SeaChange: articles

SeaChange: an Australian thing

It may be one of the most successful Australian dramas ever, but SeaChange has failed to win favor with audiences overseas.

The program, which gave the ABC its largest ratings figure of 2.4 million viewers for the final episode, has not sold well overseas, possibly because it's “too Australian”. It has lost about $5 million over three series.

Some Eastern European and Scandinavian countries have bought the show, but it is yet to be sold to important markets such as Germany, France, Italy and Britain.

This failure to sell overseas has left the show's backers out of pocket.

Television dramas are often funded by overseas sales when licence fees paid by television networks do not cover production costs.

The ABC funded around two-thirds of the cost of each series, with producers Artist Services and subsequently international distributors Mayfair and Granada covering the rest.

The show's producer Red Heart Productions (formerly Artist Services) will not confirm the amount of money lost by investors, but admitted a deficit was yet to be recovered.

However, the president of the Screen Producers Association of Australia, Nick Murray, told the National Performance Conference last week that SeaChange had lost its investors around $5 million over three series. The ABC's head of drama Tony Virgo agrees the figure is a fair estimate.

“It's not that we are doing badly overseas,” Mr Murray says. “We are not funding Australian drama in the right way. We have to get the international sales in order not to make a loss.”

SeaChange executive producer Andrea Denholm is optimistic the show will recover its debts now that the third series is completed and 39 episodes are in the can. Overseas networks are more likely to buy programs in larger volume.

The show's creators, Andrew Knight and Deb Cox, are “taking a rest”, she says. “We will look at coming back to it for a fourth series, but they do not want to compromise it by doing it when it would not be as good.

“For a program that has had astonishing success in Australia, it's surprising it hasn't been a hit overseas. What sells is a bit of a mystery. A lot of people I know who are familiar with the UK television market can't understand why it wouldn't work over there.”

Speculation is that SeaChange is peculiarly Australian in its characters, humor and idiosyncrasies. But a more significant factor is the changing European television market. Over the past few years, European networks have concentrated on making local dramas rather than buying from overseas.

Producer Ben Gannon has witnessed this change. Gannon Television's Heartbreak High was one of Australia's most successful television shows overseas, selling to about 80 countries. But its police drama Wildside has been difficult to sell.

“A lot of it's to do with the timing,” Gannon says. “Heartbreak High came at a time six years ago when the international market was very buoyant and the opportunity for selling was very good. But when Wildside first went to the market, the international market had become much tougher.”

The ABC's Tony Virgo admits the prospect of overseas sales could affect the ABC's decision to commission programs.

SeaChange cost about $450,000 per episode because it was shot on film and largely on location. Programs such as Blue Heelers and All Saints are cheaper (around $300,000 each episode) because they are shot on video and primarily in a studio.

By Peter Gotting
January 27, 2001
The Age