I felt a terrible sense of dread last week, when the Australian government suspended local content quotas as part of its $54m rescue package for television, radio and regional publishers.
The communications minister, Paul Fletcher, announced on Wednesday that Australian content quotas for drama, children’s and documentary on free-to-air and subscription TV would be suspended for the rest of the year.
While this is hopefully temporary, the dread remains. Despite their wonderful efficiency in levelling the playing field and ensuring we maintain an on-screen cultural identity at an absolute minimal cost to the public purse, content quotas have never been popular in neoliberal thinking, and it is so hard to put the genie back into the bottle.
Local content quotas suspended in $54m package for Australia's coronavirus-hit media Read more
Quotas were first designed as a traditional protection mechanism – so that we could hear Australian voices on Australian television. The originating logic was that the three commercial free-to-air networks would have the exclusive use of the broadcast spectrum, and in return for this licence to print money, they would meet the cultural obligation by making a certain amount of Australian content.
This regulation has shifted in form over time, allowing for changes in audience viewing patterns, changes in economic conditions, and even changes in the government’s industry-building incentives. When pay television came along, in order to maintain the level playing field, pay TV suppliers were obliged to spend a proportion of their programming budgets on Australian production.
Quotas are not the only way the government has supported the screen industry. State and federal governments have set up tax offset schemes for local productions, but also injected funds directly into the sector. But quotas have historically been much more efficient and cheaper in maintaining a cultural identity.
Let me illustrate with a slightly oblique example. A few years ago, a small amount of government investment lured a golden run of productions to Victoria. In just eight years, more than $200m worth of screen content was produced – including Rush, Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War, Tangle, Beaconsfield, Offspring, Gallipoli and Party Tricks – employing an average of well over 1,000 people per annum and, thanks to the amount of money recouped through payroll tax, at a combined average net cost of less than $100,000 per annum to the Victorian government.
Success in our business is extremely hard to predict ... but when success happens, there is a multiplier effect
Quotas meant that Australian productions had to be made, and therefore made somewhere. A very small amount of public money was able to stimulate a huge amount of economic activity. It’s a lot less in terms of investment than the millions of dollars currently spent attracting big Hollywood movies to our shores, even if the photo ops are better.
In recent years though, both the free-to-air networks and Foxtel have been knocked sideways by the influx of streaming services – Netflix, Amazon Prime, Stan, Disney+, Apple+ and so on. All of these but Stan are foreign owned, taking a lot of money out of the country without any responsibility to give anything back.
Since the streaming services arrived, it’s been more difficult to level the playing field. The government has been slow to act in creating similar local content obligations for streaming services such as Netflix and Stan to those that apply to the other networks. To add to that, the free-to-air and subscription networks have been agitating for their own obligations to be lessened.
This is understandable but short sighted.
Success in our business is extremely hard to predict. Failure is much more frequent. Risk is necessarily high and expensive. But what is rarely recognised is that when success happens, there is a multiplier effect.
Another illustration. I’ve had six successful TV series – shows running to at least three seasons. All but one of these shows was not “wanted” by its network – they were only ordered because the network had to make its quota and they were considered the least bad option.
But each of these successes had a multiplier effect on the industry. Police Rescue was the only series being made in Australia on film, which meant it could sell more widely internationally. Within a year or so, there were half a dozen series being shot on film. The Secret Life of Us was made when it was believed dramas had to be “broad” – it was aimed at viewers aged 16–39 – and it was a hit that helped transform the network’s orientation and profitability.
Offspring took the two-hour rom-com format and extended it to run for seven seasons. Numerous shows in similar genres have followed. Love My Way and Tangle were unwanted by the network that developed them, were then embraced by Foxtel, and a slew of much more ambitious Australian drama has followed on that service.
Real long-term thinking on TV would mean Netflix and Stan are treated the same as free-to-air Read more
Now, in this setting of economically besieged networks, this damned virus has smashed us from the opposite direction. Everyone in the industry understands the difficulties the networks are facing, but I can’t help thinking that a more measured reduction in quota, together with the foreshadowing that the foreign streamers were soon going to be subject to quota, might have been a smarter plan.
Trying to maintain a positive outlook and a sustainable structure when voices are screaming gloom and doom is not so easy. At the moment, there is no change to the overall requirement for broadcasters to meet a minimum of 55% local content. But more government stimulus will be necessary to keep the industry and our cultural identity alive in the coming years when this crisis is over. I just hope that the more efficient and cheaper route of content quotas won’t be forgotten.
• John Edwards is an Australian television producer