Australia on the ‘Threatened Public Television System’ List. Takeaways for Doc Creatives

Next week’s visit to New York by Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott got me thinking about the state of documentary funding in my homeland.

The headline is that in its first budget, the conservative Abbott government took the razor to the key documentary funders:

  • Screen Australia.
  • ABC.
  • SBS.

And after the razor comes the machete!

  • The cuts to the public broadcasters were ominously foreshadowed as a mere ‘down payment.’
  • This brought to mind the rolling cuts inflicted in recent years on Canada’s pubcasters.

Then, last weekend, the Abbott government’s efficiency review into public broadcasting recommended that SBS vacate its premises and move into the ABC’s headquarters.

  • Many fear that relocation would be a precursor to an eventual merger of the two public broadcasters.

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Highlights

Here are the highlights of the current situation:

SCREEN AUSTRALIA

  • Screen Australia is Australia’s principal funder of docs.
  • $20+/- million out of an annual budget of $101m is dedicated to the genre.
  • The new federal budget cuts funding by 7%.

Screen Australia’s factual spend is directed (+/-):

  • 50% for ABC
  • 40% for SBS
  • And 10% for cable/satellite channels.

Programs

The cuts may be felt across the key Screen Australia programs for docs.

They are:

Development support

  • Up to $600,000
  • Limited funds for the development of documentary projects by experienced practitioners

National Documentary Program

  • Up to $7m
  • Investment in diverse projects with heritage value and themes of national and cultural significance.
  • Projects will have a sense of cultural ambition and higher budget scale

General Documentary Program

  • Up to $3.5m
  • Funding for quality, audience-engaging projects that have cultural relevance, based on matched funding with a domestic broadcaster’s licence fee

International Program

  • Up to $3.5m
  • Investment in Australian projects which have international finance as well as a domestic broadcaster licence fee

Signature Documentary Program

  • Up to $2.0m
  • Focused on projects which are bold in form and/or content, with a strong creative vision. Broadcast presales, while acceptable, are not a prerequisite. Includes interactive and multiplatform projects. Limited to $200,000 per project.
  • ABC or SBS put up a license fee of around A$130,000, which is matched by Screen Australia and topped by a tax offset of around 20%.
  • The total production budget in this scheme is around $330,000, with the possibility of additional international contributions.
  • To qualify, the content needs to be Australian-themed (“watch out for a wallaby”) rather than an international topic that an Australian producer is qualified to address.
  • See our Dino Stampede Case Study for the funding secrets of a $1.2 million special copro.

Other programs

  • Special initiatives may be offered from time to time, such as Opening Shot
  • The Producer Equity Program enables producers to apply for 20% of their budget for projects with a threshold of between $250,000 and $500,000 per hour.
  • And there are Producer offsets for projects above this threshold.

Funding Review

Screen Australia is also immersed in a five year review of its funding model:

  • The review reflects a three-way policy struggle between broadcasters, producers and Screen Australia.
  • The key issue is whether Screen Australia’s funding could be directed to the broadcasters or if SA’s unique independent “curatorial” role should continue.
  • Close to A$20m is at stake for the documentary and unscripted category.
  • SBS and ABC are hurting from their budget cuts, and it is in their interest to redirect SA’s resources to their own programming departments.

BROADCASTERS

  • The ABC and SBS will lose a combined $43.5m in funding over four years.
  • The ABC’s contract for the pan-Asian Australia Network is being terminated.
  • It was worth $223m, and has helped support ABC News and other domestic operations.

Murdoch Campaign Against Pubcasters

  • The Efficiency Study and budget cuts reflect the deep hostility directed by the conservative government towards the public broadcasters, and particularly the ABC.
  • This campaign has been fanned by the Murdoch family-controlled press, which has relentlessly attacked the ABC for ‘editorial bias’ and ‘waste.’
  • The Murdoch’s are JV partners in FOXTEL, the dominant multichannel platform.
  • Australian Pay TV has ground out a far lower share of total viewing than cable/satellite compared with the US, UK and Canada.
  • FOXTEL and its bouquet of niche channels have much to gain from any long term erosion in brand value and viewing by the high-performing pubcasters.

Australian Viewing Snapshot

Shares for a recent week:

  • Free to Air: 85.5%
  • Subscription (Cable/Sat): 14.5%

And the primetime share of FTA networks revealed a high combined viewing (23.8%) by the public broadcasters:

  • Nine: 30.9%
  • Seven: 29.1%
  • ABC: 17.5%
  • Ten: 17.2%
  • SBS: 5.3%

PBS US earns on average less than 2%.

ALSO

SBS Pipeline

  • SBS commissions 12+/- single, authored Australian docs each year, out of 30+/- hours of original factual programming.
  • The license fee is in the A$125-$200,000 range.
  • The budgets for singles are in the A$300-$400,000 range, and as high as A$800,000: the SBS commitment triggers funding from Screen Australia and other programs.
  • SBS is also commissioning five lower budget (A$80,000+/-) docs on subcultures, an initiative that reinforces SBS’s multicultural mission.
  • A New Hire: our friend and valued colleague Krishan Arora was engaged in september as International Content Consultant working out of Europe to identify mostly factual acquisitions & pre-buys from Europe & emerging markets (but also drama, comedy, entertainment…). He can be reached at krishan.arora@sbs.com.au.

Takeaways

Australian documentary creatives are on somewhat of a roll.

  • The big buzz from this year’s AIDC Conference was about a wave of young producer/directors powered by passion, strong story-telling and low-cost production resources.
  • Screen Australia is leading a record delegation of 26+ to this month’s Sunnyside of the Doc.
  • ‘The Surgery Ship’ (SBS) recently earned a remarkable audience for a powerful obs doc series, and is an example of the appetite for quality, Australian-made nonfiction programs.

 

Australia is awash in the economic benefits from the export of natural resources to China.

  • But diminished government funding, combined with a weak regulatory framework, will stifle the momentum of the independent doc community.

More on the ‘Land of the Flat White Lifestyle’:

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Speaking Engagements

  • South Africa Producer Workshops: Jo’burg, Durban & Capetown:  June 10-14.
  • Sunnyside of the Doc, La Rochelle: June 23-26