Tuesday, July 22, 2008

News and sport dominate Australian television production

New figures produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show news, light entertainment and sport dominate local television production. During financial year 2006-2007, $1.4 billion was spent on productions primarily for television. 30 percent of this was spent on news and current affairs, 22 percent on light entertainment and a further 20 percent on sport. Spending on drama, documentaries, comedy and children’s programs was well behind the big three.

However in terms of first release broadcast hours, sport led the way with 22,200 hours about two thousand hours more than news and current affairs. This breakdown not only illustrated the continuing (and mostly sedentary) Australian obsession with sport but also proves that news is a lot more expensive to produce than sport. The discrepancy may also explain the downsizing of television newsrooms as news production shifts to repackaging on other platforms and other networks and the use of video journalists who act as solo operators in the field.

The ABS study also showed that Australian commercial TV broadcasters generated $6.8 billion in income in 2006-07. This figure was split 65:35 between free-to-air and pay TV operators though they earned their income in different ways. The free-to-air operators earned 80 percent of their income by the sale of airtime to advertisers. However pay TV operators earned 86 percent of their income through subscription fees.

Between them, the two commercial TV sectors employ over 10,000 people in a 70:30 ratio between free-to-air and pay TV. A massive 42 percent of these employees live in NSW confirming Sydney’s role as the centre of television in Australia and the headquarters of all the major TV networks. Less than half that number lived in Victoria, while there was a slightly smaller number in Queensland with the remainder in WA, SA and Canberra (numbers were negligible in Tasmania and NT). This is reflected in the newsrooms of regional areas where there is often just the one journalist who must work on multiple stories as well as an increasing reliance on content sourced from capital cities.

Whether these numbers are sustainable in the longer term depends on the impact of the Internet. Free-to-air viewing figures have been in decline since the turn of the century as alternative forms of entertainment have become established. As well as pay TV, internet use has increased from an average 8.9 hours a week in 2005 to 13.7 in 2008 finally overtaking TV which has stagnated at 13.3 hours a week over the same three year period.

As audiences become increasing fragmented, the TV industry will need to innovate to survive. The ABC is in the early days of an experiment with Internet TV with its new product ABC playback. ABC launched the product in March claiming it would offer an “authentic, full-screen television experience” via the Internet. However the early adopter Stilgherrian is underwhelmed by its program selection, its hard link with broadcast schedules and the inability to save programs for later viewing. He is also critical of the fact that he has to go to a “special place” to view it rather than consume wherever he wants. “It seems more like the last gasp of old-style broadcast TV than a prelude to something new and wonderful,” he said.

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