The goal of including Australian-made drama and local talent on television was expressed in 1956, even before television began. The Australian Broadcasting Act 1942 requested licensees to use Australian services in the production and presentation of programs.
In 1954, the Royal Commission on Television stated that television stations should use Australian talent. The period from the late 1950s onwards witnessed policy intervention into Australian content on commercial television, as a means of securing a space for national culture, with television drama being the most contested and important genre for the next 40 years of broadcasting regulation and production.
In the early days, television screens were dominated by American content—especially drama. The Senate Select Committee on the Encouragement of Australian Productions for Television (the Vincent Report) found that 97 per cent of drama on Australian television in the early 1960s was imported.
In 1961, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) introduced percentage requirements for local content and quotas for peak viewing periods. At the end of the 1960s, content regulation required 50 per cent of all content to be local, with 12 hours of local content per month dedicated to peak viewing times. The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal first introduced the term ‘an Australian look’ for drama in 1977. Over the decades, that reflection of ourselves in drama has developed from assimilationist white Anglo sentimentality in shows such as Skippy (1966–70), Power Without Glory (1976) and The Sullivans (1976–83) to culturally diverse and gritty dramas such as Wildside (1997–99), The Secret Life of Us (2001–05) and Redfern Now (2012– ).
However, it was the early and overwhelming success of Crawfords Productions’ police drama Homicide (Seven Network, 1964–75) ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼that proved a significant incentive for local production companies to partner with networks and produce more local drama. Crawfords went on to produce a slew of crime dramas in the 1960s and 1970s, with Division 4 (1969–75), Matlock Police (1971–75), Ryan (1973), Solo One (1976), Bluey (1976–77) and Cop Shop (1977–84). During the same period, the ABC had the country town serial Bellbird (1967–77). These early programs, while significant, certainly did not reflect post-war multiculturalism, and had more in common with a 1920s Australia than that of the 1970s. Shows like The Sullivans and A Country Practice (1981–94) harked back to the simple happy days of wartime and rural Australia.
Australian drama of the 1970s did more edgy programming, however. Number 96 (1972–77) and The Box (1974–77) took a liberal attitude to sex, nudity and censorship, and enabled exploration of storylines involving gay, lesbian and bi-sexual characters. Prisoner (1979–84) also pushed the envelope with its gay themes and strong women.
In the 1980s, drama expanded into the mini-series, with more than a hundred produced from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. They relied on iconic Australian historical events and the adaption of successful local novels. Examples include A Town Like Alice (1981), The Dismissal (1983), Vietnam (1987), Brides of Christ (1991), The Man From Snowy River (1993) and an adaptation of Colleen McCullough’s book The Thorn Birds (1983). While reflecting Australian to Australians was one motivation for the production of these dramas, the 10BA tax incentive scheme in the early 1980s was another. The era of the mini-series was a rich training ground for casts and crews and provided a smorgasbord of expensive Australian drama not seen since.
The entry in the 1980s of two of our most successful exports—Neighbours (1985– ) and Home and Away (1988– )—reflected a suburban Australia identity and carefree lifestyle, one that was embraced by overseas viewers (particularly in the United Kingdom). Global investment in Australiana provided a push for series drama in the late 1980s and 1990s—possibly thanks to Paul Hogan and his 1986 film Crocodile Dundee. The Flying Doctors (1986–92) was produced at a time when Australian television series were attracting international interest.
In 1994, the Keating Labor government’s Creative Nation initiative made two specific pledges to enhance contemporary and culturally diverse drama programming. SBS Television was provided with $13 million to leverage more than $45 million in new programming and the Commercial Television Production Fund was established to give Australians access to a wide range of high-quality Australian programs.
SBS created a new production arm, SBS Independent (SBSi), which still makes multicultural dramas like East West 101 (2007–11). Also in the 1990s, the ABC series Wildside drew on the grunge heritage of another ABC crime series, Phoenix (1992–93). Wildside’s inner-city themes and dirty filmmaking style was influenced by feature films from the early 1990s such as Death in Brunswick, Romper Stomper and Bad Boy Bubby. The other noteworthy element of Wildside was its engagement with the tensions and everyday life of a culturally diverse urban Australia. Actors of culturally diverse backgrounds (including Indigenous actors) began to be cast in everyday roles in mainstream drama, such as Aaron Pedersen in the Nine Network’s Water Rats (1996–2001). However, perhaps the most popular drama of this period was the ABC’s SeaChange (1998–2000), mixing elements of romance and comedy. Another ABC series, The Straits (2012), attempted to introduce the familiar tropes of the crime drama to the less familiar setting of the Torres Strait Islands; it rated poorly and was not renewed.
In the 21st century, pay television has contributed to opportunities for Australian drama. Many of the dramas produced by pay television providers have been aimed at a particular generation, with Love My Way (2004–07), Tangle (2009–12) and The Slap (2011) appealing to forty-something viewers.
Probably the most significant television drama in the last decade has been the Underbelly ‘real crime’ franchise, which began in 2008. It can be seen as an evolution from the ABC’s Wildside, based on a range of very identifiable local settings and actual criminals with media notoriety. Underbelly has garnered real success for the Nine Network, achieving audiences of two million people. Underbelly showed that Australians still want to see local stories and not just the endless ‘dramas’ of reality television. To a degree, the success of concurrent dramas, such as SBS’s East West 101 and Seven’s Packed to the Rafters (2008–13), has led to the most recent investments in drama like The Slap, Puberty Blues (2012– ) and Secrets and Lies (2014)—all moderately successful. The ABC has invested in Australian period crime dramas, including Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012– ) and The Doctor Blake Mysteries (2013– ).
Drama in Australia began with a lack of any culturally diverse representation, resonating with post-war assimilation policy. This was followed by the problematic, where issues were explored from a paternal liberal axis—mostly by the mainstream looking at the margins (shows such as A Country Practice, The Flying Doctors and earlier episodes of Neighbours and Home and Away assumed these problematic portrayals), which reflected the policy turn of the 1970s to the era of multiculturalism. This was then fractured by the comedic, which defused the anxiety of the problematic, whether it related to a community from a diverse cultural or linguistic background, gay representation or the disabled—with comedy like Acropolis Now (1989–92) and then the scandalous Pizza (SBS, 2000–07). Finally, the banal and everyday portrayal has evolved and made it to television drama, with audiences interested in characters’ motivations, emotions, history and futures.
Race and sexuality are no longer issues in their own right when it comes to Australian identity. How the future representations of Australian life and the ‘Australian look’ will develop as television drama evolves into something else remains to be seen.
REFs: N. Herd, Networking (2012); A. McKee, Australian Television (2001); A. Moran, Australian Television Drama Series 1956–1981 (1989); T. O’Regan, Australian Television Culture (1993).