Australian broadcaster, the ABC, is hoping to invest in 15 feature films over the next three years.

'We must be one of the few public broadcasters in the developed western world that does not have a connection with its national feature film industry,' said the director of ABC TV, Kim Dalton.

He is very keen to redress this but will not know if he can until the Federal Government hands down its annual budget in May. Every three years, the ABC must justify the taxpayer funding it receives and in this triennial funding cycle it is bidding for additional monies for Australian content. It does not carry advertising.

Dalton said he was 'reasonably optimistic' because the government had made a policy commitment that the ABC should match the commercial networks on their first release Australian drama obligations. This would require 90 hours of drama to be commissioned per year, instead of the current 20 hours - and a significant expansion of the ABC drama department.

'The ABC has stuck its toe in the water from time to time (with features) but we need to be consistent,' said Dalton. 'We need to tell the production community that we are going to do it and what we are looking for.'

The ABC would expect to have a say in advanced development, to put up licence fees of about $320,000 (A$500,000), and to show the films immediately after they screen theatrically. Films of broad appeal, suitable for showing from 8.30pm on Sunday, would be sought.

Last year the ABC reached an estimated one million viewers when it showed Little Fish, starring Cate Blanchett, at this time. That is two to three times more people than saw the film in cinemas two years earlier. It is understood that the ABC is negotiating to buy last year's critical and commercial hit, The Black Balloon, but Dalton would not confirm this.

Australian movies are often harshly criticised by the local media in response to box office returns but Dalton said how they performed was understandable: 'It is very hard for the average Australian film budgeted at $1.3-2.6m (A$2-4m) to compete with big American films in the multiplex environment, and the specialist marketplace is flooded with the very best product from around the world, including from the US.'

In small markets such as Australia, television was the bedrock of skills development and demanded the discipline of maintaining a relationship with audiences, he said. 'Television has the ability, without impacting on the integrity of feature, to provide a link between them and substantial audiences.'

Dalton was speaking exclusively to following a presentation at the Australian International Documentary Conference.