The Quota Quandary for Australian Television

Wolf Creek

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).

In its submission to the House of Representatives, SPA has advocated to ‘[e]volve and expand the regulatory environment to include new market entrants’ such as Netflix and telecommunications companies. SPA has also called on the Australian Government to consider following the 2016 European Union (EU) proposal to place 20 per cent local-content quota obligations on the streaming libraries of services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, who will also be required to contribute financially to European television productions. This is a development that many non-EU countries will be following closely to see if and how it works.

It’s unsurprising that SVOD providers would be resistant to such regulation, arguing that they don’t need whips and chains to encourage them to be involved in quality local content. It may have taken two years since it launched in Australia in 2015, but Netflix has now co-produced a second series of the ABC’s award-winning drama Glitch, along with commissioning Tidelands, a ten-part supernatural crime drama to be made in Queensland in 2018 and broadcast in all 190 Netflix territories. Foxtel has delivered The Kettering Incident, A Place to Call Home, Wentworth and Secret City. Then there’s the Fairfax- and Channel Nine–backed Stan, which has made No Activity, the Wolf Creek spinoff and The Other Guy; commissioned a television remake of Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1992); and announced its first foray into feature film, the psychological thriller The Second (Mairi Cameron), to be released in 2018.

Those calling for quotas to be imposed on SVOD providers are wary that there’s no guarantee those players will continue to invest in the local industry if and when times get tougher. Indeed, it seems unlikely that the commercial FTA broadcasters would make Australian drama – and certainly not children’s drama – if they didn’t have to; where would our industry be if those quotas hadn’t been in place for decades?

The #SaveKidsTV campaign, launched in April by Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, has seen children’s television become the highly politicised focus and test case for much of this talk about quotas. Often cited is the UK example, wherein the removal of quotas for children’s television more than a decade ago saw a 93 per cent drop in production, a dire state of affairs that led the UK government to reintroduce quotas this year. But, as Media Arts Entertainment Alliance (MEAA) national equity director Zoe Angus has written, such a policy retraction would not be possible here, because ‘[t]he 2005 Australia/US Free Trade Agreement prohibits the reintroduction of cultural content quotas once removed’.

Malcolm Turnbull’s government has suggested that it has no plans to introduce new quotas, but the removal of existing quotas is certainly up for discussion. If quotas are abolished, they’re gone forever – and, if that’s the case, we need some very intelligent policy to replace them.