Precarity, public value and power economies: the effects of industrial change on small screen content creators - a view from behind the lens.

Author: Richard Jasek

Jasek, Richard, 2023 Precarity, public value and power economies: the effects of industrial change on small screen content creators - a view from behind the lens., Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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The screen industry in Australia is undergoing upheaval; arguably its largest since the inception of broadcasting in the early twentieth century. Technology, audience behaviour and industry business models are being transformed by national and transnational factors, while government regulation struggles to keep pace. The consequences for creative practitioners are considerable, and include increased precarity and reduced creative agency. This exegesis is designed to illuminate the practical outcomes of industrial change at ground level with particular focus on the small screen, through an examination of a case study: the television arts documentary, Getting Their Acts Together (Jasek 2020), made by this author for Australia’s national public service broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

This ‘insider account’ commences with a macro-level analysis placing contemporary industry conditions into historical context. Included is discussion of the rise and decline of ‘nationing’, a term coined by Rowe, Turner & Waterton (2018) to describe the development of national culture through the use of cultural policy; and challenges to the role of public broadcasting whose remit is to foster culturally representative work with public benefit. It shows that forces acting on practitioners now are direct outcomes of conditions set at the beginnings of Australian broadcasting, accounting for their depth and pervasiveness, and include an intertwining of cultural and economic goals which operate to the detriment of the former.

The exegesis proceeds to a meso-level illumination of the effects of industrial change at the level of organisations and labour. As the program mix and business models of free-to-air television have been disrupted by the arrival of digital technologies and streaming services, analysis shows increased levels of precarity for production companies and individual practitioners, despite frequent industry rhetoric to the contrary. Documentary for public service broadcasters (PSBs), especially the ABC, has assumed increased importance for filmmakers seeking to create culturally representative work, a point highlighted by examination of funding models that favour documentary with social benefit. Comparison is made between PSBs in Australia and other Western liberal democracies (especially the UK’s BBC), who rely increasingly on commercial metrics to justify their existence, putting them at odds with their public service remits and the creative artists engaged to service those remits. This leads to discussion of a theory of creative opposition at times of industrial change drawing on the work of Dwyer (2019b) and Bourdieu (1996); a power dynamic at the heart of this exegesis.

The outworkings are demonstrated at micro-level through detailed examination of conditions encountered during production of the case study. They will show that conflict between economic metrics and social benefit has come to lie at the heart of the ABC’s present operations; and that this conflict is having corrosive effects on practitioners’ creative autonomy.

The exegesis concludes with reflections regarding tensions between economics and creative agency, the ‘valuation of value’, and the links between aesthetic vitality, diversity of cultural forms, and the health of the public sphere.

Keywords: documentary, public value, arts documentary, practice-led research, ABC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, television, Australian television, production studies, precarity, industrial change, public service broadcasting, free-to-air television, Australian content, local content, practitioner agency, creative agency, practioner account, screen industry, television industry, industry studies

Subject: Screen Studies thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2023
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Associate Professor Julia Erhart