Nick Torrens is an Australian documentary maker whose work derives from a lifelong fascination with the politics of people’s lives. He is a founding committee member and former National Chair of the Australian International Documentary Conference and Artistic Director of Headlands 2005, the first national Documentary Ideas Development Program.
1. Since its introduction, has the content of what public broadcasters offer changed in your opinion?
All great films and programs provide a powerful nexus between intellect and emotion, between art and engagement. Australia’s public broadcasters have historically made a significant contribution to the production of Australian programming in these areas.
But this is now becoming rare on our television screens. What has changed? Answer: the self-perception of broadcaster responsibility at both ABC and SBS over the past 10 years or so.
To fully address these issues needs detail and evidence that is certainly available, but in the interest of brevity I will write in broad summary terms only.
Until roughly the turn of the century, Australian television networks had fairly distinct agendas and responsibilities, and in general they provided Australia with a broad spectrum of television viewing.
The commercial networks had a clear and undisputed responsibility to deliver the consumer to the advertiser, and the two public broadcasters had broader and separate mandates. ABC programming strategies reflected a responsibility to provide for a diverse range within Australian society, and especially for those minority audiences not catered for by the 3 commercial free-to-air networks.
The SBS network had a more specific (‘multicultural’) mandate and responsibility, and was guided by the need to present a picture of Australian society more accurate than that generally shown on commercial television, in which outdated stereotypes dominated. Under its commissioning arm called SBS Independent – set up in 1994 – SBS was driven by a brief to be adventurous- encouraging new ideas, new story-telling methods and new filmmakers in its commissioning of Australian documentary, drama and animation. It achieved an enviable international public broadcasting reputation and was even awarded for these achievements.
“The responsibility to society has been subsumed by a responsibility to deliver higher ratings.”
However since then, public broadcasting agendas have merged somewhat in pursuit of a common goal – to gain greater free-to-air audience share. It is noticeable that both our public broadcasters have revised their notions of role and objective in this direction. A responsibility to society via a diverse viewing public has been subsumed by a responsibility to deliver higher ratings for its government funding. During the 12 years of the John Howard government (1996-2007) both broadcasters were reminded forcefully and often of this responsibility to government, which was expressed in terms of a need to be “relevant” (as well as “impartial”). Both public broadcasters, dependent on government funding, responded. Thus the programming now on offer, particularly in prime-time, has a greater sameness, not only between the public broadcasters, but across all free-to-air networks. High quality television drama is still produced locally (I’d point for example to SBS’ East-West 101), but being expensive there is less of it. As Debi Enker noted in The Age
“Local drama production at the ABC has been disappointing for more than a decade. The days when the national broadcaster would dazzle us with Blue Murder, Brides of Christ and Phoenix, or delight us with Sea-Change and Grass Roots, are a distant memory … Recent ABC dramas — Rain Shadow, East of Everything, Bed of Roses — premiered to more than 1 million viewers, then slumped as audiences became disenchanted.” (11.11.2010)
In non-fiction/documentary programming, individual film-making voices expressing big ideas via original presentation have given way to more ratings-driven, format ‘entertainment-style’ programming.
Both networks still broadcast some “big ideas” as well as original production approaches, but these are increasingly produced overseas, and shown later at night than the more populist prime-time fare. Buying international programs costs the networks far less than commissioning Australian production, so it is in this latter area that a lack of originality, the least risk and the most sameness is evident.
“Many films and programs suffer greatly when interrupted.”
2. Some public broadcasting channels allow commercial advertising. Would you say they adjust their content in order to attract more viewers?
The SBS Board in 2006 made a decision to attract more commercial advertisers by allowing TVCs to interrupt programming, and to find a new viewing demographic to support the advertisers’ needs. Soon afterwards its Managing Director Sean Brown in an interview on the ABC’s “Media Report” stated “I do pursue ratings. I’ve made no secret of that. Frankly, anybody who works in our industry who says they don’t is either lying or simply denying what their own purpose is.”
In reporting this, The Australian’s media correspondent Errol Simper commented “pursuing ratings is not SBS’s purpose and never has been. The station is, notionally, still a public broadcaster and receives $188 million a year of taxpayers’ money to fulfill that function. Its job, like that of the ABC, is to complement …to broaden viewer choice, not least those choices that may relate to multicultural facets of Australian life. ” (April 05, 2007)
Over commercial television’s lifetime, many strategies have been devised to keep audiences watching a program interrupted by advertising. These include strategic repetition (of sequences and information) and various structural ‘updating’ devices, often using narration and music to facilitate re-engagement and connection after interruptions.
But many films and programs suffer greatly when interrupted, in particular those demanding greater concentration from an involved audience. When interrupted, this more demanding programming becomes less attractive to watch, harder to follow. Audience viewing numbers gradually drop. It then becomes less likely that these are commissioned, produced or acquired.
The defining characteristic of a public broadcaster is its ability to devise programming strategies free from commercial imperatives, including the production of innovative, thoughtful but often less popular content. To attract the advertising spend it is necessary to improve ratings. Improved ratings bring higher costs for the advertiser, and as they pay more they want to determine with which programs their commercials will be associated. Pressures grow for the style of programming wanted by those paying. As the SBS policies attract more advertising, they are changing the type of programming produced, the techniques of producing them and the audiences who are attracted. Over time, these effects are precedented and measurable.
Recent cutbacks in SBS’s funding from government were logical and predictable. With SBS advertising revenue increasing, why should the taxpayer subsidize a broadcaster to present programming which dovetails efficiently with commercial interruption, and will be tolerated by a “new demographic” which has already 3 commercial networks? And why should commercial TV have to compete against such a public broadcaster in its marketplace?
3. Has the role of filmmakers changed in regard to proposing film projects to public broadcasters?
Yes very much. Up until the late 1970s, the ABC and commercial networks produced their own programming in-house, or purchased it from overseas. After determined lobbying from Australian independent filmmakers, the networks were persuaded to purchase from independents, then later to respond to independent ideas for films and programs, and to cooperate with government financing systems in funding these. SBS joined in when it commenced broadcasting in 1980.
“Public broadcasters have become increasingly prescriptive in determining both content and style.”
The recently revised notions of role and responsibility by the public broadcasters have significantly changed this commissioning process. The broadcasters, instead of responding to independent ideas for broadcaster program slots and then assisting their production, now determine or emphasize the content wanted, and in some cases identify those considered most suitable for producing it. The broadcasters have become increasingly prescriptive in determining both content and style and they exercise greater creative control. This change has arguably made the commissioning / programming process less diverse and original but more straight-forward, and has been successful partly because government financing policy accepts the changed arena, and partly because of Australian producers’ eagerness to respond to the broadcasters’ wishes and second-guess their needs. In many ways what started as art or political argument has become production-line TV entertainment.
Some original ideas are still proposed by independents and commissioned by ABC and SBS, but authority in the ideas landscape is now firmly in the hands of the broadcasters. It is now far more difficult for example, to finance documentary that has an independent vision or doesn’t follow television formula strategies.
4. Internet streams, downloads and on-demand watching – threat or opportunity? Where does public broadcasting fit into this scheme/technology?
Opportunity: Emerging and independent filmmakers seeking audiences for more esoteric material than that currently favoured by television are looking for and using these vehicles for their ideas and their careers. Their experiences and successes will again change the landscape.
Threat: Public broadcasters (and television generally) are making many of the changes explored in the responses above, precisely because of the growing awareness of their mortality. They also are prioritizing a ‘new media’ agenda in different ways, to expand their reach and prolong life. Only the more far-sighted will succeed and progress beyond the current bottom-line populist strategies.
5. What will the future hold? Dare to give an outlook about possible future developments and trends in public broadcasting.
With each new film and television crisis since the 1970s, and as each era and government has come and gone, I have remained optimistic that Australian filmmakers will generate, in collaboration with public television, original and compelling work. Also that the very best Australian documentarists will succeed at that intersection of art and engagement that defines great non-fiction.
However in relation to the current policy agendas of our public broadcasters, I am less optimistic.
In the US, with its very different financing and production environment, filmmakers who aim for the visionary project and the highest profile are generally working outside television. That way they can determine the ways in which their stories are told. But many filmmakers are happy to make films specifically designed to satisfy the needs of US television, and to submit therefore to creative input or control by its executives.
In Australia we are witnessing the development of a similar television arena. But as we lack the corporate philanthropy so crucial to the funding of independent US producers, the future for the Australian visionary project is not promising.
This does not mean it has no future. At root it means that both program makers and audiences who seek alternatives to ratings-driven programming, must in the future look to other sources and delivery methodologies. Public broadcast television now has different agendas. It is fighting for survival.
|Nick Torrens’ much-awarded documentaries over 30 years observe ordinary and extraordinary people in different parts of the world, and the forces that shape their lives.
His industry role has seen him chairing international forums, commissioning documentary for SBS TV, teaching documentary history and practice, conducting seminars and filmmaker development programs for federal and state agencies, designing and directing courses for the AFTRS, acting as mentor for emerging filmmakers and working to enhance the profile and sense of community among documentary practitioners.