Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Australia needs a UK TV equivalent

Graphic: Scene from Bootmen.

My Christmas musings post took me into the world of Australian film, including the box office failure of recent films. Later in the day I followed the post up on a meandering tour through the internet looking at specific films. I found myself interested, but also frustrated.

The trigger was a film called Bootmen, a film I found by accident. I am going to do a proper story on Bootmen on the New England Australia blog because it is a Newcastle film. For the moment, I simply note for the benefit of international readers that it is a tap dancing film set in an Australian industrial city, in this case Newcastle.

Bootmen interested me because of the local connection, as well as the linkage to other cultural activities, including the Sydney Olympic Games opening ceremony. I was frustrated because here was another Australian film that I had never heard of. I asked eldest if she had heard of it, she had in fact seen it, but I had not.

Another film I then checked on was Ten Canoes. Set in the Arafura swamps, this is by all accounts a great movie. Subtitled One hundred and fifty spears, ten canoes, three wives - trouble, the plot begins:

It is longtime ago. It is our time, before you other mob came from cross the ocean...longtime before then. The rains been good and ten of the men go on the swamp, to hunt the eggs of gumang, the magpie goose. One of the men, the young fella, has a wrong love, so the old man tell him a story...a story of the ancient ones, them wild and crazy ancestors who come after the spirit time, after the flood that covered the whole land...

Because Ten Canoes was different, well made and well received in critical terms, I wondered how much money it had made. To this point, just $3.3 million world wide. I think that it will probably make a lot more in the longer term, but not so far.

Now I had wanted to see Ten Canoes when it first came out, but did not because there was little interest among my family. I think that the problem here is that the film was caught in a trap set by the culture wars, so that it was seen not as a major and interesting film but in some ways an indigenous film. You will get a feel for the discussion created from this post on Transient Languages.

To my mind, this damaged the film in commercial terms. Instead of being an interesting and fascinating experiment, an insight into a different world, the film became something that one should see or, for that matter not see, depending on one's position. Either is the kiss of death.

For a relatively brief period in the mid eighties I was in charge of an area that included responsibility for some of the industry development aspects of the Australian film industry.

In a minute to John Button, my then minister, I complained that the Australian film industry had become a game park for cultural lions. This limited its chance of longer term commercial viability.

This remains my view. However, I now have an added resentment, the way in which (as I see it) the cultural gate-keepers have cut me and also my kids off from elements of our culture and past. As an example, see my post on the current treatment of the Australian film They're a Weird Mob (1966).

Even my wife who comes from a different tradition to me (Irish, Labor, Catholic) complains about the unwillingness of our children to watch Australian films including classic films on TV. Why should they? They have had little exposure to Australia's past or our culture other than that forced down their necks in compulsory doses. Further, outside the current glorification of our military tradition, that which they have had exposure to has often been negative.

This post is not about the culture wars as such. My view here at the moment is simply a pox on both their houses. Rather, my concern is what might be done to give Australians better access to Australian material, while also benefiting the local cultural industries, especially film and television production.

Some time ago, John Singleton floated the idea of an Australian pay TV channel. He put the idea forward in a particular context, and it was dumped on quite heavily. I think that the idea is worth revisiting, using UK TV as something of a model.

We watch UK TV as much as any other channel. This began in part because of the crime elements. My wife and youngest daughter especially love the UK detective shows. The British have carved out a real niche here. From this, watching extended to other shows, and especially the classic comedies. Monty Python has become something of a cult classic among Clare's group.

To TV, add British film. The English in particular went through a period in the seventies and eighties when, in part because of a response to decline of Empire, the industry became very inward looking. In recent years, English film and TV has been able to break out to the point that, in this household at least, we watch pretty much as much UK made film and TV as we do US.

How might Australian TV work?

The first point is that I think that it needs to be a straight commercial operation, so that content over time is determined by viewer response, not by the views of gatekeepers as to what they think that people should watch. I also think in business model terms that after sales - books, dvds, CDs etc - should be a key element from the beginning. I think that there would also be a niche international marketplace.

The next point is that the channel needs to take into account the fragmented nature of the viewing audience. If you look at existing rating patterns, they are split not just by age and education, but also geographically. Just as with UK TV, the channel should provide a smorgasbord of offerings from which people select as compared to a conventional free to air channel that aims to attract a core constant viewing audience.

Is there sufficient content to support a 24/7 operation? I think that there is, although existing copyright ownership and distribution arrangements create a real difficulty. If we put this aside for the moment, we might consider some of the following elements.

To start with what may seem as a paradoxical point for something called Australian TV, there is absolutely no reason why such a channel should limit itself to Australian material narrowly defined. Just as UK TV includes Australian soaps because the BBC has broadcast rights, so the new channel could include overseas material with some Australian connection. This might include, for example, New Zealand or Candian material or British war films. It might include films such as the matrix series made or partially made in Australia.

I make this point because too often any discussion in this area goes straight to what I would call the "little Australia" focus. We want a channel that works in commercial terms, not one that is obsessively and narrowly domestic to the exclusion of all else. It must make money if it is to provide a market for Australian future Australian content.

The second point is that past Australian soaps provide a major source of potential content so long as the film still exists and copyright restrictions can be overcome. There are thousands of hours of past soaps. I gave no idea how some - No 96, Bellbird, Homicide are some examples - would appear today. Some might attract only small niche nostalgia viewing elements, but I suspect that some at least would prove popular to a new audience.

Then we have all the historical and documentary material, including past documentaries. This could be re-presented in a variety of ways.

Then we have all the films and mini-series. These can be packaged in a variety of ways. We may not have enough past films to run a golden oldies Holywood channel. We certainly do have enough to present a weekly golden oldies film. We can also package around a director such as Ken Hall or Charles Chauvel or Peter Weir. We can package around an actor - Errol Flyn, Chips Rafferty, Nicole Kidman, Jack Thompson etc.

Then, too, we have all the modern Australian films, many of which have had far too little exposure. And our singers, theatre companies etc. And travel and lifestyle.

My point in all this is that we have a wealth of existing content to work with if we can but access it. We also have many Australians, expatriat and otherwise, who I think would love to support this type of inititiative.

Once established, the channel could provide an important vehicle for the distribution and creation of new content.

All this will work if and only if the channel makes money. I think that it can, although this depends on detailed modelling and subsequent business planning.

I am not in a position at the moment to try to do something myself. But if there is someone out there who would would like to run with it, I would love to help!


As often happens when I am mulling over an idea, I start testing it with other people, in this case asking what they would like to see on an Australian TV channel. I do not pretend that the results to this point are in any way representative, but I still found them interesting.

Two points were of particular interest.

First, people struggled to say what they would like to see. I was not surprised at this. I was surprised, however, at the scale.

We live in a crowded world in which things come and go quite quickly, so its hard to remember. Further, you cannot make a judgement about something if you have never seen it or, in some cases, never even heard of it. In the absence of some form of re-access or reminder, three to four years is about the maximum span before things vanish into the mists of the past.

Second, Australian films have a bad reputation. They are things that people feel that they should, perhaps, go and see but do not really want to.

In Australia, and with some exceptions, to call a film an Australian film is the kiss of death. This contrasts with Australian made TV programs. Measured by ratings, we want to watch Australian TV, but yet do not want to see Australian movies.

None of this means that an Australian TV channel won't work. However, it does mean that time would be needed just to test viewer reaction to past material, to allow viewers to build familiarity with format and content. I also think, and this was a point that I made earlier, that it cannot be too narrow or nationalistic.


will_owen said...


If you were unaware of Bootmen, perhaps you also missed Tap Dogs, the film of Dein Perry's troupe in performance. Great show!

Jim Belshaw said...

Funny you should say that, Will, because I did indeed miss Tap Dogs. I found out about it at the same time I found Bootmen.