29 September, 2020
In 2019, the Morrison Government embarked on an extensive review of the Australian screen sector under the promise of long-overdue industry reform. Communications, Cyber Safety and Arts Minister Paul Fletcher today announced new local content quota rules for commercial free-to-air broadcasters and shocked the screen sector with a failure to regulate streaming giants such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube and Stan. This proposal does not provide an adequate framework for continued sector growth, let alone one that is future-proof and platform neutral.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Australian Government has focussed on ‘job creation’, but by capitulating to the commercial broadcasters and the streaming platforms, it is jeopardising tens of thousands of jobs, threatening small businesses and reducing children’s content on our screens.
While still having to produce 55 per cent local content, broadcasters (Seven West Media, Network Ten and Nine Entertainment Co) have been granted freedom in determining what kind of shows they commission to satisfy their obligations, rather than adhering to a prescribed amount of Australian drama, children’s content and documentaries.
Kids’ content is likely to be the first casualty because of this decision, which will have a lasting and irrevocable impact on our culture. Although the government will boost ACTF’s support package by $20m to compensate for this announcement, it is unclear if they will increase funding to the ABC and SBS, who will be left with the critical responsibility of programming local content for future generations of Australian children. Our stories say something about us. They define who we are. Our children deserve them.
In 2003, the UK removed its children’s content quotas on commercial networks. Within two years, spending on children’s TV had reduced by more than 90%, forcing their government in 2017 to reintroduce the power to set quotas. Australia’s free trade agreement with the US will prevent us from reinstating children’s content obligations once removed.
Pay TV’s Foxtel will no longer be required to invest 10 per cent in local content. Their requirement has been halved to a meagre 5 per cent.
Most alarmingly, on the point of regulation of streamers, Paul Fletcher is quoted in today’s SMH as saying, ‘It’s certainly not a case of ruling out a spend requirement on the streaming video services. We just think more work is required to look at that issue.’
The Australian Writers’ Guild questions why Paul Fletcher has not yet done the work.
AWG, under the banner of Make It Australian, has been campaigning for the regulation of streaming services for years. Refusing to regulate streamers and merely asking them to report how much they spend on Australian content is a weak move from the government, both economically and culturally. Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman reported in The Guardian last week that, ‘It’s time for streaming services, which are enjoying growing and significant revenues from Australians, to stump up and support our own screen sector. They are currently getting a free ride.’
11 million Aussies engaged with Netflix in 2018, with only 1.6% Australian content making up the programming. The EU’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive has extended existing production quotas to SVOD platforms to ensure that 30% of catalogue content is European. France is set to transpose this directive into law on 1 January 2021. With today’s announcement, the Australian Government is crippling its own screen sector by turning a blind eye to international best practice.
AWG acknowledges the government’s $3m investment in screenwriting and script development, but highlights that this is a drop in the ocean compared to what is required. Unless the right mechanisms are put in place by the government, these stories may never be made. They may never find a home.
Under the proposed framework, our screens will inevitably be overwhelmed by foreign content, increasing the risk that Australian stories, that celebrate our unique culture will be a thing of the past. The regulation of streaming services is the most significant and urgent issue that faces our industry. Rather than acting, the government wants to take more time to wait and see. By then it may be too late. The opportunity to secure Australian content is slipping away.