Recently, Minister for Communications, Paul Fletcher announced an overhaul of the quotas for Australia-based television programming.  

Two weeks later, WIN, Prime and Southern Cross-Austereo TV networks pumped life back into 2015’s Save Our Voices campaign for further deregulation of the media.  This time, however, the fourth member of the old campaign, Alice Springs-based Impardja TV, was missing.

The screen media industries are still mulling over how the new policies will affect Australian screen businesses, but one thing is certain.  Changes to Australian commercial free-to-air TV, as radical as the ‘discovery’ of ‘reality’ TV, are underway.

What we see on our TV screens has long been subject to content quotas and these have an interesting history.  It is part of the story of how politicians, more than audiences, have shaped our television. 

How It Started

The post-World War II Labor government wanted to import the BBC model, holus bolus. The Liberal-Country Party coalition, that replaced Labor in government in 1949, favoured the US private enterprise model.  What we got was a remarkably successful blending of the two: a national broadcaster and commercial broadcasters, and both with public service broadcasting obligation.

Consortia of businesses, frequently newspaper, radio and electronics businesses quickly formed, hopeful of scoring a commercial broadcasting licence.  While they didn’t offer every future viewer a set of steak knives, they lined up a cornucopia of promises about what they would be doing with their newly acquired licences.

They promised Australian drama, variety, news, sports, arts, children’s programs, religious programs, educational programs: A veritable smorgasbord the Australian cultural content.

But within a decade, a decade when Australia commercial television licences acquired a reputation as licences to print money, it became increasingly obvious that the licensees were falling way short of those promises.  Indeed, it was left to the ABC to pioneer Australia television drama, starting with the twelve part Bligh mutiny series, Stormy Petrel (1960), broadcast live to air.

Quotas Introduced

To create incentives for commercial TV, the government progressively introduced quotas to ensure some Australian content, outside news, sport, game shows and variety programs, was broadcast.  Progressively, quotas for adult drama, children’s programming and, later, documentary and pre-school programs were introduced.

And surprise, surprise, Australian audiences loved their Australian drama. Hence, though it was more costly for the licensees, it was a win all around: a win for government, commercial TV and audiences, and the writers, directors, technicians and actors, who made the programs.

And many Australian programs found international audiences: Home and Away, Neighbours, Prisoner (rebadged as Wentworth) were exported as their original Australian editions; many more were sold as formats; scripts and characters and situations to be remade for local markets, with a few cultural tweaks. Sons and Daughters,that ran to 972 episodes in the 1980s, was remade in more than half a dozen countries, most recently as Zabranena lubov in Bulgaria. It may still be on air in Sofia.

Quota Changes

But change is on hand.  At present, there is overall quota of 55 per cent Australian programming between 6 am and midnight on commercial stations.  Within that quota there has to be 260 hours of children’s programs, 130 hours of preschool programs, first-release Australian drama with an aggregate points score of 250, and 24 hours of children’s drama.

The overall quota of 55 per cent Australian programming doesn’t change but how that quota is met will change next year.  It will largely be up to individual networks to determine their mix of Australian content to meet the quota.

Children’s and pre-school programming will likely disappear from commercial TV.  Stations managements say no one watches it now, as the kids are all online.  But they never really tried to sell it as advertising to kids is so regulated, so there was no money to be made.

The commercial networks found an unlikely bedfellow in a pioneer of children’s TV, Patricia Edgar.  She agreed that kids were going online, but opposed releasing the networks from this last vestige of their public service broadcasting obligations.  If they wanted out, they had to fund the creation of quality online content for kids.  The idea seems to have disappeared down the political plughole in Canberra, like much audience-orientated policy.

In the past two decades, Australian production companies specialising in kid’s content have built an international reputation and a prosperous export trade. 

TV production financing requires a complex juggle of elements to succeed. Most Australian children’s productions are co-financed with overseas broadcasters or producers. But for Australian producers to get the local Tax Offset and other funding, the local broadcast fees are vital.  The loss of the content quota removes much of the local finance.  In addition, having too little local finance closes off use of the Australian Government’s Co-Production Treaty, as producers won’t meet the minimum local finance requirements of these treaties.

Lost too, will be employment in the sector and the write-off of investments in programs planned for two to five years ahead.  But these are just the economic consequences of the policy change: what are the cultural consequences of stripping away local kid’s content.  It will be a decade to measure that and, by then, too late for a generation of our young.
Maybe the money saved by the networks will go into quality adult drama because it will attract a premium content score.  Fortunately documentary hours will be capped so reality TV posing as documentary won’t be a cheap way to meet quotas.

However, Screen Australia is to receive an additional $30 million over two years.  Three million will go for screenwriting and script development and there’s $20 million to the Australian Children’s Television Foundation. The tax offset for television programs and cinema production will both be 30 %, down from 40 % for cinema, up for television.

Foxtel’s spend on Australian content of 10 % goes to 5 %, a move Foxtel’s chief executive Patrick Delany somehow claims will “see more home-grown stories on our screens”.

Streaming Services Win

But the big winners are the video-on-demand streaming services. Netflix, Amazon and Disney can still export their Australian profits unimpeded, but they, together with Stan, will have to fess-up how much they spend on Australian content. Quite a burden.

Strangely, this whole overhaul was greeted by all the commercial players as a big win for audiences.  But then, they always say things like that.

Vincent O’Donnell

Media Researcher and analyst.

(Disclosure: the author has shares in the Nine Entertainment Company Ltd, Channel 9 Network.)

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