That rumbling sound you may have heard over the last few weeks is the cultural conversation around the introduction of the new content streaming services Netflix, Stan and Presto. They join Apple TV, Foxtel, YouTube, and catch up services like ABC iview as well as the plethora of digital channels and many other legal means of accessing film and television content.
Local debate around the advent of these new content providers has had two main strands. First, how did television, traditionally viewed as something of an artistic dead zone, get so good? Second, how can mediums such as cinema and free to air TV compete and what impact will expanded content and choice have on our ability to tell Australian stories with Australian voices?
In a piece in the April 2015 issue of Australian Review of Books, screenwriter James McNamara examines how television, once ‘a medium typified by populism, low production values, industry prejudice and critical disdain’ grabbed the mantle of high culture, morphing into something so critically influential that it threatens to dwarf cinema and, some would argue, even the novel. McNamara’s essay not only tackles the rise of dynamic risk taking players such as HBO, whose series The Sopranos in 1999 began television’s steady march to something approaching art form, but the underlying cultural and economic shifts that have facilitated this, including the Internet and ossification of mainstream television networks.
His essay does not examine the challenges for Australia in preserving local content and voices, but the author touched on this at the issue’s launch. He described – and I am paraphrasing him here – the combination of anxiety and excitement sweeping local television writers’ rooms. There are opportunities in the rapidly evolving medium of television. But how can Australia think of competing against the sheer cash resources of operators like Netflix and HBO, whose show Game of Thrones, costs an average of US$ 6 million an episode? Hence a throwaway line by McNamara that after graduating from their studies, local screenwriters are usually told to go to Hollywood if they want a job.
It’s tempting to ask the related question, how can we expect to compete against overseas providers when much of their product is very good and so much of ours is so bad? There are obviously some great Australian free-to-air shows. East West 101, Redfern Now and the adaption of Christos Tsiolkas’s novel The Slap, are just some examples that have registered on my radar. But they seem dwarfed by the crap. Not just the tidal wave of reality TV but middling dramas like The House of Hancock or the increasingly clownish Underbelly. Given the choice of spending my limited television time viewing Underbelly: Fat Tony and Co or Mad Men, I’ll choose the latter.
Of course, US free-to-air TV is also full of terrible shows, and not every American was glued to the latest twists and turns of Breaking Bad. On a visit late last year to New York, I noticed with interest that it was not Mad Men or Game of Thrones advertised on bus sides, but the latest police procedurals, and a new comedy series about a loud mouthed Irish American family living in Queens.
I’ve never had a problem with the argument about the importance of preserving Australia’s ability to make our own culture, including film and television. Quite apart from wanting to support the people whose jobs depend on it, I view it in much the same way as I do the need to be able to build our own submarines: it’s vital that we retain the technical and artistic know-how to do this.
But how far does this go? Does the support of Australian voices mean we will all get behind Stan’s recently announced spin-off series of Wolf Creek? The 2005 movie and its sequel topped local box offices and, according to industry sources, has led to local film funding bodies re-appraising their stance on hard genre films. But is this the voice and image of Australia people want, and will established critics support it?
While in no way wanting to dismiss the need for Australian voices and stories on our screens, I wonder whether aspects of this argument need to be re-examined. For a start, how much does it rely on a somewhat rosy version of the television watching habits of past generations? The Age newspaper recently reported on analysis by a Dr Anna Potter from the University of the Sunshine Coast that showed some of our most iconic television shows, including Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, would never have been made had they been pitched to TV networks and screen funding bodies now. Potter argued this is because commercial TV networks are increasingly filling quotas for age-specific cultural content with animation because it is cheaper and they can easily on-sell it overseas to generate income.
The economics of content creation aside, as a child in the seventies, I rarely watched Skippy. My formative viewing experiences were the British shows Doctor Who and The Goodies, along with Hogan’s Heroes, Lost In Space and Tarzan. Although I desperately wanted to, my parents wouldn’t let me see Aunty Jack. One local show that profoundly influenced me, but which I doubt would qualify as one of our iconic children’s shows, was Spyforce. This was a wartime espionage adventure, which I not only found thrilling, but which exposed me for the first time to the sacrifices made by Australians in World War II and the fact it was not just about the Americans coming to save us.
I grew up in a middle class Melbourne suburb and Skippy certainly did not reflect my lived urban reality. Unlike at my school it had no Greeks, Italians or Chinese. For that matter, how well did it portray the reality of rural Australian? Indeed, if I’d wanted a show that portrayed what Australian urban life was really like in the 1970s I would have been better off watching Number 96. Depicting the lives of the residents of a fictitious block of inner Sydney flats, the show is often derided these days as little more than a sleazy cultural curio from the seventies. That said, an Italian owned the deli on the ground floor and it had the world’s first openly gay television character.
All of which is another way of saying when we talk about the need to preserve Australian voices on our screens, whose voices are we talking about? As any writer can tell you, effectively presenting a character’s voice is more than mere presence. How significant are they to the story? To what degree do they independently drive plot or narrative? It is a point picked up at the end of McNamara’s essay, when he notes that save for the multi-protagonist Game of Thrones, most of the shows that comprise the so-called ‘golden age of television’ have an absence of fully formed female protagonists. Men have created these shows and they focus for the most part on ‘difficult men’. ‘When the gender imbalance is redressed,’ he writes, ‘I’ll say we’re in the golden age.’
Although it passed without great discussion, I remember feeling strongly at the time that the switch over from analogue to digital television, completed in December 2013, marked a significant turning point in the fragmentation of our collective culture. The sudden appearance of content streaming services like Netflix is another. And in addition to having more choice, how we watch has changed. Content is no longer viewed as a family unit at a set time on one screen, but on multiple devices and screens, more or less whenever we wish, where we wish and as often and for as long as we wish. Indeed, for many of us, watching television is now a multi-screen experience, as we watch on one screen and Tweet on another. The way we experience television and film content is rapidly transforming. What we mean when we talk about ensuring Australian voices continue to be shown and heard on our screens, needs changing too.