Tele-scoping: Small Screen Big Picture

Mick Broderick

In early May an intimate but vital industry conference on the state of Australian TV was held in Perth. Size does matter, but in this case less was more. Where else but the annual Small Screen Big Picture TV pow-wow can you schmooze with leading local and international producers, broadcasters and agents while buttonholing the new heads of the Film Finance Corporation (Brian Rosen) and SBS Television (Shaun Brown).

It seems that the challenges and opportunities of digital technologies are not being met by either industry/producers or consumers/audiences. On a panel devoted to “crossing the boundaries” of film to digital, producer Vincent Sheehan, AAV digital lab head John Fleming and the FFC Investment Manager Ross Mathews grappled with the implications (creative, technical and financial) of choosing digital over film. While Mathews suggested the FFC would be increasingly flexible with lower budgets for digi-features, Fleming’s presentation of post-production costs was sobering: there was still little to be saved using a digital pathway.

The PAY-TV panel signaled trends in both programming and industry economics. With nearly 12 times the amount of content shown on Pay TV as on all the free-to-air broadcasters combined, subscription content providers say regulation is damaging their industry with onerous local content provisions and erratic anti-siphoning laws. Although resistant to the 10% requirement for local drama, Pay operators suggest that as more subscribers take up Pay TV, additional programming will be devoted to domestic productions.

One of the most forthright panels covered trends in factual programming, ostensibly recognising the “revolution” in programming and the “plethora of new styles of storytelling.” Daryl Karp, head of Factual Programs at ABC Television, began the session with a showreel of the past 18 months’ top rating ABC programs followed by the top rating Australian programs. Surprisingly, most were non-fiction with an aesthetic bias towards dramatic reconstruction, the monarchy (past and present) and CGI special effects. All attracted an audience of about a million and there was not much difference in audience size for locally made, versus imported, top raters. For Karp, successful stories need recognisable names and accessible content entertainingly told, but more critically, they have to fit within the ABC’s program schedule.

Reading the trends in such recently commissioned work, Alex Graham, Chief Executive of UK production house Wall to Wall, quipped, “Yeah, I’m waiting to see the Dinosaur Queen of the Nazis next.” Graham is responsible for ‘reality history’ programs such as The 1900 House, Edwardian Country House and Frontier House and the ‘speculative future’ documentaries Smallpox 2002 and The Day Britain Stopped. His creative model for factual programming is drama, whether it’s fish-out-of-water shows that immerse 21st century families in recreated historical environments, or creating a not-too-distant future and invoking catastrophe to ‘retrospectively’ comment on the folly of contemporary social policy. While acknowledging the “fakery” of these oxymoronic “reconstructed” futures, Graham beguiled the audience with his pitch, “Everything in this show is true, it just hasn’t happened yet….” Despite the impressive imagery and pomo rationale it all seemed deeply derivative—Peter Watkins pioneered the same thing at the BBC 4 decades ago with Culloden and The War Game.

Mark Hamlyn, Executive Producer at Film Australia, rhetorically asked what the ‘revolution’ in factual programming meant for Film Oz with its unique national

interest program and “cultural remit as a specialist documentary house.” His answer invoked the economic mantra of Bill Clinton, reminding the audience that “it’s about the entertainment, stupid.” In TV, it’s not the facts surrounding any event or life story that are important but the creative treatment of these and their entertainment value. Increasingly, Film Australia is looking to “the classic 3-act structure” of narrative, where recreations are embraced, but these dramatisations are ultimately measured against the “cheesiness factor” (too much or not enough).

Marie Thomas, Commissioning Editor at SBS, met session chair Celia Tate’s challenge to be “provocative”, saying few projects she’d been pitched in Australia had “excited” her. Thomas confessed to being a little jaded from reading countless treatments that referenced Fred Wiseman or Nanook of the North. Bureaucratic limitations frustrate her ability to entrepreneurially solicit projects, she said, and she does not share Hamlyn’s lament for the demise of the Commercial Television Production Fund, which takes millions of dollars from the sector. After years at the UK’s impoverished Channel 5, Thomas knows compelling programs can be made consistently on minuscule budgets.

Other stand out conference sessions included Scott Buck, Supervising Producer of Six Feet Under, who charmingly deconstructed the series and showed an episode yet to be aired here. The vicissitudes and pathologies of Six Feet’s dysfunctional ensemble characters are drawn not from fiction, Buck said, but from the scriptwriters’ personal experiences of death and its taboos.

Mother and Son and Grass Roots writer Geoffrey Atherden’s poignant yet hilarious lunchtime delivery stole the show. Atherden’s shtick included a whimsical meta-analysis of the act of presenting with a Powerpoint display that added new meaning to digital performance. As guests tucked into the buffet, Atherden drolly delivered his belief that a bilateral free trade agreement with the disproportionately powerful US will have dire consequences for domestic creative industries.

Comparing the situation in Australia with the US, New Zealand, Mexico and Canada, Atherden assured us that “the argument is not about free trade, it’s about fair trade.” After encouraging his audience to support intervention in Canberra, he received a loud, sustained ovation. Whether the warm response to this inspirational rhetoric translates into effective industry action and subsequent federal policy remains to be seen.

2003 Small Screen Big Picture TV Conference, Hotel Rendezvous, Observation City, Perth, May 7-9

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 17-18

© Mick Broderick; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003
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