Magazine article Metro Magazine

The Quota Quandary for Australian Television

Magazine article Metro Magazine

The Quota Quandary for Australian Television

Article excerpt

How much Australian content should television broadcasters be forced to produce and air? The issue of government-mandated quotas is generating heated debate in Australia right now, with two related inquiries currently underway. The House of Representatives' probe into the sustainability of the film and TV industry as well as the Australian and Children's Screen Content Review (conducted by the Department of Communications and the Arts, Screen Australia, and the Australian Communications and Media Authority) are expected to deliver their findings by the end of the year. The policy changes that result could shake the very foundations of our screen-production sector and transform the balance of programming on Australian television.

Local content regulation is one of those Groundhog Day topics that return again and again, with all the participants adopting predictable positions. This time, however, there's a special sense of urgency. The free-to-air (FTA) broadcasters, represented by the industry body Free TV Australia, are arguing more desperately than usual that they need to be unshackled from current quotas--especially those around children's television--in order to survive and stay nimble in a rapidly fragmenting digital landscape. The ABC and SBS assert that they should continue to operate free from quotas because it's in their DNA to support Australian content--and, anyway, they're doing as well as they can on very little money. Meanwhile, producers, artists and Screen Australia put forward their old and convincing case: that they need to be protected by quotas and reliable funding, especially for drama, in order to maintain a viable screen industry and vibrant national culture.

Currently, the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 requires Australian commercial FTA broadcasters to show 55 per cent Australian content from 6am until midnight. There are also minimum sub-quotas in areas such as first-run Australian drama, documentary and children's programs. In broad terms, the commercial broadcasters have no trouble meeting these content rules; however, they do the bare minimum for drama because it's expensive, risky and harder to sell to advertisers than reality television, sport and news. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), of the 87,466 hours of first-release Australian programming on FTA television in 2015/16, just over half a per cent was Australian drama. The latest instalment of the ABS's four-yearly survey of the screen industries, released in June 2017, revealed that hours of Australian drama and documentary have dropped a massive 20 per cent.

Everyone agrees, in principle, that we need and want Australian stories on Australian television; it's the motherhood statement that no politician or business spokesperson would dare contradict. The arguments are around who should have to pay for these Australian stories and how strictly the struggling broadcasters should be forced to comply.

There's also the question of whether subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) providers like Netflix (which is watched by more than 7 million Australians and growing) should be regulated by quotas. The ABS report revealed that the income of subscription broadcasters has, for the first time, eclipsed that of commercial FTA broadcasters in Australia, yet SVOD currently operates free from quotas. Is this fair? Not according to Screen Producers Australia (SPA). …

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