The leading Australian television production companies in the 1990s are the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), The Grundy Organisation, Village Roadshow and Roadshow, Coote and Carroll, Crawfords, The Beyond International Group, Southern Star, Film Australia, The Seven Network, and The Australian Children's Television Foundation. Other production concerns, such as Yoram Gross Film Studios, JNP, and Gannon Television, are more closely associated with one successful series and/or a set of spin-offs.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)

As Australia's main public service broadcaster, the ABC has always played a leading role in local program production, and is arguably the single most significant force in Australia in one-off television drama, in documentary, in nature programming and even, perhaps, in children's programming. The ABC was virtually unrivalled in any category of drama until the mid-1970s. The period from 1968 until 1975 is often referred to as the "golden era" of the ABC, the time of long-running and popular series or acclaimed mini-series like Bellbird, Contrabandits, Certain Women, Rush, Marion, Ben Hall and Power Without Glory. Until the late 1980s, the ABC, like other public broadcasters around the world, was a vertically integrated producer-broadcaster. With the exception of a few co-productions, mainly with the BBC, all its production was initiated, financed and produced in-house. In the 1980s Patrol Boat, 1915, Spring and Fall, Scales of Justice, Palace of Dreams and Sweet and Sour broke new ground in Australian television drama and provided an arena for trying out new writers and attempts at formal or conceptual innovation. Innovative comedy, such as Mother and Son, strong investigative journalism, such as the weekly current affairs program, Four Corners (in production since 1961), and quality drama, continue to attract critical and audience approval.

In 1986, after a period of confusion and demoralization in the wake of a major review--the Dix Report--in the early 1980s, the ABC head of drama, Sandra Levy, initiated a "revival" in network drama content, the aim of which was to increase output to at least 100 hours a year. A decision was made to move more towards the "popular" end of the drama spectrum and away from what was seen as more esoteric, eccentric or specialised. At the same time, it was decided that the way to get quantity, quality and spread was by concentrating on a mixture of long-running series and mini-series and by eschewing one-offs which are too expensive when related to the audience they are likely to attract. And finally, it was also decided that the only way to increase drama hours was by entering into co-production arrangements with local producers who could raise cash from the "10BA" tax relief scheme and other government assistance schemes and from overseas presales, with the ABC contributing facilities and technical staff and as little cash as possible.

This strategy was immediately successful at least in quantity and audience terms. Close to 100 hours was achieved by 1988 and there was an immediate improvement in the ratings for miniseries and series, notably, in the latter category, the prime-time medical soap GP.

In the period 1988-91 a large number of prestigious mini-series were produced and broadcast; all were co-produced with local and overseas partners. Titles from this period include: Act of Betrayal (with TVS), A Dangerous Life (with HBO in the US and Zenith in the UK), Eden's Lost (with Central TV), The Leaving of Liverpool (with the BBC), The Paper Man (with Granada). It is also the period when GP began to be sold to a number of overseas buyers although it has never achieved a large success in foreign markets. And the ABC's most successful situation comedy, both domestically and overseas, Mother and Son, was also sold during this period.

Since 1992 the possibilities for financing programs in the British market have diminished and the ABC has begun to swing back towards the production of programs fully financed in-house. Examples are Phoenix I and II, Seven Deadly Sins, The Damnation of Harvey McHugh, Heartland and Janus. Amongst miniseries in-house titles are Come in Spinner and True Believers; whereas other parties hold the major rights to around 20 titles, including Bodysurfer, Brides of Christ, Children of the Dragon, Frankie's House and The Leaving of Liverpool, most of which were co-produced with UK partners.

The Grundy Organisation

Although it was bought in 1995 by the UK publishing and media conglomerate Pearsons, the history of the Grundy organisation is predominantly Australian and its Australian operations remain the single biggest national contribution to its overall activities. The history of Grundys is of a radio game show producer in the 1950s which transformed into a television game show producer for the local market during the 1960s. The 1970s brought considerable expansion as a local drama producer along with the consolidation of its reputation as a leader in light entertainment.

Without maintaining any particular link to any one network, Grundys has built up a substantial catalogue of game shows like Celebrity Squares, Wheel of Fortune, Family Feud, Price is Right, Blankety Blanks and Sale of the Century (now in its fifteenth year of production) as well as highly successful drama programs like Young Doctors, Number 96, The Restless Years, Prisoner, Sons and Daughters and its flagship soap, which celebrated ten years of production in 1994, Neighbours.

Grundys experienced a breakthrough success with Neighbours both in Australia and in Britain from the mid-1980s. While that platform was the base on which a number of Grundys and other Australian serials and series were sold into the British market, it also was the impetus to develop the key globalising strategy which Reg Grundy, founder and chairman, dubbed "parochial internationalism." Grundys sets up wholly-owned local production companies to make programs that feature local people and are made by local Grundy staff who are nationals of the country in which the program is made.

By the mid-1990s, Grundys was producing about 50 hours of television a week worldwide. It sells into over 70 countries worldwide, employs around 1200 people in production and administration functions, and claims to be the second largest television light entertainment producer in the world, and, until its takeover by Pearson, one of the world's largest independent production organisations. While Europe as a whole generates more production throughput for the organisation, Australia remains the largest single country for production operations.

Criticisms levelled at Grundys have included that they have remained committed to innocuous formats (games and quiz) and safe drama renditions. However, programs like Prisoner and the New Zealand soap opera Shortland Street were risky and innovative for their time and places of production, while a program like Man O Man represents an equally risky strategy in light entertainment.

Village Roadshow and Roadshow, Coote and Carroll

The Village Roadshow group of companies has been unique in Australia. First established in the 1950s as a drive-in theater operator, it is now the only completely integrated audiovisual entertainment company, having involvement in studio management, production of both film and television, film distribution and exhibition, television distribution, video distribution and movie theme park management. The conglomerate is also moving into multimedia development and exhibition holdings in south east Asia. Its approach to internationalisation is also unique in that the main thrust of its strategy is to attract offshore productions to its Warner Roadshow Movieworld Studios near the Gold Coast in southeast Queensland.

The studios were kicked off in 1988/9 by housing two off-shore television productions for the Hollywood studio Paramount. These were Dolphin Bay and Mission: Impossible. It is estimated that an hour of series drama can be made here at a cost about 30% lower than a comparable hour made in Hollywood.

Since 1989, the studio has attracted part or whole production of several feature films, a mixture of Australian and overseas productions, including The Delinquents, Blood Oath, Until the End of the World and Fortress. It has also hosted a number of U.S. series, most of which haven't been shown in Australia, including Animal Park, Savage Sea and a new production of Skippy. In 1992-3 it housed the major U.S. series Time Trax, which, unlike Mission: Impossible, used a considerable number of Australian creative personnel, including directors and post-production people. It is, however, conceived, scripted in and entirely controlled from Hollywood.

Until 1995, Village Roadshow had a satellite production company, Roadshow Coote and Carroll (RCC), an outstanding boutique producer of mid-range budget television such as GP and Brides of Christ. RCC has been critically and culturally successful both locally and internationally, but it was not economically significant in the context of the whole conglomerate. This is because the huge investment in the studios depends totally on the success of Village Roadshow Pictures in attracting production to them. RCC is a very small organisation with very little fixed infrastructure and finally broke away from the parent company in 1995 so that its principal Matt Carroll could pursue wholly independent projects.

The strategy, scale and philosophy of RCC were at the opposite end of the spectrum from its parent company. Founded in 1984, it has chalked up an impressive list of television drama--True Believers, Barlow and Chambers: A Long Way From Home, The Paper Man, Brides of Christ and Frankie's House, as well as the long running ABC series GP. Many of its projects have been co-produced with the ABC. It is a marriage made in heaven: the expertise of RCC combined with the reputation of the facilities-rich ABC.

RCC's bigger budget productions which cost about A$1.2 million an hour were typically financed one quarter through Australian presale (usually the ABC), one quarter FFC investment, one third U.K. presale, and about one sixth other investors (including the ABC).

Brides of Christ exemplifies this. It rated 30 in Australia making it, in ratings terms, the most successful drama ever broadcast by the ABC. The repeats did almost as well (it had a third run on the Ten network) and it sold well on video. It also received uniform critical approval. In the UK, it also rated extremely well on Channel 4, gaining an audience of 6 million. Apart from Brenda Fricker (and an Irish orchestra playing the soundtrack music), all other aspects of the program were Australian. While its theme and mode of telling remained unambiguously Australian and the idiom and cultural feel of it were very local, its story of moral upheavals in the Catholic Church in the 1960s, set against the wider changes that were occurring, was recognisable enough in other places for it to gain wide acceptance internationally.

Brides of Christ, however, was an expensive miniseries set up when the European television market was still buoyant. The changed European environment has since meant that RCC now orients itself towards cheaper 13, 26 and 39 part series. While continuing with GP they also developed Law of the Land for the Nine Network.


With a track record of more than 50 years, Crawfords is one of the oldest production companies in Australia, and in its time, the most respected. Before starting in television in 1954, it was Australia's most important producer of radio serials.

In the first 30 years of its existence as a television production company, Crawfords occupied a central place in Australian television. It pioneered popular police shows like Homicide, Division 4, Matlock Police in the 1960s and early 1970s; it made an early entry into soap opera with the long-running serial, The Box (1974); in 1976 it innovated again with the second world war serial, The Sullivans, which ran for 520 episodes and raised long-form drama to new heights of production values and cultural authenticity; and Crawfords was one of the earliest production companies to see the potential of 10BA as a vehicle for high quality mini-series with All The Rivers Run (1982). The company sailed through the early to mid-1980s on the back of productions like the glamorous Carson's Law and Cop Shop, another successful police serial, and further 10BA miniseries. Much of the Crawfords catalogue has great staying power; for example, both The Sullivans and All the Rivers Run continue to perform well around the world.

The company has always had its own extensive production facilities, unlike many a newer production company. In the more postfordist times that came in the late 1980s, the necessity to keep the facilities occupied became something of an albatross for Crawfords and recent further investment in new studios may have been ill-advised given the constant pressure of keeping the existing facilities occupied. This was the height of the company's prosperity of recent times; The Flying Doctors was making excellent overseas sales (it was voted most popular drama in the Netherlands in 1992) and the Crawfords catalogue had been sold to the Kirch Group and to other territories with a view to the company diversifying into co-productions with overseas partners, game shows, sitcoms and telemovies.

The results of this strategy include the popular and ground-breaking multicultural sitcom, Acropolis Now, the game show Cluedo, produced in association with Zenith Productions of the United Kimgdom; a co-produced package of six telemovies, called The Feds, with pre-sales to the Nine Network, TVNZ and a U.K. distribution guarantee; and the children's series, Half way Across the Galaxy and Turn Left, a 1991 co-production with one of the Kirch subsidiaries, Beta-Taurus. The series became one of the most popular children's television programs on British television.

Despite the success of some of these programs, the cancellation of The Flying Doctors by the Nine Network in 1992, when it was still doing well in overseas markets, was a severe blow. It had a temporary stay of execution in 1993 when Crawfords were given a chance to revamp it as RFDS (for Royal Flying Doctor Service). The changes, though thoroughgoing, were not enough to save it, and without the fallback of "volume television" like that produced by Grundys, the viability of Crawfords has been questioned, at least temporarily.

The Beyond International Group

A young company among leading Australian television producers, the Beyond International Group (BIG) began in 1984 when the public service broadcaster, the ABC, axed Towards 2000, a four year old popular science and technology program, because it was becoming too expensive. An independent production company was set up and the new program, Beyond 2000 was sold to the Seven Network in 1984 and then the Ten Network in 1993.

Beyond has progressed into a highly focused boutique production and distribution house whose corporate portfolio also includes merchandising, music publishing, corporate video and separate media production groups in the US and New Zealand. It is a public unlisted company with approximately 200 employees, almost half of whom work on the production of Beyond 2000. Its international profile is by necessity as well as design. They concentrate on combining a training in solid craft skills and serious information programming with entrepreneurial ambition.


From the mid-1980s, what became Beyond International produced in differing formats, participated in international co-productions and became involved in distribution domestically and internationally, but its resounding success is the Beyond 2000 format which, since 1985, has been sold in over 90 countries, has been dubbed in 10 languages and has an international audience reach of 50 million.

BIG has also involved itself in predominantly European co-production partnerships. In 1989, Beyond and the BBC embarked upon the co-produced Climate in Crisis and then the four part series Great Wall of Iron, a documentary about the Chinese military. Beyond has also ventured into the production of drama series, mini-series and children's programming, with somewhat less success. The children's series Bright Sparks typifies the Beyond International strategy--animated robots take journeys around the world exploring science and technology. Chances, an adult drama series featuring nudity and outlandish storylines, was a failure. Its forays into local feature filmmaking virtually began and ceased with The Crossing in 1989. The failure of this film led the company to emphasise the more stable activity of distribution, and the distribution arm which began operation in 1990 became, along with Southern Star Distribution, one of two significant Australia-owned independent international distributors.

Southern Star

Southern Star is a lean, diversified operation with an integrated approach to production and distribution through film, television and video, and merchandising. Like most front-running independents, this enables Southern Star to balance higher against lower risk ventures. After a management buyout of the Taft-Hardie Group (whose major shareholders included the Great American Broadcasting Co. and James Hardie Industries) in 1988 by Neil Balnaves, Southern Star reorganised into six operating units including a distribution arm; a Los Angeles-based animation unit responsible for programs such as Berenstein Bears and Peter Pan and the Pirates made for the Fox Network; a video and audio tape duplication division; a merchandising arm handling BBC, Colombia Tri-Star and Paramount material; and a home video division.

Southern Star Entertainment is a broad corporate umbrella for established independent producers: Errol Sullivan/Southern Star Sullivan, Hal McElroy/Southern Star McElroy and Sandra Levy and John Edwards/Southern Star Xanadu. The production arms run as partnerships with Southern Star meeting all running costs, producer and staff salaries, finance and administration as well as publicity. McElroy and McElroy's Last Frontier (1986) was a model for programs that travelled internationally and promoted growth across the company through video release and a 22-hour series spin-off.

A good deal of Southern Star's major co-productions have been with the ABC and the BBC, including Four Minute Mile (1988), Children of the Dragon (1991) and Police Rescue (1990). The Police Rescue pilot was originally made for the BBC. The program is a co-production between Southern Star Xanadu and the ABC, with pre-sale to the BBC, who makes a substantial contribution to the current $7 million budget. For their initial financial contribution to the series in 1990, the BBC maintained script, director and cast control. The program is driven by its ongoing success in Australia and its success has been built on a recognised format, a variation of the cop show, but with a 1990s balance between action and personal storylining, that showcases the natural and built environment of Sydney, and the star profile of Gary Sweet.

In 1993 the Southern Star Group was responsible for a new successful long-running series, Blue Heelers, set around a country police station in Victoria. The general feel of the program is very much A Country Practice revisited and this seems to be succeeding with audiences all over again and it is in 1994 the highest rating Australian drama across all channels.

Film Australia

Currently a government-owned enterprise which is expected to generate up to two thirds of its own revenue, Film Australia started life in 1911 as a production unit within the Federal Government, before becoming a government-owned film production company in 1945. In the period after 1945 it nurtured the documentary tradition, and a significant number of film-makers who went on the play important roles in the film and television industries, were trained there. In 1976 the Commonwealth Film Unit became a branch of the Australian Film Commission and took on its present name, Film Australia. In 1987, it was made a government-owned business enterprise working under the stricture to become partly self-sufficient from government.

The mission to produce films and programs 'in the national interest' continues and this is represented by the government's continuing to fund Film Australia under the so-called National Interest Program (NIP). This program is the core of Film Australia's business, and the reason for it being a government owned company. Both Mini-Dragons and The Race to Save the Planet used NIP money.

Outside of NIP projects, The Girl From Tomorrow, a fantasy science fiction children's series, is one of Film Australia's most successful exports and many countries which bought it also bought the sequel, Tomorrow's End. The pre-school children's series Johnson and Friends has sold exceptionally well and in addition has become an international marketing phenomenon. Film Australia also does well with the nature programs like Koalas - The Bare Facts, and the series Great National Parks. Other good sales have come from documentaries with an environmental or scientific angle like After the Warming, The Loneliest Mountain, Mini Dragons and Roads to Xanadu.

Teachers Of The World was a 1992 seven-part documentary series which dealt with the life of a teacher in each of the contributing countries, Australia, Canada, the US, Korea and Poland. As a result of the Teachers of the World co-production, some of the partners came together again to produce a special documentary series called Family to celebrate the Year of the Family in 1994.

Film Australia's success lies in part in its specialisation in those program categories with greatest international currency--nature, environmental and science documentaries and children's programming--and it has had the foresight to focus on the burgeoning markets of Asia with product that doesn't confront too many cultural hurdles. In addition it is blessed with good facilities and the safety net of government funding.

The Seven Network

The Seven and Nine Networks were the two original commercial broadcasters in Australia and until the late 1980s enjoyed stable ownership and management, which allowed them to build up a high degree of programming expertise and audience loyalty. One of Seven's greatest strengths has been its commitment to drama, whereas the Nine Network has been stronger in news and current affairs and sport, which are far less internationally tradeable.

With its traditional emphasis on drama, the Seven Network was well positioned to take advantage of 10BA and during the 1980s produced a number of high quality miniseries with local and overseas partners. Series and serials sold by Seven on behalf of itself and the independent producers involved include Rafferty's Rules, Skirts and A Country Practice. Some of the programs from the 1980s which were sold that way (and which still sell today) were Land of Hope and The Fremantle Conspiracy, Jackaroo, Sword of Honour and Melba.

Two of the most successful programs of the early 1990s were Home and Away (still in production after seven years) and Hey Dad (which ran for seven years until 1994). The first is produced in-house by the Seven Network, the second produced by Gary Reilly and Associates and sold jointly by them and the Network through RPTA.

Home and Away was developed in-house as an immediate response to the success of Neighbours on the Ten Network. Ironically the latter had originally begun on Seven in 1985 but after indifferent ratings they let it go. When it achieved such success on Ten, Seven realised the potential for youth-oriented soap. Home and Away has gone on to achieve great popularity in both Australia, where it outrates its rival Neighbours, and in the United Kingdom, where in 1994 it was achieving audiences of 12 million for ITV versus 14 million for Neighbours.

By the mid 1990s, the Seven Network seemed well positioned to continue its strong record in commissioning and producing programs with strong export potential. The free-to-air service is flourishing, and Seven is exploring new markets in Asia and Eastern Europe which, while not lucrative in the short term, have great potential in the future. Seven is also exploring pay television and other broadband services and it is safe to predict that it will remain a force in the Australian entertainment industry at the turn of the millennium.

Children's Television Producers

Australia is a significant player in world children's television. Most major children's programs made in Australia recently have enjoyed international sales success and critical acclaim for Australian programs is a regular occurrence.

The structure of regulation and production in Australia for children has strengths which in some respects are unmatched elsewhere in the world. Within the general liberalisation of broadcasting regulation seen in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, the only mandated regulations that continued from the old ABT were those for Australian content and children, so that in the new regime, the most detailed imposed regulations pertain to children.

The Australian Children's Television Foundation (ACTF) dominates the field of Australian children's television. A body established as a result of both federal and Victorian government support and incorporated in 1982, the ACTF produces, commissions and distributes children's television programming as well as acting as a kind of think-tank and clearing house for children's television advocacy. ACTF has produced more than 115 hours of programming which has been screened in more than 90 countries, and it has received many international awards. Lift Off, Round the Twist and Round the Twist 2 were all high-profile ACTF series which were very popular in the UK and Sky Traders has sold into a diverse range of territories.

Western Australia-based Barron Films concentrates on quality children/family television series as well as social realist films and adult television drama, having made Falcon Island, Clowning Around, and Ship to Shore. Yoram Gross Film Studios, an established specialist producer of animated children's films, has crossed successfully to television with the production and distribution of a 26-part television series based on its Blinky Bill films. Jonathan Shiff/Westbridge has specialised in children's television since 1988, its biggest production being the $3 million series Ocean Girl which sold to Disney in the United States and to the BBC for a record sum for a children's series in the United Kingdom. Roger Mirams/Pacific Productions, a Sydney-based producer of children's programming since the 1950s, shot the $8 million Mission Top Secret in seven countries. Pacific Productions made South Pacific Adventures in 1990 and Media World Features, another company involved in animated features, made a mini-series based on their animated film The Silver Brumby.

Beyond International produces Deepwater Haven, a children's drama series with a curious mix of French and New Zealand actors, in Auckland. Millennium Productions made Miraculous Mellops, a fantasy science fiction family series, and Warner Roadshow has produced The Adventures of Skippy and Animal Park.

Other Production Companies

JNP Productions established its reputation almost solely on its long-running and well-regarded series, A Country Practice. The program ran as one of the major Seven Network dramas from 1981 to 1993, before being bought by the Ten Network in 1994. Despite a reworked format and setting, the new series on Ten failed; JNP has yet to produce anything as remotely successful.

Like JNP, Gannon Television/View Films has built its name on one major television product, Heartbreak High, a youth-oriented series noted for its high production values and its treatment of youth issues. The series suffered from scheduling changes imposed by the Ten Network, but has picked up important sales in the lucrative markets of the United Kingdom, France and Germany to the extent that the series is now produced on the basis of these sales, without any current Australian network deal. In addition to several feature films, View Films has also produced two television mini-series, Shout! The Story of Johnny O'Keefe (1985) for the Seven Network and Shadow of the Cobra (1988) for Zenith in the UK, the BBC and the Seven Network.

-Stuart Cunningham

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See also Crawford, Hector; Grundy, Reg; Gyngell, Bruce; Murdoch, Rupert.