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Sixteen relatively recent Australian television dramas have earned more than $1 million each in gross revenue and nearly $43 million as a group, mostly from abroad.


This series of articles and interviews about the business of adult television drama production kicks off with an explanation of how the international sales scene operates. Frankly, the landscape is difficult to understand for those not immersed in it because it’s mired in jargon and secrecy and is constantly having to accommodate shifts in the way audiences are accessing their preferred content.

The question of profitability is particularly focussed on, not something much done publicly or easily. And looking at profitability meant some detail had to be included about how shows are usually financed in Australia, because that has a big impact on where net revenues flow and the bottom line.

The recent dramas backed by Screen Australia that have performed best financially have been used to help explore this question of commercial value. Sixteen earned more than $1 million each in gross revenue and nearly $43 million as a group. Most of this revenue is from abroad.

Just entering the fray is extraordinarily high-risk given that the average cost of these 16 dramas is $1.4 million per hour and the median cost is $1.1 million and the global market is intensely competitive.

The nine interviews drill down into sales trends, individual shows and how those shows attracted distributors, buyers and, ultimately, audiences.

One of the producers interviewed, Emile Sherman, says that developing material that can be co-commissioned is the holy grail of television drama production. What he means is attaching more than one broadcaster or other type of distribution platform long before filming begins.

The BBC, UKTV in Australia, SundanceTV in the US and Arte in France and Germany were all attached in advance to Top of the Lake, thanks to the involvement of director Jane Campion (An Angel at my Table, The Piano). Co-commissioning delivers the producer much more money than the sale of a finished program – and leaves plenty of opportunities to sell the show to other buyers later. Keeping everyone on the same page, however, can be a juggle.

The distributors interviewed say they want series that have universal themes and are bold, distinctive and well-packaged. For them the holy grail is being re-commissioned because that’s when the revenue flow amps up. One commercial catch is that Australia’s traditional financing model puts the domestic platform at the centre of the equation and what the commercial free-to-air networks want is not necessarily what the international marketplace wants.

Two last points: firstly, many more Australian dramas are selling well than those focussed on here but because they are made without Screen Australia’s investment there is no way of digging into their financial performance; and secondly, this discussion ignores the economic benefits of and employment generated by production activity and, importantly, the inestimable cultural worth of television.

Big thanks to all the producers and distributors who participated.