Features

Television (No Longer) Rules The Nation

Words By: Sam Herriman


Australians love TV. Arriving on our shores in 1956 just in time for the broadcast of the Melbourne Olympic Games, its comforting fluorescent glow has been a staple of a suburban Australia ideal, intrinsically linked to the picture of a house with a white picket fence, an impossibly expansive backyard, a veranda out the front and an old rocking chair. The television is so pervasive in Australian culture that two of the most iconic moments in the nation’s political history feature our Prime Ministers huddled around the TV watching sports.

Most Baby Boomers and generation X’ers will have nostalgic memories of gathering around the television with family and friends and watching shows like Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, Number 96, Countdown and Hey Hey It’s Saturday (bizarrely resurrected a few years ago under the same name yet airing on a Wednesday). Even later shows such as Spicks and Specks and The Chaser’s War on Everything retained some semblance of cultural currency, but that collective sense of national identity is rapidly diminishing.

TELEVISION – IS IT ANY GOOD?

Television - is it any good
Image Credit: Xkcd

A recent trend amongst the young urbanites of Australia is to decry the influence of the television, as they snootily turn up their nose and announce that ‘they don’t own a TV,’ or ‘they don’t watch television.’ These are, however, undoubtedly the same people who stream Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on their phone, or leapt on to pirate bay when they heard the news that the first four episodes of Game of Thrones Season 5 had leaked. There remains a sense within the popular consciousness that television is lowbrow entertainment – meaningless, mindless and frivolous. And yes, it must be said that for a vast majority of the early years of television most of what was being produced was rather facile in content, if significant in the formation of a cultural identity. Wild variations in quality exist within all mediums – novels, film, painting, music, video games – and applying certain judgements upon an entirety of one medium is an archaic perspective of what constitutes art.

Whether the intellectuals among us want to admit it or not, television has replaced traditional print media (such as novels and poetry) as the primary medium for ‘serious,’ culturally and socially significant literature that has the potential to reach the masses. That’s not to say that print literature doesn’t have a substantial role to play in the development and deployment of serious literature, it’s just that instead of cozying up by the fire to read Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford, we are cozying up by the fire to watch Parade’s End on GEM. Also consider the influence television has in exposing its audience to important new novels. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas found a whole new readership thanks to the exposure granted by the miniseries on ABC, and perhaps even more after the American remake (although like most US adaptions, it fizzled). Television opens new and exciting ways to engage with literature of all types from across the world.

In the not too distant past, it was the service providers who would selectively choose what content to show and when to show it. Due to the high-stakes industry that is broadcast television, this often resulted in providers choosing the safest, most inoffensive option. What that means is that so called ‘serious’ television was either

a) not being produced

b) produced internationally but not shown in Australia, or

c) pushed to an obscure timeslot on SBS.

Therefore, with nothing to prove otherwise, the insidious perception of television as light, worthless entertainment continued to permeate throughout the nation. The switch to digital television has removed at least some of the economic burden from providers, with a greater number of channels offering networks the ability to be far more flexible and adventurous with their choices of content. It seems like most providers are slow to catch on though, with the Nine Network still showing upwards of ten hours of The Big Bang Theory during primetime each week.

I WANT IT ALL, AND I WANT IT NOW

With the advent and subsequent domination of torrenting and streaming services such as Netflix, it’s easier than ever to choose what content to consume and when to consume it. It should be argued that this is a benefit for discerning viewers, with producers rewarded for providing quality and innovative entertainment directly from the consumer.  Australia was also slow to catch on to the new normal of streaming content, with Netflix, Presto and Stan only beginning to commence services to Australia within the last year. In the US, Netflix has become an institution in the last few years (so much so that many Australians were accessing US Netflix) services prior to its Australian induction), and began to produce and stream original programming in 2013 a trend that has exploded in the past few years with providers such as Amazon, Hulu and Yahoo also starting to produce original content. The arrival of internet programming has meant that there is more television being produced and consumed than ever before.

But what does having a greater choice of content mean? Most importantly it means that for the first time ever consumers aren’t slaves to the whims of content providers.  Since earlier in the decade, most providers have been forced to ‘fast track’ their popular imported shows to air within 24 hours of their original broadcast overseas. This is almost a direct response to the rise of torrenting brought about due to the impatience of consumers, both with reference to watching their shows and with how they have been treated with contempt by providers for years. By allowing its audience to participate in the global conversation surrounding landmark shows such as Glee and Doctor Who, providers surely assumed that they had regained the trust of the consumer, but it was too late. Like a shark to blood, Australians had a sniff of the seemingly endless amount of content available to watch at a few clicks of their fingertips…on the button of a mouse.

Of course the most high-profile case of Australians devouring international content at will is our incredible and insatiable appetite for the ground-breaking HBO series Game of Thrones. We torrent the crap out of that show, and we have for years. But that’s not even the tip of the iceberg, with shows like Breaking Bad, thriller series Homeland, zombie epic The Walking Dead and comedies Archer, Community and Parks and Recreation all gaining significant followings in Australia despite a minimal or non-existent presence on broadcast television. It’s no coincidence that the shows we download are more or less consistent with the shows that are both critically lauded and highly visible (read: highly GIF-able) on the internet.

The Government has been keen to stamp out the rampant spread of torrenting, and Australia’s collective and flagrant disregard for international copyright laws. Despite the claims to the contrary of those in the business, it’s important to remember that the actual act of downloading something is in and of itself not criminal activity. While it is in essence a breach of copyright, acquiring content through a torrenting service is essentially morally no different from borrowing a DVD from a friend, just on an international scale from your ‘friend’ in Estonia. The onus on persecution lies with the copyright holders, and it takes a particularly dogged hunt to obtain the information of downloaders from ISP providers, as was the case with the film Dallas Buyers Club. The introduction of Netflix and other streaming services might help curb torrenting at least a little bit, but the primary need for the downloaders – that of instantaneous access to television programs as they air (and access to HBO shows) – remains unresolved

This uproar and demonisation of downloaders still persists despite directors and creators of hit television shows conceding that the torrenting of their programs has helped to boost its popularity and increase its ‘cultural buzz’. One of the reasons that the creators might not be too upset by Australians downloading their shows for free is that outside of perhaps a few DVD or Blu-ray sales they aren’t actually losing any revenue – and indeed the ‘cultural buzz’ that is created increases the sale of merchandise and other tie-in products.

SHUT UP AND DON’T TAKE MY MONEY

Shut up and don't take my money
Image Credit: Netflix

The groups that are getting really pissed off are the domestic providers who pay a considerable amount of money for the rights to broadcast these premium shows in Australia. Torrenting and streaming take away the exclusivity of content for television providers – and most significantly -pay-television. By accessing content through other, less restrictive means, Australians are refusing to buy into an outdated model of subscription with a continued lack of either original domestic or premium international programming. Unlike in the US, where a majority of households still subscribe to at least a basic cable package, in Australia there is absolutely no ingrained culture of paying for television, with just 5% of all households subscribing to Foxtel, which is by far the dominant company in Australian pay television.

With Netflix now a big player in supplying ‘serious,’ premium content, Foxtel is losing another of its sources of programming. The first two seasons of the smash Netflix original series Orange is the New Black were shown on the paid channel Showcase, which is part of the Foxtel network. With its arrival on Australian shores earlier this year, Netflix is offering both seasons of the show and immediate access to the third season (which premieres this Friday) on demand as well as access to a huge amount of other content for a much more affordable price. Considering Showcase’s rather desperate attempt to stay relevant for season three of Orange is the New Black, It’s easy to see why Foxtel is keen to retain exclusivity for as much imported programming as it can.

Another significant factor in the rise of torrenting and streaming services over paid television is the demographic of Australians who will actively seek and consume the content most likely to be found on Foxtel. While traditional television services still holds influence over what could be considered the ‘hoi polloi’ of Australia – Generation X and Baby Boomers holding down 9 to 5 jobs – it is the younger generation who are eschewing the control of scheduled programming. For the digitally-savvy Millennials – who are more than comfortable watching television shows on a laptop or phone – forking out significant coin for a scheduled program of only some of the content they may actually be keen to consume seems absurd. With irregular hours of work and study generally dictating when (and if) the younger generation are able to enjoy leisure time, and with some perhaps having only recently moved out of their family home, owning a television is becoming less essential, and pay TV even less so.

SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

Jon Hamm - Filmography Featuring: Jon Hamm When: 27 Aug 2013 Credit: WENN.com **Only Available for publication in the UK and USA**
Image Credit: AMC

This appears to be a fantastic direction for the way Australians consume television – accessing what content we want when we want – however there are far deeper repercussions for the wider Australia culture. With the continued neglect of original fictional programming on domestic television, Australia is gradually falling under the cultural hegemony of both the United States and the United Kingdom. Both nations are clearly the leaders when it comes to producing ‘serious’ television, and in the increasingly global climate why shouldn’t Australians seek out the best? We are, but in the process we are losing a sense of cultural identity that has been forged through years of nationally homogenous television programming.

As domestic providers bluster and splutter and throw their arms up in the air over the audience gaining their imported products through less than legitimate means, there is very little being done to course-correct a culture so utterly dependent on and reverent of international content. It’s a sorry state of affairs – and a blight on our nation – when our most high-profile export is the trashy soap opera Neighbours. We have a strong and proud history of excellence in other areas of the arts – film, print literature, music (both classical and popular), poetry and art – yet our output in the medium of television remains poor.

In this spoiler-heavy internet culture, television programs have become an event. Generally speaking you might have around 24 hours (perhaps even less) to watch the latest Game of Thrones before being spoiled by an inconsiderate friend or pop culture website after absent-mindedly wandering onto Twitter or Facebook. Australia needs to be producing television shows that can exist alongside the premium shows produced in other countries – rather than being treated as an inferior product not even good enough for us – so that the events are happening Down Under.

THE TRIBE HAS SPOKEN

The Tribe Has Spoken (1)
Image Credit: PopSugar

The reason sporting events, the news and current affairs programs are generally so highly watched in Australia is because they are immediate, timely and culturally relevant. But while they’re highly watched, they’re also highly disposable – one use only. There’s no point binge-watching 7:30 at the end of the month unless you’re really into Leigh Sales. They’re exactly the same reasons that there is such a high saturation of reality shows on Australian television.

Due to the nature of the format, reality television breeds discussion, and there is no better example than during the halcyon days of Masterchef Australia, when it felt like the entire country was watching two amateur chefs attempt to construct a croquembouche in under four hours.  It’s not just MasterChef though, with Australia’s Got Talent, The Block and House Rules all regularly pulling in fairly impressive ratings. Although as a nation we might be good at making reality tv, we’re not so good at coming up with ideas (remember the disastrous There’s Something About Miriam?) with most successful shows being either a) adapted from an international format (The Great Australian Bake Off (UK), The Amazing Race (Netherlands), The Biggest Loser (US)) or b) variations on a successful theme – cooking (My Restaurant Rules, MasterChef, My Kitchen Rules), renovation (The Block, The Renovators, House Rules) and singing (Australian Idol, The X Factor, The Voice) amongst others. Most interesting is that while most international formats of these shows generally run one episode a week, Australians are bombarded with the same show every single night.

But reality television can hardly be considered ‘art’ or ‘literature’ and most of the broad appeal of the shows lie in the week to week suspense. There is barely any prolonged cultural value in – say -Karise Eden’s episode 10 performance of ‘Nothing’s Real But Love,’ and the abundant presence on the genre on Australian television surely has some correlation with the continued perception of television as ‘low’ entertainment.

WHAT’S THAT, SKIP?

What's that skip
Image Credit: ABC

When it comes to drama, Australia seems obsessed with mythologising the past. In the last few years alone we’ve seen series such as Paper Giants, INXS: Never Tear Us Apart, Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War, Love Child, Catching Milat, Gallipoli and near endless permutations of the Underbelly franchise premiere to a fairly mild reception. While all of these are deftly made, blandly enjoyable and appropriately nostalgic for the old fogies who were actually alive when the events depicted took place, they are hardly the stuff that will excite fervour in the younger generations who are already disillusioned with what’s on offer. Looking elsewhere the signs aren’t much better, with Network Ten’s candy-coloured, hyper sexual Wonderland, ABC’s kitschy (and parody prone) Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and the Nine Network’s all too genteel House Husbands really the only ongoing fictional series of any note. Yet none of these shows possess the cinematic sophistication, narrative power or emotional heft to elevate them to must-watch status.

In recent times, only Offspring really stands out as a quality, premium show that also captured the attention of the mainstream audience, with the other popular program of the time – Packed to the Rafters – a saccharine, twee mess. That’s not to say that great shows aren’t being produced – Redfern Now was a particular highlight, and Wentworth has been praised by critics – they just don’t have the publicity or the audience to achieve greater success.

LOOK AT MOI

Look at moi
Image Credit: ABC News

Living up to our larrikin, laid back persona, Australia has traditionally been much more adept at producing successful comedy programs, with We Can Be Heroes, Review with Myles Barlow and Kath and Kim all proving to be largely successful. We’ve always had a robust selection of excellent political satire (Chasers, Shaun Micallef) and comedy documentaries (John Safran, Judith Lucy) to choose from – shows that equal or trump their international equivalents – but our recent crop of fictional comedies has been found wanting.

The most notable debut has been Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me, a show that – oddly enough – has been far more successful in the US than in its native Australia, most likely because it’s very American in its sensibilities (thinks HBO’s Girls, but set in Melbourne and much more fun), and because it’s domestic broadcaster actually did a half decent job of promoting it. Other series include ABC’s Utopia – which tries far too hard despite the apparent star power behind it – ABC’s attempt at family-friendly comedy with Upper Middle Bogan, ABC’s Black Comedy which hasn’t quite lived up to its potential and the recent deluge of Paul Fenech offerings – Pizza, Housos and Bogan Hunters.

THIS IS SERIOUS, MUM.

It’s time that we started taking Australian television seriously. By increasing the artistic merit of original, locally produced programs, television would be able to attain a sense of cultural and literary significance for younger generations who exist in the demographic gap between Paralax and Australian Story. Enticing young viewers back to watching Australian television with quality, worthwhile programming would also prove a boon for the entertainment industry, with local talent able to stay in Australia and work on worthwhile shows without being poached by foreigners who can offer greener pastures and more fulfilling results.

As the first artistic medium that was designed to be enjoyed in the home, television should be communal and comforting, not isolating and impersonal. It’s a scary, Chuck Lorre filled world out there, which sends even the hardiest of us running back to the safety of our Netflix home screen, but glimmers of hope for a brighter future exist. It’s just a matter of finding the belief (and the money) to make that future a reality.

In the meantime, let’s all talk about Game of Thrones.