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Golden Age of Sydney Writers Festival?

Samantha Jonscher went to the Sydney Writer’s festival

The Golden Age of Television,  question mark, is not a new conversation. It isn’t even a new conversation for this city, actuallythis week Matthew Weiner is speaking, probably about this, for Vivid ideas. Last year Festival of Dangerous Ideas brought New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum and Salmon Rushdie (who is currently writing a Sci Fi series) together to ask if TV is replacing the novel (it isn’t).

This panel, was not that panel. It was hosted by Ben Law and featured Shaun Micallef (Australian Comedian), Debra Oswald (writer of Channel Ten’s Offspring, which was apparently “good”) and Daniel Mendelsohn (sometimes TV critic for the New Yorker and the New York Book Review).

It was a shame that SWF didn’t accept the fact that it did not have say, Matthew Weiner and Emily Nussbaum there.

This panel was never going to get to the bottom of this elusive, and also fairly asinine question, but it could have trod new groundlike the relative poverty of the Australian Television landscape when compared with the rest of the world (Denmark and Sweden included, who are both churning out excellent shows).

The hour was long and meandering because of this. When Micallef and Oswald wandered into the territory of saying something interesting and insightful about Australian TV and its future (particularly in the shadow of Netflix and Stan), Law would wrench the conversation away and ask a question  more inclusive of the “international guest” (who was clearly meant to be a sort of star, even though I would imagine that Micallef was the main draw for many attendees present). These questions were often drab but Mendelsohnwho is funny, insightful and knowledgeablewould offer a reasonable response that Micallef and Oswald would then comment on.

You could tell that Micallef and Oswald had interesting things to say about TV in Australiaeven if they weren’t allowed to  really say much about them.

Oswald said that if the government made a series of a strategic decisions, Netflix could be enticed to fund the sort of one million dollar an episode shows that could give artistic vibrancy to what she and Micallef (and any watcher of Australian TV drama) know is a market bolstered up by soap operas and things that look a lot like soap operas (like Offspring). But Law was more important that we consider “what the turning point was for television’s high brow respectability” (know one is quite sure).

We weren’t able to get very far into how Australia might address the fact that all of its talent goes overseas. Or how it may overcome its small local audience (the answer is probably better quality). Or what Australia could learn from Top of Lake (an excellent New Zealand made drama that garnered international attention and the support of BBC 2).

I don’t think “quality” TV is going anywhere soon,1 but Australian culture doesn’t seem to be going anywhere either. It’s hard not to see this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival as symptomatic of this. It didn’t want anything to do with being Australian.

The Golden Age of TV may be here, but the Golden Age of Australian TV seems very far away.

I feel like people are always saying that  they wished Sydney “was cooler”. Well Sydney is cool, we just don’t seem seen to know what that means.

For all of their efforts, their newspaper lift outs, bus ads and “cool” partnerships, I was the youngest person in the room for almost every talk I went to, or at least close to. There was usually a small contingent of eager youths, mostly aspiring writers like myself that had managed to get press tickets. You could say that part of this was due to ticket prices, but this was the case at free events as well.

Why don’t younger people come?

A couple days after the festival closed I was sitting in an English tut and my tutor asked all of us young people that very question- “the uni spent a lot of money on advertising the festival, why did you not turn up?”. Said young people looked at each other and then at our tutor without much explanation. Mostly people didn’t know about it. One girl suggested that they offer free food so that students would attend.


1. That said, Oswald made the point that “good”  TV was born in an under funded quagmire where the writers and not big names were the draw cards of series. With the return of Hollywood stars to TV, this may change.