A story in the US entertainment bible, Variety, quoting powerful Foxtel executive Brian Walsh, has raised some hackles in the independent TV production industry. The story points out that Foxtel doesn’t have any Australian drama programs in production at the moment. That’s in spite of all the noise coming from the pay-TV business about how it’s committed to local production, but like the commercial FTA networks, that commitment is on its own, highly skewed, terms.

Walsh, who is in charge of programming, publicity and development at Foxtel, blamed the local production industry for a shortage of ideas. “There hasn’t been a rush of drama ideas or producers knocking down our door; that’s never been the case,” he says. “We have had to go out and solicit the sort of drama that we want to make.”

Those comments are sure to upset the local independent industry, although Foxtel’s biggest supporter, director John Edwards at Southern Star (one of the producers of local Foxtel dramas Love My Way and Dangerous) has supported Walsh’s contention. “Most of the drama on free-to-air is backward-looking and conservative and fearful, whereas the drama we are being encouraged to make on subscription TV takes a little bit of guts,” he says. “In the case of Love My Way, our concern was to make something that was not only as good as it could be, but also to separate it from what was currently around on free TV, so we set out to be as bold as possible.”

But the independents say the real story at Foxtel is the ban by Walsh on sourcing material, especially comedy, from anywhere but Melbourne. The reason is commercial and has nothing to do with quality. Foxtel decided to move the production of its Comedy Channel from Sydney to Melbourne to save money and use the facilities vacated when the AFL Footy Channel folded last August. Independent producers who have pitched ideas to Walsh this year have been told that unless they come from Melbourne, don’t bother.

Foxtel is doing it tough financially at the moment as it tries to find the $45 million for its share of the AFL pay-TV deal (Austar is throwing in another $5 million and has curtailed all new production spending until at least the end of the financial year. It takes time to get higher revenues from its subscribers.

Another continuing problem for independent producers is the low budgets Foxtel provides for drama and documentary/factual material. Foxtel gives the impression that it is spending a lot of money and doing lots of productions but in the last year it has only had two local dramas, Love My Way and Dangerous, while another, Satisfaction, will follow later this year. Independent producers say that if Foxtel offered more commercial deals they would get more commercial proposals being put to them.