports Australian drama,’’ she says.
In the 2005- 06 financial year, SBS made 15 hours of local drama. Last financial year it produced 32 hours.
SBS is screening The Circuit , which Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph has called ‘‘ the best new series of the year’’. The Circuit stars Aaron Pedersen and Gary Sweet, and traces the legal, political and racial fault lines that intersect in the world’s biggest legal jurisdiction, the Kimberley.
Sklan says SBS is out to make ‘‘ drama with a twist that reflects Australia’s cultural diversity’’. One of SBS’s two scheduled series of short experimental dramas is by new indigenous filmmakers and the network will also screen another new miniseries, East West 101 , a drama featuring an Arab detective living in Sydney.
The scheduling of East West 101 will also be unconventional. It will premiere in December, because competition from the big US dramas during ratings season ‘‘ just kills SBS, so we have tried to find ways where we can really feature our work’’, says Sklan. She notes that with the SBS line- up and several commercial series and miniseries in production, ‘‘ people are saying they can’t get television crews because it’s all happening all at once. It’s my impression that all the networks are now gearing up to support more Australian drama. People must have been feeling that there was just this vacuum of Australian stories with Australian characters who connected with Australian audiences.’’
Based on the production flurry of the past six months, Brown is cautiously optimistic about the future. ‘‘ We think there is a great opportunity for Australian drama to work again,’’ he says.
The Ten network, it seems, is bucking the trend. Its only new home- grown drama this year was the telemovie Joanne Lees: Murder in the Outback , which screened in March. It has just finished filming another telemovie, The Falls , starring Georgie Parker, which it hopes to turn into a series next year. ‘‘ It’s been very much a development and production year,’’ says a spokeswoman schooled in the art of euphemism.
* * * IT’S the morning after the night before. On Thursday, July 5, Sea Patrol went to air for the first time. Within hours, the ratings were out, and the numbers looked good; more than good. The series recorded the strongest debut for an Australian drama series in six years.
The first episode drew 1.98 million viewers across five capital cities, outperforming an NRL State of Origin match broadcast the same week, a rare feat for an untested local drama.
‘‘ I think you could say relieved is the word,’’ Di McElroy says, when asked for her reaction.
Hal McElroy is even more downbeat, revealing he and Di haven’t yet treated themselves to a celebratory drink. ‘‘ We didn’t open the champagne, we kind of fell exhausted to the floor. It was a kind of stress release,’’ he says, adding that he and Di are up to their ears finessing scripts for the second series.
Hal says it’s a trap to get carried away by a debut episode’s ratings, as viewer numbers typically fall away after that, then climb back up. On its second outing, Sea Patrol peaked with 1.84 million viewers, attracting an average 1.66 million fans, still an outstanding result. Even so, Hal McElroy insists: ‘‘ It is a marathon and all we have done is turn the first corner.’’
More to follow: Head of television Kim Dalton hopes to lift the ABC’s local drama output to 20 hours
Local renaissance: Producers Di and Hal McElroy, far left, have a lot riding on the success of Sea Patrol; Lisa McCune on the Sea Patrol set, facing page, top; the cast of SBS’s The Circuit , below; left, from top, scenes from the ABC’s Rain Shadow, Nine’s Underbelly, the ABC’s Curtin, Nine’s Canal Road and Seven’s City Homicide