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Aussie TV: Quality at a price

Future uncertain for Oz's TV drama industry

Two years after claiming it wants to be an Aussie HBO, paybox Foxtel has hit some critical drama home runs, but its ratings are still far from the highs of free-to-air, and its biggest challenge appears to be finding production companies willing to pitch new products.

Feevee in Australia is starting to come of age, with aud growth running at 14.2% in 2006 compared with the same period last year; Foxtel has also come into profit for the first time in 10 years, and ad revenue is up 32.7% from the previous year.

In the past 12 months, this has meant a more aggressive spend on original local drama at a time when the industry needs it most.

Previously, Foxtel would partner in dramas to meet the government’s legally required minimum spend quota, but that just meant funneling money into shows that would get firstrun on free-to-air.

That changed with the production of 2004’s “Love My Way.” The story of a group of thirtysomethings making sense of life, “Love My Way” became a critical and kudo darling and, with a corresponding plunge in free-to-air-produced dramas, led to claims that feevee was the future of local dramas.

But fast forward to today, and there are mixed results.

Critically, “Love My Way” and the recent youth-skewed crime saga “Dangerous” rank among the strongest dramas to come out of the local market, but ratings-wise, those shows haven’t necessarily been socko successes with auds. Neither skein attracts free-to-air-style ratings: Despite a wealth of marketing mojo, “Dangerous” and “Love My Way” averaged only about 40,000-50,000 pairs of eyeballs an episode — out of 6 million feevee homes.

Foxtel’s television and marketing topper Brian Walsh says he was never out to conquer the mass market.

“All our dramas are produced for a niche audience. Our philosophy is to produce drama that is risky, edgy and provocative, and, for that reason, we do not homogenize dramas in the same way the commercial networks do,” he explains. “‘Dangerous’ was there to play to a niche of young adults, and, in that target demo, it did superbly.”

Next up for the ratings test is a similarly risky venture, a brothel-based skein called “Satisfaction,” from producer Roger Simpson, that will bow on Showtime later this year. Simpson has said he thought no other web would make the series, so aud figures could once again skew niche.

After a busy 12 months carrying the hopes for local drama, Foxtel is set for a hiatus. “Love My Way” has finished its third and final series, a second series of “Dangerous” is yet to be decided, and Foxtel has no new drama currently skedded for production.

Walsh puts the blame in the lap of the local production industry.

“There hasn’t been a rush of drama ideas or producers knocking down our door; that’s never been the case,” he says. “We have had to go out and solicit the sort of drama that we want to make.”

Geoff Brown, topper of the Screen Producers Assn. of Australia (SPAA) praises Foxtel’s recent commitment to the genre, but suggests that blaming the producers for a lack of ideas may be too simplistic.

“Producers are still wary of drama. There are significant costs in development, significant risk as to whether it will stay on air, and we’re still having to meet deficits in the funding (from government),” he explains.

On the other hand, Southern Star’s John Edwards, one of the producers behind both “Love” and “Dangerous,” believes the future of drama lies in feevee.

“Most of the drama on free-to-air is backward-looking and conservative and fearful, whereas the drama we are being encouraged to make on subscription TV takes a little bit of guts,” he says. “In the case of ‘Love My Way,’ our concern was to make something that was not only as good as it could be, but also to separate it from what was currently around on free TV, so we set out to be as bold as possible.”

Ultimately, it is the direction that future as-yet-unnamed productions take that will determine whether Foxtel is carving a vitally needed niche in a barren drama landscape or being too bold to secure a sustainable aud.

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