A considerably abridged version of this essay appeared as "The Converging of Film and Television" in John Tulloch and Graeme Turner eds., Australian Television: Programs, Pleasures and Politics (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989), pp.15-24.
But in the 1980s they were brought together (just as they had been in the late 1950s and 1960s). The TV networks were more responsive to a wider diversity of programs from different sources than they had been. The tax concessions for feature film, mini-series and documentary introduced in 1981 helped stimulate mini-series (limited episode, high budget TV drama) and documentary production for TV. From 1982 TV was an important investment option for tax incentive finance. It had good things about it - like a guaranteed audience and its capacity to provide minimum returns through pre-sales. And because the concessions provided a common investment base they drew the film and TV industries together. Out of these factors TV came onto the agenda of the Australian film industry. Phil Noyce, the director of the acclaimed feature Newsfront (1978), said in 1984 that Australia was too small for a feature industry but not for a TV industry(2) - then by his mini-series work with Kennedy-Miller TV on Cowra Breakout (1985) he put his money where his mouth was. This convergence shifted the terms of the public discussion of Australian film and TV. It even became standard for film critics in the 1980s to lament the "diminishing standards" in Australian feature film making whilst noting the "rising standards" in TV drama. This "rise in standard" was primarily associated with the mini-series. AFC executives, like others in the industry now, mean "the film and TV industry" when they say "the film industry". They don't have to qualify "film industry", now like they did in a 1984 Seminar, that by a "film industry" they meant a "film and TV industry."(3)
This contemporary convergence of film and TV does not necessarily imply that there was a lack of concern for production for TV. What it does imply is that certain conditions have made it possible for an emphasis upon TV production that was not possiblein the 1970s. TV was not so much discovered as rediscovered. What needs to be explained is why the present emphasis upon TV production by investors, by critics and by funding bodies was not able to be realised before 1982?
The answer to that question lies in how TV developed in Australia. The nature of this development substantially affected both the form arguments for a state funded film production industry took and the shape of the subsidised production industry that emerged in the seventies. This chapter argues that the possibility of government effectively intervening to secure greater levels and variety of Australian content on TV was made exceptionally difficult because of the way that TV developed. This provided some of the structural conditions for a predominantly feature based film industry to be the federal government's initiative in the film production field in the 1970s. So too, Australian content rhetoric provided a public "language" - a set of concerns and priorities which were able to be successfully transferred to the feature film in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Similarly the convergence of film and TV in the early 1980s owed itself to a combination of structural and discursive factors. The change in film financing brought about by the tax concessions and changes in film and TV industries not only drew the film and TV industry's back together after a decade of separation, but also saw the privatisation of the film industry and a return to some of the problems of the first half of the 1960s albeit in a new guise. This chapter charts this trajectory.
Since 1942 Australian content issues have been such important public and policy issues within broadcasting that they have been rivalled only by the media monopoly question. In fact as a public issue `Australian content' could be dated even earlier - within cinema to at least the late 1920s, and radio to the 1930s. Central to`Australian content' is the perceived need to formally protect, in order to ensure minimal bases of Australian produced cultural production in the face of a dominant imported product. The very fact that the phrase is`Australian content' rather than say the allowable foreign content demonstrates the defensive position of those who urge it (cultural producers and the entertainment capital and cultural lobbies backing them). Australian productions are marginal to the operations of radio, TV and the cinema. In this situation the principle object of government can and often does become one of monitoring and assessing the flow of imports and the conditions un der which that flow takes place (e.g. does it benefit local capital interests or national interests?). Consequently, as the producers and supporters of the minority, but local cultural product, its lobbyists have had to rely upon significant support from outside their respective industries to survive. This outside support has been provided at various times by the state and by cultural and social lobby groups.
The need for minimal levels of Australian content became officially recognised in broadcasting in 1942 at a time when the federal government was enunciating its `Australia first' policy and looking away from Britain to the USA for help. With this and related moves in radio news the federal government incorporated within its responsibilities the fostering of an Australian outlook. But 2 1/2% Australian radio music was not a big percentage yet the broadcast station lobby fought long and hard against it. It was not until 1956 that it was extended to 5% by the Menzies government. This paralleled the situation in 1960 when the first Australian content regulations within TV were introduced. In the first years of this Australian content regulation only two stations - those in Melbourne and Perth - bothered to comply with it so intent were the others upon resisting it. This federal support for Australian content has not been consistent. TV was introduced without Australian content quotas in 1956 so as not to prejudice the speed of expansion and viability of service.
These examples point to what is really a set of economic problems and structural phenomena that Australia shares with countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Austria and Belgium. Their cultural market place is not large enough to effectively sustain local production as the majority fare (often local production does not even constitute a significant minority). These countries also tend to share a common language, cultural values, political, economic, and ethnic ties with those very countries (England/USA, Germany and France) which dominate their local cultural market and so marginalise the local product. This presents added problems for cultural producers in these markets as there is not the same political, economic or social need to have a local cultural base. The majority overseas product can work as effectively as local product to maintain the kind of required social, cultural and political identifications for the nation. Each can consequently be spoken of as having an im port culture and each is economically semi-peripheral with regard to the larger states. Dependency theorists have called these countries second world rather than first or third world nations to indicate their particular position within the world economic system. They are neither at the core of the world system nor totally at the periphery of it in terms of its economy, trade, living standards, etc. Their second world position is reflected in the common structural problems their cultural production faces and in the consequent centrality of the state and its policies to maintaining a local cultural base. This point is also reflected in the way that discourses on their cultural production are organised to negotiate the displaced status of the local product within the local market.
The Australian TV content issue is a case in point. It became the vehement issue that it did after TV's introduction in 1956, partly because state TV policy advertently and inadvertently excluded considerations of the viability of locally produced TV, and because an already established American and British program production industry was in place to supply programs for a service. Both obviated the necessity of TV stations to enter high risk, high cost production areas such as filmed drama and documentary, and for TV stations in Australia to be organised in such a way as to facilitate it. And because of the number of licenses given out in the major metropolitan markets, competition for station revenues was so intense and the pool of available advertising revenue so reduced that even if they wanted to, the stations just could not have entered high cost, high risk production fields. These developments resulted in levels of Australian TV content well below the expectations of c ultural producers. People in cinema, theatre and radio could have reasonably expected a greater place for themselves in the new service.
TV was introduced on a staggered basis because the government did not want it to drain money from other sectors and it wanted to minimise the risk of government having to bail it out. The initial three way, then four way competition in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide markets (hereafter SMBA) and the policy of regional TV autonomy vis-a-vis capital city stations seems to have been taken to ensure that TV ownership was spread among competing capital interests across Australia. It was also aimed at containing the development of media monopolies by ensuring diverse ownership.
As a consequence the TV service developed, not as it did in the UK and USA in relation to local product, but in relation to the availability of relatively cheap imported material. There was, in consequence, not nearly the same pressure upon Australian TV to network its operations in order to cover the expensive program production costs of locally produced TV. In similar fashion Australian TV did not need the kind of close involvement of national advertisers in TV program production and scheduling that was characteristic of American TV in the fifties and early sixties.
In the absence of minimum content levels, license applications were assessed by governments and their advisory agency, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) in relation to program costs unconsciously calculated on the basis of the cost of imported material. So prevalent was this that by the time of the applications for a third commercial license, the Sydney and Melbourne (1962) applications claimed they would be Australian content stations; and the handing out of a third license itself was seen as a way of ensuring more Australian content through competition. It was not until The Vincent Report (1963) and the operation of the third commercial station in SMBA markets that there was any recognition of the economies of scale needed for, and the higher costs associated with, Australian production. But this was too late. A third commercial station had been set in place in SMBA markets. So too the first country hearings for TV licenses saw the development of a localist policy which allowed the regionals to set the terms under which they purchased programs from SMBA.
Even if there had been an earlir recognition of the economic and structural problems facing Australian produced TV, these would have still been difficult to act on because of the service's long (ten years) establishment period. Whilst part of Australia did not have TV it was particularly difficult for successive Country Party ministers responsible for TV to see in it anything other than an entertainment medium that their country constituents, like their city counterparts, were entitled to have.
The strategy of federal government TV policy during the period of TV's expansion reflected this status quo. With ABC involved in TV, cultural considerations of informing or educating could be done by it; whilst commercial TV became, like the cinema, an entertainment medium whose mandate was to bring the world's best material - British through the ABC and American through the commercial stations - into every home at trifling cost. The goal of the government was to ensure that this Australian access would be at little cost to the government and to the tax payers. This state of affairs encouraged the government in the 1950s and 1960s to actively identify the TV industry as the TV stations whose financial health and autonomy they were protecting. Emerging and progressively more strident Australian content demands were predicated upon different conceptions of TV and its social and economic role. So it's not surprising that ministers initially denigrated the conten t lobbyists by citing either a lack of Australian talent or alternatively by reducing them to disgruntled station employees making unreasonable demands upon their bosses. This sense of content lobbyists as station employees was even ensconced in broadcasting policy. There Australian content was expressed, like it had been in radio, as an employment issue. This was encapsulated in the initial directive to stations to use Australian talent wherever possible.
With a conception of entertaining the nation holding sway as the organising principle for the TV service, what counted as acceptable TV fare to the government was wide open. What Australian content there was tended to be quiz and variety shows, limited live dramatic series, gardening and other utility programs. The TV quiz formats were taken from radio as were their personalities.`Quality' TV, mostly the domain of the ABC and to a lesser extent Channel 7 in Melbourne and Sydney, initially involved the live televising of well known repetory plays like Pygmalion and especially commissioned one-act Australian TV plays. Documentary work on TV was confined to magazine style production (like ABC's now defunct Weekend Magazine). There were no dramatic series in the image of The Overlanders (1946), or visionary documentaries like The Back of Beyond (1954). Film makers and critics had no real place in these TV developments. They were marginalised into the anti-TV mass culture, fil m as art zones of the film societies.
This was a TV service in which many of the hopes held out for it by diverse social, cultural, industry and union groups failed to materialise. Most importantly perhaps, TV did not provide the kind of drama production opportunities that radio had; nor did it allow those opportunities to continue as radio redefined its role in relation to the dominant one TV assumed. Commercial radio now looked to disc jockeys, the daytime instead of the night time for its major source of advertising revenue. In the new programming, radio drama and quiz series began to slide into obscurity. Consequently TV, the dominant medium, did not provide the kind of stability to other cultural industries that radio had by providing actors, directors and writers with paid employment so as to be available to the stage and publishing.
Within the film industry, TV did not take up the slack created by both Cinesound's wartime and Ealing's post-war withdrawal from feature production. Neither did TV give documentary producers the wider audiences and stable production base they expected from it. Indeed there was little`filmed' Australian TV content at all as it cost more, it required more time, effort, experience, planning and facilities. Without both the nation-wide relay networking of live TV programs and the filming of drama and documentary programs (which had been quickly accomplished in the USA), locally produced TV had to circulate between stations as a film print taken off the TV screen image well into the 1960s. This Australian product with its poorer picture quality was competing against filmed American (and British) series thus creating a Catch 22 situation for local production as it neither got the audiences to justify the extra expenditure nor could more money be expended on it anyway as there was just not the advertising ma rket for it.
Amongst cultural, educational and church groups their worst fears of the medium's commercialism were confirmed. There were the three commercial stations in SMBA and as a consequence the ABC was unable to secure the kind of centrality to the service that the BBC had in the UK. Because it did not have this centrality the TV service could not be seen to contribute to cultural activity, nor raise community, literacy and cultural standards in Australia in general.
In this context there was a mobilisation of concern over the issue of Australian content in TV in the late 1950s and through the 1960s. Film producers, unions, cultural and educational groups all became involved in one way or another in the series of campaigns over Australian content on TV. Some were looking to replicate the employment and related cultural opportunities that radio had provided, whilst others were looking to replicate the kind of cultural opportunities that the BBC had allowed in Britiain. They agreed on one point: Government action was deemed necessary to force the stations into more local TV production, particularly the higher cost and`quality' film production.
By promoting an integral place for production in and alongside exhibition and distribution, a production sector was urged as a legitimate claimant upon media institutions. Out of this, disadvantages and inequalities facing Australian produced TV and particularly TV drama were elaborated. TV drama was an important component of quality TV demands as it involved numbers of writers, actors, directors and technicians. And an Australian film industry, as a production sector separate from the stations, was essential for quality TV to be possible.
These Australian content concerns wre brought together with developing concerns for cultural development in the landmark Senate Select Committee Report, the so-called Vincent Report.(4) The rhetoric of the report borrowed extensively from a Hector Crawford text published in 1958 as part of his lobbying of parliamentarians and opinion makers for Australian TV drama screened nationally.(5) Crawford, a radio drama producer who hoped for a similar place within TV, challenged the dominance of overseas fare - which happened to be American - on Australian TV.
His tempered anti-Americanism avoided political partisanship that would have been difficult to sustain at the height of the cold war. The capacity of TV to influence became harnessed to what was in `the best interests of the nation'. And that was TV `distinctively Australian in program character'. Further, action needed to be taken to preserve existing Australian culture and its traditions as their natural transmisssion was under threat from these imports.(6)
The Vincent Report expended upon Crawford's notions. The lack of Australian produced drama presented a grave national problem as TV drama dominated prime time and had a psychological and emotional impact upon the moral standards and values of the community. As the report put it:
The undesirable sociological and cultural consequences that can be expected from a continuance of this state of affairs are apparent... Perhaps the greatest danger lies in its effect upon the rising generation...who, day by day, are not only receiving anything but the most inadequate picture of Australia, her national traditions, culture and way of life, but in its place are recipients of a highly coloured and exaggerated picture of the way of life and morals of other countries (mainly the USA).(7)
This over-exposure to American culture and under-exposure to Australian jeopardised the acceptance of local cultural production:
Many Australians, particularly young Australians, already prefer American drama to Australian productions of equivalent artistic merit because they have by now accepted American values and a preference for that particular form of the American way of life which is depicted by American TV programs. Further, evidence of this is discernible in the pronounced American accents sometimes affected by Australian radio and TV announcers.(8)
The effects of this were becoming quite evident: native Australian talent was stifled and driven overseas owing to the lack of local avenues for creative expression.
Out of this mapping of thwarted opportunity the notion that Australia had the necessary talent was developed. It was proven through recourse to the historical reconstruction of early Australian cinema as a cinema of domestic popularity and quality. These ideas were drawn from film society discourse and memories of Cinesound and Chauvel. To remember this lost Australian cinema was to confront head on the kind of claims being made by the Federation of Australian Commercial TV Stations (FACTS - formed in 1960), Country Party ministers and some Liberal senators that the absence of local TV drama in the present day had to do with lack of local talent. The causes of the fall of the film industry were identified in government neglect and in the actions taken by overseas companies to squeeze Australian production out. The demise of the early industry was definitely not due to any lack of aptitude of Australians to film making:
This country has already demonstrated that it can make world quality films and export them and the only reason why it did not continue to do so is that the industry was left unprotected and squeezed out of business by an overseas industry which was heavily protected in its own country.(9)
Government neglect and overseas business connivance continued to militate against the re-establishment of onging film production for TV. Remedial action, within the power of government, was thus able to be specified as a solution. Australians did not need a metaphysical re-education to enable them to believe in their capacities. Neither did they need to suddenly acquire creative capacities. Culture was available; the instruments for its provision were at hand.
The Committee and the witnesses brought before it associated quality' drama with both the work of professional/semiprofessional theatre and the filmed drama that both Crawford and film industry lobbyists espoused. In considering the provision of Australian dramatic programs for TV, they regarded the state of the theatre and the `film industry' as crucially important.
Whilst existing dramatic performances and films were acknowledged to be poor, this standard was seen to be the direct result of the present conditions. A lack of access and training by drama and film personnel to the dramatic and film apparatus could not but help to keep standards low. Talent could only emerge if it was trained, given ongoing work, and was financially remunerated. The lack of finish, polish and sophistication of Australian creative personnel was due `not only to a lack of proper training but more to inexperience through lack of continuity of employment'.(10) For the committee, the proof of the necessity of training and employment continuity lay in the departure from Australia of creative personnel - from actors to writers (novelists, dramatists, poets, etc.) to film makers. This represented a further cultural deprivation.
This was an important rhetorical shift. Vincent's recommendations were made not to rectify an intrinsic Australian cultural lack, but to allow an already established cultural propensity to be tapped. The argument that Australia lacked talent could no longer be the acceptable position that it had been on both cultural horizons (wheere it was used to argue for the grafting of culture onto an inhospitable Australian terrain), and on TV station horizons (to argue against local content).
In shifting the terrain of debate in this way Vincent played an important role in changing the politics of Australian culture. The problem was no longer one of setting up alternative cultural institutions to counter the `vulgarity' of the media, but to work within the available media - to have them work for culture. The report's significance then lay in putting on the agenda the necessity of government action and a recognition of state responsibility for the maintenance of reasonable levels of local cultural production across diverse fields. The kind of Australian face of TV that Vincent advocated was not achieved although concessions were made by government and stations for local TV drama.
The Vincent Report was pigeon-holed by the Menzies government. Parliamentary debate on it was minimal and the report received little press coverage. A number of reasons have been advanced for this. Bertrand and Collins mention the inappropriate timing of its tabling just before an election, that its recommendations cut across the interests of the major TV stations with their extensive press intersts, and that the Menzies government was loathe to allow Senate committees to set government policy.(11) Furthermore, as Shirley and Adams note cabinet had in fact appointed its own inquiry in 1962 which ran parallel to the Vincent hearings and produced a report for cabinet around the same time.(12) Cabinet, if it was going to take notice of any inquiry, would have noted its own. Since this inquiry's report has never been disclosed it is not clear whether the government acted on its recommendations or not.
With the absence of public discussion of the report attempts were made to mobilise it as an issue. The Sydney Film Festival held its 1964 forum around the theme `The Australian Film Industry: What of Its Future?' in which Senator Vincent spoke of the need for lobbying to implement the report. Out of this forum came another public forum the following year: The National TV Congress. Its organising committee was made up not just of the predictable producer organisations and entertainment unions, but also the Musicians Union, The Poetry Society of Australia, the Australian Society of Authors, and the New South Wales Teachers' Federation. Film industry lobbying had now been joined by a variety of cultural interests.
The report was hailed not just as a film policy blueprint but as a significant cultural blueprint. Overland, for example, carried a condensed version of it which Max Harris introduced in glowing terms. Being `non-partisan and motivated by `fervour and idealism' he calimed that the report showed the way forward for cultural policy making in Australia.
The Vincent Report breathes out fiercely a radical discontent with the cultural degeneracies of the mass media.. Thus it comes about that in the seemingly vast and hopeless complex of TV vulgarity and intellectual subnormalcy and indigenous creative impoverishment, The Vincent Report is the one and only progressive document we have to turn to, the one and only departure point for positive action in any number of different areas.(13)
From this perspective the Senate committee was not so much dealing with ways of improving TV or facilitating Australian TV production, but was more concerned with the taste, cultural standards and the creative potential of Australia itself. These were just the sort of issues which would concern the cultural readership of Overland. The vincent Report seemed to augur well for a positive policy of cultural integration. The outlet, the nodal distribution point was TV and the film production industry was its production arm:
Strong indigenous work in creative TV calls for a free flow of funds and talent between theatre, film making and TV production. To achieve a well-mannered population of first class actors in constant professional work depends on the growth of professionalism in TV drama. From this state of affairs the live theatre draws the benefit. But TV drama needs to work in close liaison with the live theatre to achieve its professional standards. The problem is one of integration... Australian TV could become an avid consumer of first class film works in the 16mm field if the film making were geared accurately to the requirements of TV, and its international marketing procedures.(14)
The report became an emblem of demands for the development and promotion of culture in Australia. Marshalled around it were a wide cross section of publics. They did not support a film or TV aesthetic, but the capacity of film and TV to firmly establish and stabilize other cultural forms.
The report could be useful. Its refutation of parochialism through appeals to international aesthetic standards could counter any imputations that it was chauvinist to argue for more Australian produced culture. Its sense of dissatisfaction with TV could, in the future, be cited as the expert testimony of a government committee, as could its wholehearted endorsement of the dramatic as a crucial and national priority.
Because the report was not implemented, the independent film industry was able to acquire connotations never intended by the report. A film industry came to also mean a feature film industry. In the process feature film and TV program production became posed as inter-related industries that needed to be agitated for.
The subsequent feature industry revival owed a great deal not only to this report but to TV. It would not have been possible if feature film making had not been able to connect with the more public TV agenda. In that agenda there was precendent for government action to build a film production industry around Australian content provisions stipulating minimum levels of Australian content for TV stations. If TV entertainment was socially and culturally important so too was the cinema. If TV production had as much claim in the TV industry as the stations, then the feature producers has as much claim as the exhibition and distribution monopolies did in the cinema. It could be seen as an analogous situation. If TV was central to the survival of the arts so too was the cinema - it even had an advantage over TV inasmuch as it was an art form in its won right rather than being an exhibitor of other art forms. The case for a feature industry drew upon both the TV discourses to establish film's cultural natio nalist priorities and upon the arts discourses to establish the cultural cla ims of the cinema. By so doing the case for a feature industry was more powerful. Most importantly perhaps, the cause of feature film production was inestimably assisted by the sheer structural problems associated with obtaining politically acceptable levels of Australian content on TV. This meant that feature film was able to develop support from lobbyists and later governments that it might not have been able to under more propitious circumstances within TV.
This public circulation of the report played anh important role in securing cultural policies which featured a film industry as part of the platform of political parties. And once that happened governments were likely to support a film industry as part of an extended arts package. Indeed, the first moves to develop a film industry in line with Vincent's recommendations came under the aegis of the newly established Australian Council for the Arts; not broadcasting policy. This set in place a structural division between film production and broadcasting policy which apart from the aberration of the McClelland Labor ministry under Whitlam (1972-75) has remained with us.
This placing of film industry policy within the arts commitments of federal and state governments had definite effects upon the kind of actions that were possible. If this commitment had come through the Post-Master General's Department (the Communications Ministry of the day) and its advisory body the ABCB then the kind of institutions that would have been recommended, the target of the policy and the kind of discourses that would have been produced to rationalise action upon it, would have been different. TV would have been a priority, commerical pressures would have been greater, production support would have been oriented more to the existing industry (not antitetical to it) and some kind of attention would need to have been paid to the structues of Australian TV. To explain the working out of this separation of broadcasting policy from subsidised film (and TV) production policy from the time of the Vincent Report when they were together we need to turn our attention bac k to the industry's structure.
Developments within TV quickly overtook much of the mechanics if not the spirit of the Vincent Report. Two events are of importance and need to be discussed further: the first is the third commercial station and the second is the landmark Crawford series, Homicide.
The introduction of a third commercial station in SMBA markets in the mid 1960s escalated the price of imported material, reduced the advertising revenues of the existing station licenses, cut back operating hours and put additional pressures upon high cost items like Australian produced TV. But because there were now four stations, including the ABC, bidding for the output of the three American networks, it did in fact have the intended overall effect of increasing Australian content on TV. There was simply just not quite enough American product to go around now: local production became more necessary.
Local drama production in particular became important as it diminished the SMBA stations' dependence upon American drama series producers. It thus had the effect of helping to reduce the cost of American series purchase to a more manageable level. With the stations under pressure from a wide cross section of the community to concede to drama content demands, they had an additional reason to accommodate the extra expense of local drama. Given the context of limited advertising revenues drama had to be produced as cheaply as possible. But unlike other programming genres it could be sold overseas thus allowing for some of the extra costs to be met. In 1964 Hector and Dorothy Crawford came up with an Australian version of the long running TV series when Channel 7 gave them the go-ahead for Homicide. Although it was made on a shoestring and sold initially at a loss, it was still expensive for the SMBA stations. But the series became the first Australian drama series to achieve high ratings. It ran for eleven years and some 509 episodes were made. Its success made Austalian TV drama programming central to the overall ratings of TV stations in SMBA. Other channels followed suit by commissioning police shows from Crawfords and other programs from independent packagers. Of course, this was a particular kind of drama format which relied upon an industrial infrastructure designed to minimise costs at every turn. It was not the limited episode filmed serial - in the vein of today's mini-series that Vincent recommended. Instead, it was a weekly series of unlimited episodes predicated on mixed video and film production. This was made possible by the technological breakthrough of videotape and videotape editing which was important to getting the program out on time and keeping its costs down. Homicide had considerable economies of time, scale and flexibility over the live play. Now only scenes rather than whole programs needed to be memor ised by actors and production crew. It was possible to have more than one or two set ups. Economies on sets, wardrobes, rehearsal time were achieved with the constant use of the same sets for part of each program and of the same core of actors in the same roles. Indeed the continuing character format allowed actors a relative autonomy in defining their performance - not least of all because the pressure of producing weekly TV left little time for rehearsals.
Homicide saw Australian TV production gradually and imperceptibly move away from its connection with the live theatre and the filmed one act play. It was part of a slow shift within TV drama programming away from radio with pictures towards the cinema and film production values. If Vincent's recommendations for a closer relation between TV and the existing theatres began to look in this context increasingly quaint, its stress upon the importance of an independent film production sector with its associated infrastructure was more relevant than ever.
This new situation in TV provided consistent employment to a number of people from actors to directors to scriptwriters whose creative aspirations could not be met within the long running, quickly produced and minimally rehearsed series that followed in the wake of Homicide. Also the economies of the third commercial station meant that the high cost prodcution of limited episode serials with a longer preparation time were not possible without fundamentally altering the structural face of Australian TV. Paradoxically, the third commercial station produced more drama - but locked Australian produced drama into a particular kind of tele-drama production technology which could only produce further trustration with local TV by critics and creative people alike.
This frustration with TV was multifaceted. It was still a frustration with the low amount of local content. But it was equally a frustration with what material there was. The low opinion that a number of people in Crawford's, in the arts and in the education sector had for local TV had its roots not only in the lack of creative opportunities within it but also in the taste for the `movies' that film societies and mainstream cinema exhibition had created. The Homicides and the Skippys were in consequence seen as "high quality mediocrity" offering little.(15) For these people the only value locally produced TV increasingly had was as a (technical) training ground for the future state assisted film and TV production industry that they increasingly agitated for.
The mainstream of Australian content agitation was more populist in intent than this. With Crawford and the other production companies providing the institutional base greater claims were able to be mounted for an increase in the amounts, variety and cost of Australian content. Homicide, it could be said, institutionalised frustrations with the existing service that were expressed at a number of levels in increased agitation.
As the two largest TV markets in the country - Sydney and Melbourne - were also the centres for Austalian TV production their priorities and outlook were crucial in defining what Australian content there was. Furthermore, the networking arrangements they undertook with stations in Brisbane and Adelaide meant that nearly two-thirds of the available TV audience was automatically locked in through their decisions. By the same token, Perth, Hobart and the regionals were all in a buyer's market and so opted for the same programs as those initiated and brought into the country by the Sydney and Melbourne stations rather than initiating anything themselves. Although the TV system in Australia had much less formalised networking arrangements than is the case in the USA, there were effectively only three groupings controlling what could or could not be made for the entire service.
Given this de facto control over the definition of the Australian content by the Sydney and Melbourne stations, agitation looked to ways to disrupt that control. We find, as a consequence, the increasing adoption of positions antithetical to the stations themselves. They were seen more as exhibitors and distributors than producers. And in this context they entrepreneured foreign work - particularly in the most popular drama forms - more than they did local TV drama. From the lobbyists standpoint the stations in Sydney and Melbourne were pretty much like the cinema chains which had kept a dead hand upon Australian film production for so long. In this way the production agitation met up with a longstanding concern over the monopoly control of the media. The media monopolies, as they came to be called, were stifling Australian creative and cultural aspirations. But these anti-monopolist explanations for the absence of greater levels of Australian content tended to overlook the fact that the dispersed and decentralised nature of Australian TV was equally to blame.
By the late sixties and early seventies the federal government was looked to to deal with this exhibition and distribution nexus in TV and film. Increased levels of Australian content on TV were expected as well as greater legislative discrimination in the kinds of content. So too cinema exhibition and distribution were expected through legislation to actively support an increased and more diverse film output. The federal government was also looked to to provide significant levels of production subsidy for TV program production and feature film making. In both TV and the cinema the lobbyist goal was two-fold: an independent, self-determining production industry with state assistance on one hand and a greater flexibility in programming avenues within the existing film and TV industry structure on the other.
These demands were contradictory. Some of them were tied to expanded employment opportunities within existing TV production organisations, whilst others were oriented to increases outside of them. By the same token some lobbyists looked to more of the same kind of local TV and films whilst others to different kinds of them. Some aspirations could be dealt with just by increases in Australian content whilst others related to government subsidies and more direct forms of control over TV programming than that provided by Australian content provisions. Some wanted institutions like Crawford's to be supported by government, whilst others saw them as part of the hegemony to be resisted.
Thinking on the best means to secure Australian content was just as contradictory. For some the problem lay with the media monopolies operating a dead hand upon Australian TV, stifling initiative and opportunity. For them direct attack upon the monopolies' power would allow, almost automatically, for greater Australian content levels. Others proposed that their financial position needed to be strengthened by reducing the number ofcommerical stations in SMBA to permit greater levels in quality in Australian production. Within feature production on the other hand some activists looked to an involvement of the American studios in Australia on the same kinds of terms as their British involvement, whilst others looked to a total independence from multinational distribution altogether. Some wanted features capable of Australian wide screening whilst others looked to secure more limited circulation possibilities within Australia and overseas.
Diverse and contradictory, these demands were unified together in common opposition to communications and arts policies which had given film and TV production a low priority. This imagined unity lasted as long as government was not prepared to act for an independent production industry. Once government demonstrated a commitment, each vied against the other for their own priorities to be confirmed. Indeed the communications and arts policies of federal governments in the late 1960s and 1970s negotiated these demands in relation to the problems facing their implementations in the Australian film and TV markets.
The problems facing the implementation of some of these demands cannot be underestimated. The TV stations and the cinema chains were always countervailing interests to be reckoned with. Increases in Australian TV content would incite powerful media lobby groups with considerable cross media ownership to orchestrate resistance to such measures. To sustain the increased level and variety of Australian content demanded, there would need to be either some rationalising of station numbers, or else a politically unpalatable networking of regional and metropolitan markets. Within cinema regulatory action would raise both the issue of states rights as cinema was in the various states' jurisdiction and the general issue of government interference in free enterprise. Most importantly, there was the possibility that the American distributers would retaliate by withholding their films from screening.
If Australian content issues grew out of structural conditions and policy discourse which left no formal place for a production sector, the government in turn had no way of recognising production in the TV industry apart from the stations themselves. Accordingly, their initial responses to questions of Australian content took the form of stipulating mandatory percentages of Australian programming that stations had to comply with. The stations, for their part, perceived a threat to their often meagre profits (the third commerial stations in SMBA did not make profits till the 1970s - when paradoxically an Australian TV drama series Number 96 turned their fortunes around). They fought tooth and nail against content regulations in an area where none previously existed, and against calls for greater production commitment on their part. One of the effects of this was to turn the issue of Australian content into a symbolic battleground fraught with problems for conservative and labor governments alike.
The election of a federal Labor government in the early 1970s saw a conjunction of all these particularly intractable elements. With reforms of the TV system on the public agenda the diverse measures were canvassed by the minister for the media, parliamentary committees, sections of the Labor Caucus, arts groups, and the independent production industry (Crawfords, Cash/Harmon etc.). Taken cumulatively these proposals consititued something of a concerted threat to the stations' control over scheduling and program production. The stations, through their organisation FACTS, saw these individual measures as part of the wider issue of who retained control over scheduling and program production in Australia. The stations were thus engaged, not just in a conflict with government, but also in a conflict with other interested groups such as Crawford Productions whose centrality to Australian TV production was such that it constituted a threatening third force which government was beginning to recognise and con sult over TV industry policy. These conflicts were waged at a number of levels: between capital and culture, between the monopolies and government policy makers, between employees and employers and between different kinds of capital (diverse production industry capital and TV station capital). In this context the stations' resistance to the minimal domestic changes the Media Minister, McClelland, wanted to bring about was about was about asserting their dominance in media policy and ensuring that ancilliary structures interests were not built up to such an extent that they could prejudice the stations' autonomy and centrality.
A measure of the stakes in this struggle was the extra-ordinary events of 1974/5 when each of the three networks cancelled their police series from Crawfords. As Albert Moran notes:
One theory was that the axing was an attempt to cut Crawfords down to size, for by this time the company was easily the most important independent packager. Crawfords also seemed to be overtly playing politics. Several of the most vocal elements in the TV Make It Australian Campaign were actors employed in the company series. There were also rumours that the campaign had sent telexes to Canberra using machines at Crawfords.(16)
By 1975 the stations' control over Australian content had been restored. They were the central institutions in broadcasting, emerging, if anything, in a much stronger position than ever before. Crawford's had been effectively incapacitated and its disciplining ensured that program packers could never again challenge or orchestrate campaigns against the stations' control over scheduling and content.
The Federal government was by now looking for a way to cut its losses. The media ministry had been under attack from all sides and its minister was the centre of a number of controversies. In this context the bringing together of film production industry policy and broadcasting policy within the media ministry seemed more a liability than an asset. The option that Whitlam took in early 1975 was to return the issue of government funded film production to the cultural policy arena and to leave the TV station side of broadcasting policy intact. The Minister, Douglas McClelland, was sacked. In this way the newly formed Australian Film Commission (the AFC) remained the only remannt of the dispersed Australian content movement aimed at securing both an independent production industry and a change to the structural face of Australian TV and film. With the return of the Liberal coalition government in late 1975 Australian content lobbyists' hopes for structural change vanished an d with it went the possibility of regulated increases in Australian content. Whilst Labor remained in power there was always the possibility that the Australian content issue could rise from the marginal position communications policy making had eventually assigned it. Under Fraser that would be impossible. Fraser, however, kept on the AFC, did not dismantle the points regulations ahat McClelland had introduced although his government was under pressure to do so. And his government indicated that, by and large this was to be a non-negotiable blueprint.
Out of this emerging situations the feature film came to acquire a complex set of emotional, political, social and cultural hopes which had been integral to those quality of life aspirations blunted to an extent in other fields by the change of government. It also represented in a sense, a compromise between broadcasting institutions and the government, such that - to paraphrase Julie James-Bailey - the feature film industry became the TV production industry you were having when you weren't having one.(17) Within the production subsidy context of the AFC, feature film making assumed a larger profile and TV program production a lower one than that envisaged for them both when the organisation was set up. Feature film came to represent the hopes for an independent production industry because TV stations resisted the kinds of programming which would have made it possible on TV's horizons - e.g. limited episode drama serials one-off dramas, and independently produced documentary series etc. And they resisted them both because of their extra cost which would have cut into advertising revenues and because they did not want to be pressurised into screening anything. Paradoxically, TV stations proved more closed to independently produced Australian product than the cinema chains. As a consequence the cinema came to increasingly make up the work of this production sector and carry with it its hopes. TV opening its doors to quality limited episode serials had to wait for the example set by the American mini-series Roots in 1977.
The feature film thus came to supplant TV for the space of reforms in Australian content in the audio-visual field. It was to feature film that government increasingly looked towards to produce the new images of Australia. Peter Weir rather than Hector Crawford, Bruce Beresford rather than Ian Jones were its candidates as a significant and continuous arena of popular culture was evacuated in favour of occasional box office release seen by far fewer people.
Supporting the AFC kind of film industry was attractive to government. It did not involve subsidsing the large TV program production companies making long running serials. Feature film on a cultural/aesthetic basis was also a more legitimate area of government funding than TV. Also, as we have seen, TV presented obstacles in a way that the expansion of government involvement in the feature area did not. The explosive issue of Australian content on TV involved the federal government with diverse and contradictory demands. For these reasons TV was put into the too hard basket and that film recieved an impetus in lieu of it.
This suited the stations. Like the cinema exhibitors they were happy with government involvement in an area which did not affect them. Indeed the media interests in their presses seemed to actively promote the idea of a government funded feature film industry to reduce the pressure upon themselves. The stations were not involved in any major way. Often they provided some finance towards the feature films because in doing so they obtained extra Australian content points and secured programming for their schedules. Feature film and TV thus went on their separate paths from 1975 till 1981.
1981 saw the beginning of a rapprochement between TV and film industries. The convergence of TV and film in the 1980s led to greater opportunities within TV for an independent production industry. A number of factors were responsible for this convergence. It was the product of a change in federal film policy. It was due to changes within both TV and cinema markets. And it was due to the film and TV producers themselves.
The federal film policy in question was the tax concessions for feature film, documentary and TV mini-series production. This policy was first mooted in the 1980 election campaign (and enacted in June 1981). It was designed to assist the financing of feature films - with mini-series and documentaries being added as an afterthought. Although never intended to alter the shape of the industry, to change government attitudes to it, or to reincorporate TV drama (and the documentary) within the arena of "subsidised production" the concessions did all three. It led to a sustained production boom from October 1980 to the middle of 1987. The average number of feature films made per year doubled from 15 in the 1970s to 27 in the 1980s. Some 65 mini-series were made in the same period. There was also a steady increase in the numbers of documentaries peaking at 110 in 1986/7.(18) Additionally the budgets for all these rose sharply. Most importantly this boom privatised the subsidised film industry sector thus per mitting private investors including TV networks to invest in projects on their own terms. Depending on ones viewpoint "cautious investors" wishing to "minimise" their tax - or "speculative capital" - became the backbone of the film industry in the 1980s effectively displacing government subvention.
The tax concessions enabled people to pay less tax by investing in an Australian film. It did so by allowing investors to write-off their film outlays against the income they earned in their usual occupations. This created in the AFC's words "a safety net, protecting investors from the possibility of total loss".(19) The concessions permitted investors to claim as part of their taxable income more than the full amount they invested. During the life of the scheme this varied from 150% (at the start), to 130% (from August 1983) to 120% (September 1985). Investors could also claim a certain percentage of the film's returns as being exempt from tax: this varied from 50% to 30% to 20% in line with the above changes. In addition investors looked to further minimise their risk by selling the production - whether TV mini-series or feature film - before it was completed. This pre-selling brought the film industry closer to the TV networks on the one hand and to international film distribution on the other. In the process the "film industry" lost some of its independence.
At the same time the Australian TV market was changing. The late 1970s and 1980s saw the slow but inexorable move towards (higher-budgeted) national programming and away from (lower-budgeted) local programming in all but news and current affairs. Scheduling was becoming more fragmented as stations sought to get the edge over their commercial rivals in ratings periods. This opened the way for "event programming": mini-series and simultaneously screened national programming like Packer cricket. Also the networks were now functioning as semi-autonomous bodies rather than groupings of stations - they were commanding both more money and more centralised decision making power. This was occurring in a context in which the mini-series had made its successful appearance with Roots (USA, 1977) and Against the Wind (Australian, 1978). As a consequence the networks were not only prepared to underwrite mini-series projects but, given their high production cost, were also l ooking for partners to share those costs with. If the mini-series is related to the fragmentation of the TV schedule and rating sweeps it is also related to the rapid rise in the standard of TV presentation expected by viewers and supplied by stations during the 1980s. These standards, and the costs to the stations of them, can be measured not only by the size of mini-series' budgets but also the high production values sought in other areas. For example sports coverage by the early 1980s required multi-camera set-ups, action replays and special effects to be credible. In the 1980s the commercial networks were open to screening and underwriting limited episode serials and one off product for national distribution. Of course the commercial networks would not have been prepared to open their schedules in this way if national and multi-national advertisers had not been prepared to pay a premium price to associate themselves with this "event" programming. The logic of this "out of the ordinary" TV - both in terms of its high cost and its scheduling (typically stripped across the week) - was that it would bring to the TV station screening it: an intensity of viewing and bigger, "quality" audiences - made up of occasional viewers, ABC and SBS viewers, and rival networks' viewers. Take the mini-series as an example: MacNair Anderson reckoned that Australian mini-series rated 10 points higher than imported series with an average capital city rating of 31 points - some 8 points above the average. Indeed in Melbourne both All the Rivers Run and Bodyline rated 50 when screened.(20)
Another important change within TV in the 1980s which loosened up what was possible within TV was the addition of a second non-commercial TV network in late 1980. Multicultural TV - SBS - was first introduced in Sydney and Melbourne and was gradually introduced to Canberra and the other major capital cities over the next 5 years. Although never attracting significant ratings it helped expand the definitions of TV. Not only did it screen foreign language film and TV series, cover minority sports and expand the definition of the newsworthy but it also screened what had previously been seen as non-commercial features and documentaries. These films had had only marginal theatrical and non-theatrical release up to that time. And unlike the ABC which had its own production house, the SBS was open to purchasing new programs from indepdendent producers. In the process SBS permitted broadcast TV to appear in the forefront of social, cultural and aesthetic transformations. Surely a measure of the impact of SBS is that Kennedy/Miller had nearly half of its remarkable mini-series Cowra Breakout (1985) in Japanese with English sub-titles - yet at the same time managed to retain its commercial TV audience. Without SBS in place such a program would have been impossible to attempt. SBS thus provided alternative models to filmmakers and TV producers other than the prevailing American, British and Australian ones.
The cinema market was also changing. In the 1980s the cinema trade was increasingly reliant upon blockbuster films to make up its revenues - and Australian producers increasingly looked to the production of such blockbusters. The prevalence of blockbusters, however, meant there was not the same demand for product that there had been. In the process the ground was progressively eroded from under the feet of the middle budgeted "quality" Australian film with a modest promotional budget. Thus viability was increasingly found in either the higher budgeted, extensively promoted, more internationally oriented `kidult' ends of production - for example The Man from Snowy River (1984) and Crocodile Dundee (1986/7), or in the lower budgeted, modestly promoted, Australian and international art-house film - for example Paul Cox's cinema Man of Flowers (1983) and My First Wife (1986). Given these circumstances it's not surprising that filmmakers looked to TV - par ticularly the mini-series - as a means of maintaining the 1970s industry norm of the "quality" Australian film. From a critical perspective the Australian blockbusters were not as amenable to the enthusiastic, culturalist readings and aesthetic claims as the quality film had been. As a consequence some of the importance of the feature film to cultural definitions lapsed with the slack being taken up by the mini-series.
Just as it was important for TV SBS was an equally important event for Australian filmmaking. Not only did it accustom audiences and filmmakers alike to art-cinema protocols but it expanded the ways in which Australia could be represented in film. Both Moving Out (1982) and Street Hero (1984) are good examples of mainstream films which could, because of SBS presence, employ Italian and English actors and focus on ethnic Australia.
Put all these changes within cinema and TV industries together with economic recession and the film industry's privatisation through the tax concessions and we get a scenario which demanded a change of direction on the part of federal and state film bodies. In the 1970s they had provided some 50% of production finance: in the 1980s this figure looked closer to 10-15%. The state government film institutions - be they Film Victoria or the South Australian Film Corporation - increasingly looked to TV as a stable revenue source. It was visible enough (unlike the art film) and did not entail too significant a risk on funds committed. TV also had gained in importance for these bodies because many feature films produced for the cinema were gaining international release through TV anyway. TV could also, it was felt, provide steadier work opportunities in each state's local production industry. This reorientation was justified in terms reminiscent of the Vincent Report by John Morris of the SAFC: TV was where the mass audience was, it need not be so bad, government production help could make it better.(21) The Victorians, citing Crawford Production s Melbourne base and worrying about a "brain drain" to Sydney saw its TV involvement as a means of maintaining existing employment opportunities in that state. It was in this context that the Victorian body provided some $200,000 towards the production of A Town Like Alice. The AFC, for its part, saw its role as one of "seed bedding" projects be they film or TV ones. As I have argued government bodies emphasised both feature and non-theatrical films in the 1970s, rather than TV production because of both the TV stations' inflexibility and the structure of Australian TV, rather than out of any ideological commitment on their part. So in one sense the 1980s actually saw the coming to fruition of the 1960s policy dream of an independent film industry producing limited episode serials (mini-series) for TV helping to support a feature film industry.
Hanging over both the film and TV trade (and industries) in the 1980s was the advent of a rival entertainment institution - video. Both the video library and after 1985 direct sales to the public became serious competitors to cinema and broadcast TV. Video's presence affected both cinema and TV scheduling practices and programming.
In the first half of the 1980s video led to sharp declines in cinema attendance as video ownership climbed by the end of 1985 to 50% of households. In the process video virtually eliminated residual, theatrical release outside first release (often inner city) theatres thus killing off the drive-in and it problematised the future of lower budget general release as opposed to blockbuster and specialist release features on theatrical schedules. If video lending libraries represented one threat the 1985 development of "sell through" - the selling of videos direct to the consumer in large stores represented an escalation of the threat.
Ironically in the latter half of the 1980s video is generally seen to have been responsible for bringing people back to the cinema having habituated audiences to feature length movies. But they came back to a different cinema - one in which cinema screens were first release screens (increasingly constructed in shopping towns and malls) with video taking the place of the old second release markets.
In the latter half of the 1980s video principally affected broadcast TV and its significance for TV cannot be underestimated. By directly competing for the use of the domestic TV screen it undermined TV's advertising base. By principally marketing movies it threatened for the first time since TVs inception in the 1950s the important place of the `movie' on TV schedules. But if video displaced certain elements of theatrical exhibition and TV scheduling, it opened up new possibilities on the edges of the existing film and TV institution. TV responded to video's usurpation of the movie in a number of ways. Firstly it further concentrated on time-sensitive simultaneous programming (news, current affairs, variety and quiz shows) for which it made little sense to time-shift on the video. This programming hooked its audience in with the promise of the "real" and the "quotidian" rather than the timeless "fictional". Secondly TV looked to the related field of the documentary. Documentary was still time s ensitive but not as time sensitive as simultaneous programming (episodes could thus be repeated). An additional bonus was that documentary had not been developed extensively within video library structures. Thirdly TV concentrated on made-for-TV drama - mini-series and series (both generally unsuitable for video release because of length), and to a lesser extent tele-movies.
With the upper ends of TV being brought together with the feature industry in the 1980s to form a single "film industry", the cultural agenda began to incorporate TV and personnel from one medium began to work in the other and vice versa. But this convergence was not readily apparent in 1981 - it was only obviously apparent by 1985. It had to be worked over, consolidated, discovered. A decade of rhetoric on film, privileging the feature film, needed to be modified, overhauled. And it was. This process began dramatically in 1981. That year saw the production of the mini-series A Town Like Alice. This mini-series achieved the kind of international TV exposure and acclaim that only Skippy (1967-9) before it had. It marked a watershed: no longer did the feature film have a mortgage on any cultural ambassadorial role. No longer was the feature film the sole standard bearer in the arena of "quality" audio-visual production. Hereafter feature film and the mini-se ries - and in 1987/8 the documentary - seemed bound up in the task of defining or reconstructing - depending on your perspective - Australian cultural and national identity. As Sue Dermody and Liz Jacka put it: "In a remarkable way the mini-series inherited the nationalist mantle of the feature industry; even more remarkably, they formed a link back to its earlier phases, with remakes of classics like A Town Like Alice and Robbery Under Arms.(22) Some, like Beth Quinlivan, went so far as to say that Australians' film-making capacities were better suited to the TV mini-series and the tele-movie than to feature production.(23)
An interesting confirmation of this reconstruction of TV as occupying an important nation defining and ambassadorial role came from Professor Leonie Kramer whilst Chairman of the ABC. She articulated a role for the ABC as a producer of TV which would show the best of Australia to the world:
I would hope that we'd be able to recover sufficiently to a point where we could produce several high quality dramas that we could sell overseas. I think the ABC has a real opportunity to make our creative talents known overseas. The foreign image of us does not do us justice. When I am abroad I am still meeting people who think of us as not very informed, not very bright, ill-mannered and boorish. I feel I have to tell them that we are: modern, sophisticated and inventive community, even though I still have anxieties about Australia's culture.(24)
Reading between the lines we can see the "high quality dramas" - ie mini-series - offered an Australian replication of the `quality' BBC serial productions that significant sections of Australia's literate public held in high esteem. Also we can see that "quality TV drama" allowed for the kinds of character development associated with the film of culture and quality, thus sidestepping the problems feature producers were having in contending with Kidult films.
The mini-series even acquired a vanguard status. The SBS mini-series Women of the Sun (1982), with its focus upon Aboriginal women in traditional, colonial and modern society, became an important sign that innovative, cultural and socially important work was being done in TV. The series also marked the first of many TV collaborations of writers and directors drawn from feature film and TV, spheres that hitherto were almost totally separate. Its directors James Ricketson, Stephen Wallace, Geoffrey Nottage were from film while its writer Sonia Borg and director David Stevens were from TV. This incorporation of some `poor cinema' personnel into prestige TV series making undoubtedly displaced much of the prejudice against TV that the independent sector had nourished.
But easily the most important cross-over from film to TV in the 1980s was provided by the Kennedy-Miller organisation. Named after its founders - the producer and the director of the Mad Max cycle of feature films, Kennedy-Miller produced a set of extraordinary mini-series: The Dismissal (1983) on the downfall of the Whitlam government, Bodyline (1984) on the controversial cricket series between Australia and England in the 1930s, Cowra Breakout (1985) which dealt with the second world war and a massacre of Japanese p-o-w's at Cowra during it, and finally Vietnam (1987) which dealt with the circumstances and aftermath of Australia's involvement in that war. All not only dealt with major historical events in new ways but also confirmed the vanguard role of the mini-series. All four series employed a distinguished group of directors drawn from feature film, TV and, in the case of George Ogilvie, the theatre. The first three series were partic ularly innovative in terms of their collaborative writing and acting workshops. All four used a cinematic style of production. Not only was TV being directed by the makers of Mad Max, but also by the makers of such acclaimed features as Newsfront (Phil Noyce) and Winter of Our Dreams (John Duigan, 1981) on adequate budgets.
The traffic though was not only one way. The involvement of mainstream TV personnel in feature films was also a feature of the 1980s. Indeed it was responsible for the two biggest Australian films of the 1980s: The Man from Snowy River (1982) and Crocodile Dundee (1986). Both became in their times the biggest money earning films at the Australian box office. Both brought to feature filmmaking a populist and avowedly commercial taste. Snowy River had as its director George Miller and as producers Geoff Burrowes and Simon Wincer all coming out of Crawfords. It also mixed actors better known from Australian TV soaps with its "international actors" Jack Thompson and Kirk Douglas. Crocodile Dundee used the TV comic and ad personality Paul Hogan, was developed by Hogan in conjunction with Cornell (a former straight man to Hogan in the Paul Hogan Show) and was directed by Peter Faiman better known for his work with Hogan, live TV and music specials. Faiman was even, bef ore Crocodile Dundee, the logical candidate for the four hour bi-centennial show Australia Live (1988).
But for all the boom in production the problem of securing viability remained. So too the real convergence of cinema and TV in the 1980s masked the very different economics involved in each. The terms of this difference weighed heavily on the industry in the 1980s as the new "back bone" of the industry - private investors - looked for ways to minimise risks and maximise profits. Indeed during the 1980s features films, mini-series and documentaries came in, and went out, of investor favour as investors sought to minimise their risks through pre-selling. Thus we find a boom in mini-series production in the 1984/5 financial year when some 24 mini-series were made ($84.4 million for mini-series as opposed to $67.4 million for features); something of a boom in feature production the following year when some $105.6 million was spent on features as opposed to the $19.5 million on mini-series; and a boom in documentary production in 1986/7 with some 110 projects made ($37.9 million for documentaries doubling yearly outlays and representing nearly two thirds of what was spent on mini-series and a half of what was spent on features in that year).
This fluctuating investment profile can be related to both reductions in the value of the tax concessions (which went from 150% to 133% (1983) to 120% (1985)) and the lowering of the top personal income tax rate (1987) from 60 to 49 cents in the dollar. These changes made production investment progressively riskier and riskier: the changes reduced the "effective subsidy" to investors from 90% to 80% (1983) to 60% (1985) to 40% (1987). This progressively increased the proportion of the production budget that the investor had to recoup to break even. In this context investors increasingly required after 1983 the "pre-sale" of the production (feature film, mini-series, or documentary) to the cinema trade, TV networks and cable/pay TV. Pre-sales guaranteed the recoupment of a portion of the budget. But the proportion of the budget needing to be pre-sold to break even rose steadily with the tax changes. The AFC now puts the 1987 "break even" pre-sale rate at 65% of the value of production. The 1987 vogu e for the documentary can be put down to this "break-even" pre-sale le vel (documentaries were lower budgeted) just as the mid-1980s vogue for the mini-series can be sheeted home to the ease of securing TV pre-sales and its lower "break even" point.
It is true to say that the 1980s witnessed something of a rediscovery of the advantages of TV vis-a-vis features by investors and government authorities. Its principle advantage lay in that it was a safer, if less profitable, bet. TV offered the chance to be seen - even regardless of whether the production was on the commercial networks or on the ABC and SBS. A mini-series or documentary was visible in a way that only the occasional feature film was. Further it would not sink without trace in the way that many features had. A TV ratings failure was still seen by a lot of people, the TV stations still had to purchase it and therefore less money was lost on it than with an unsuccessful film. In addition, the cost of feature film as opposed to a limited episode series was considerably higher per unit of screen time. In a TV series the cost could be amortised over a number of units. No such economic advantages were available with features. Additionally a series was easily and cheaply advertised on th e exhibiting network filler spots between programs or at ad breaks at little extra expense. It could also, up until the November 1986 ownership changes be promoted in the magazines and newspapers owned by the networks. The mini-series and documentary did not put all its eggs in the one basket whereas the cinema film tended to do just that. A film could be trialled in one market and if it did not succeed then it had the kiss of death; it could have a blanket release with a big advertising budget and a large number of prints but if it did not succeed then the loss would be considerable. TV mini-series by contrast could build audiences more slowly - and be screened again. Cinema promotion, by constrast was expensive. Ads had to be paid for and audiences are not already built-in in the way they were for TV: but the returns were sig nificantly higher.
Generally then TV production was less risky than feature film production. As John Morris, Director of the SAFC, put it:
This thing about TV is that there is a clearly defined upper limit. If you are highly successful in TV you know how much money you'll get, and if you're just good you know how much money you'll get; if you're bad, of course, you get nothing! In cinema there is no upper limit because a film, if it takes off, can make millions and millions and millions. So theoretically there is much more money to be got out of cinema than out of TV but the risks are much greater. That's the true answer. So there's more money in cinema if you make Mad Max but if you make Weekend of Shadowsor Dawnyou make nothing. Whereas if they had been made especially for TV that would probably have at least got their money back, if not made a slight profit. But Mad Max made for TV, and been successful on TV it wouldn't have made anything like the money it's made out of cinema. Which was millions.(25)
It had been clear as early as Breaker Morant (1980) and Gallipoli (1982) that even a major Australian and to a lesser extent international film success could have trouble in the short term recovering its costs. To be successful extraordinary national and international box-office figures were required. The Mad Max cycle and Crocodile Dundee proved the rule: producers could not expect to be extraordinarily successful, although extraordinary film successes do happen from time to time. On the face of it TV with its taken-for-granted pre-sales structure was a safer, if more conservative, financial bet. Thus we find the extraordinary international TV success of A Town Like Alice leaving its producers not much better off than before; and we find its film equivalent at the other end of the 1980s Crocodile Dundee making its investors and producers very rich indeed.
But pre-sales are not just the province of TV. Increasingly feature films were being pre-sold. The above scenario would have looked very different if Crocodile Dundee had been pre-sold to the cinema trade, video and TV - in which case its investors would have made very little money from it. Indeed by 1988 mini-series and feature films were increasingly in the same boat. This is in part because profits on mini-series production, already low, were further squeezed by the changes to the tax concessions (which accounts for the 1985/6 downturn in mini-series production) from 24 to 5; and because pre-sales had become a more important film financing instrument with the development of international video markets, pay TV, and pre-sales to the cinema trade.
By 1987 cinema and TV production faced problems getting the 65% of budget in pre-sales required to break even. Both looked to international involvement through co-productions to obtain the level of pre-sales required for break even: just as they had in the early 1960s in TV with Whiplash (1961) and in the cinema with They're a Weird Mob (1966). After the long film industry boom of the 1980s feature film, like TV, was facing a financial crisis. "Internationalism" was set to make its return - and, once again, a government report was urging the establishment of a "film bank - or film finance corporation".(26) Ironically the mini-series had provided through the 1980s a way of remaining Australian; by the end of the 1980s it too was feeling the pressure to internationalise. The tax concessions which had begun the decade as a way of protecting the Australian face of the industry by providing a subsidy through the tax act now looked set to encourage the industry's internationalisation.
With TV firmly back on the agenda of the subsidised film production industry this article seems to have ended up back where it started. It began with Australian content issues in the fifties; it charted the emergence of the feature film as the prime zone for creative expression in the seventies and the related demise of Australian content on TV as an issue; now TV is back on the agenda. Our story has come full circle.
Most of the developments within Australian TV from 1960 on were predicated in part upon government measures: be they content provisions or after 1969 direct (and later indirect) subsidies to production. Although it has been argued that the Australian content provisions were mostly symbolic gestures, they were important in ensuring an Australia wide market for Australian productions. These provisions were especially important in getting the 30% of the Australian TV market (that could get all the overseas drama material they needed for their schedules) to obtain local drama programming. The content provisions in SMBA markets created a bottom line below which stations could not go. They thus encouraged levels of Australian content in excess of the requirements. Recently these government regulations and government subsidised support for film production have come under attack. In 1987 advertisers were freed to show as many ads as they liked. The tax concessions have been targeted as an iniquitous tax have n which needs to be pared back. Government instrumentalities, like the AFC, are seen to be areas of unnecessary wastage of scarce government funds. Taken together these deregulatory, minimal government impulses pose significant challenges. If this deregularory minimal government impulse was to successfully challenge the authority of the Broadcasting Tribunal (the successor to the ABCB) and its Australian content provisions, and if it additionally saw the demise of direct and indirect production subsidies, then two of the crucial planks substaining a film and TV production industry would be removed. And this at a time when TV broadcasting is losing some of its dominance to competing uses for the TV monitor. Such actions, if not couterbalanced by other instruments, could devastate local production and turn the clock back thirty years. What needs t o be remembered is that those initial decisions taken in TV policy that were so prejudicial to Australian produced TV were not taken out of a desire to denigrate the local product. They were taken for a host of other reasons - to ensure economic viability and to meet concerns for the quality of TV. This is a salutary reminder that legitimate demands for deregulation, an equitable tax system and reduced government expenditure, could seriously affect the complexion of cultural production in Australia, through no deliberate intention to do so.
This article has addressed some of the particular dimensions of the important, and sometimes undertheorised relation between TV and the cinema in Australia. An understanding of the Australian film and TV interface is absolutely crucial to an understanding of the development of both Australian film and TV as we know it. This suggests the need for more work to be done on this interface - particularly the TV side of it. To do this critics would need to recognise the importance, the specificity and indeed the interest of Australian TV. In such a rearrangement of priorities we could see the beginnings of a systematic study of audio-visual culture in Australia. Such a study would place Australian film and TV production in the overall economy of images and sounds in this country.