Forget Art Let’s Watch the Footy

I attended a roundtable session today called ‘Content Crisis and Convergence’ run by QUT’s Centre for Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation. For me it was a blast from the past. Debates I hadn’t heard aired since 2007 seem to be back from the dead. Sadly we don’t seem to have moved on substantially.

Self congratulation seemed to be the order of the day with the ABC and Screen Australia very chuffed with themselves that TV viewing figures haven’t fallen off a cliff as predicted by digital hardliners as early as 2006.

As it turns out, the introduction of a raft of new digital TV channels in Australia have reversed the downward trend, at least for the time being. The only catch is that Seven2, Seven mate, Gem, Go, One and Eleven are not showing Australian content. ABC 3 has the best record of any of the digital multi-channels on digital content – but so it should, this was the ABC’s promise when it attracted government funding to establish the channel.

So there was a lot of talk about TV first up in the day and back slapping because Australians are watching Australian content. I’d contend this has more to do with our national religion – televised sport – than cultural content funded by agencies such as Screen Australia.

The agency has just released a new report – Beyond the Box Office – which gently acknowledges that we might need to look at new media platforms… um, some time soon. In the meantime 96% of Australians have watched free to air or subscription TV and average Australians consume 21 hours of TV per week. Whew! But wait, there’s more – view their video below.

So what are we watching? Underbelly and Packed to the Rafters seem to be the only Australian drama listed in the top 20 programs of 2009 (these are the most recent figures on Screen Australia’s website). Masterchef comes in on top followed by the AFL finals, the Melbourne Cup, the Rugby League Grand Final, the State of Origin then Tennis. I rest my case.

But feature films are doing well aren’t they? Yes, young people like the cinema almost as much as console gaming. Cinema attendances have actually gone up – but if you look at other Screen Australia statistics Australian share of box office actually went down from 2009 to 2010.

So what do we know? Zoom out a bit on the graph and compare TV viewing in 1991 with 2011 and it’s clear that there is a long term trend of decline. Cinema attendances have remained more stable but Australian box office share has generally declined on a very bumpy path.

So where does that leave us? What about the interwebs? Shouldn’t we be trying out a few new things there because the government is putting all this money into this NBN thingo? The one-size-fits-all “quality Australian content “formula isn’t going to work here – and I’d contend it’s not really working so well on the telly or the cinema screen. TV drama is important but it’s not the only valuable Australian cultural content. If we’re going to populate the frontiers we need to go there and that means embracing bloggers and gamers, social networks and multiplayer worlds. Otherwise when the big pipes get turned on they’re going to be brought to you exclusively by Google, the BBC, EA and Sony. Lots of content plays online and we have to depart from the old formulas if we’re going to make a splash in the new pool. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to reserve part of that pool for a new generation of Australians to start to create the future.

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