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Television industry
​Content regulation

Regulation of Australian free-to-air television

Television broadcasters have the primary responsibility for ensuring that the material they broadcast reflects community standards. Most program requirements are governed by a code of practice, determined through industry and community consultation, which for free-to-air broadcasters is published on the FreeTV website.

However, some aspects of programming on free-to-air and subscription television are regulated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). This federal government statutory authority was established on 1 July 2005 by the merger of the Australian Broadcasting Authority and the Australian Communications Authority.

The areas covered by ACMA’s free-to-air television regulation address minimum levels of Australian content, children’s programming, local content, Australian content in advertising and the anti-siphoning of sport, which are summarised below, as well as additional schemes covering sponsorship of community television, political material and anti-terrorism. For more information, see the ACMA website.

Australian content

Australian content requirements date back to 1961. The current standard – Broadcasting Services (Australian Content) Standard 2005 commenced on 30 December 2005, as part of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992.

The object of the standard is to promote the role of commercial television services in developing and reflecting a sense of Australian identity, character and cultural diversity by supporting the community’s continued access to television programs produced under Australian creative control.

The standard requires all commercial free-to-air television licensees to broadcast an annual minimum transmission quota of 55 per cent Australian programming between 6 am and midnight. In addition, there are specific minimum annual sub-quotas for first-run Australian adult drama, documentary and children’s programs.

Australian programs are defined by creative control and the origin of key creative personnel. For the purposes of compliance, the standard recognises Australian official co-productions and New Zealand programs equally with Australian programs. New Zealand programs are recognised so as to be consistent with the Protocol on Trade in Services to the Australia New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement of 1988.

Adult drama sub-quota

An Australian drama program is defined as one that incorporates scripted elements of character, theme and plot as part of a narrative structure. This may include actors delivering improvised dialogue based on a written outline. Sketch comedy and dramatised documentary are included.

Each broadcaster must achieve a score of at least 250 points for first-release Australian adult drama per year and a three-year score of 860 points. The score is calculated by multiplying a ‘format factor’ by the duration of the program. The format factor is a scale based on a combination of program type (serial or series, feature film, telemovie, mini-series or stand-alone drama of less than 90 minutes) and/or the level of licence fee paid.

The current three-year score was increased from 830 points in 2005. The annual score was increased from 225 points in 2003. This reflects adjustments to the format factors, with the aim of encouraging production and broadcast of more expensive drama programs.

Children’s drama sub-quota

The Children’s Television Standards 2005, which came into effect on 30 December 2005, classify children’s programs as either C programs (for children other than preschoolers) or P programs (for preschool children). Drama falls within the C band.

Broadcasters are required to screen at least 96 hours of first-release Australian C drama over a three-year period and at least 25 hours per year. They must also screen at least eight hours of repeat Australian C drama per year.

Broadcasters are able to defer the quota hours through an accrual scheme and if an independent producer fails to provide an agreed program.

Documentary sub-quota

A documentary is defined as a program that is a creative treatment of actuality other than a news, current affairs, sports coverage, magazine, infotainment or light entertainment program.

In each year, a broadcaster must screen, between 6 am and midnight, at least 20 hours of first-release Australian documentary programs, each of at least 30 minutes’ duration.

Children’s programming

As well as Australian content quotas, additional regulations apply to children’s programming.

A broadcaster must screen a combined total of at least 260 hours of C programs (for children other than preschoolers) and at least 130 hours of P programs (for preschool children) per year from any source, with a combined total of at least 390 hours.

Children’s programs must be broadcast within specific children’s time periods and must meet other content and advertising requirements to meet the quotas.

For purposes of compliance, these programs must be made specifically for children or groups of children, be entertaining and well produced with high production standards, and enhance a child’s understanding and experiences as is appropriate.

Local content

From 1 January 2008, as part of the changes introduced by the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Act 2006, ACMA must ensure that specified regional commercial television broadcasting licensees in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania broadcast at least minimum amounts of material of local significance. This is a statutory requirement whereas the previous conditions, introduced in 2003, were imposed at the discretion of ACMA.

Content that may be considered of local significance may range from material that deals with people, organisations, events or issues of a particular area to a sporting event that involves a team from the area or a team whose principle support base includes that area.

Australian content in advertising

The objective of the Television Program Standard 23 – Australian Content in Advertising is to ensure that the majority of advertisements on television are Australian made, by means of a flexible regulatory system that recognises the market reality of advertising.

According to the standard, an advertisement is matter that draws the attention of the public, or a segment of the public, to a product, service, person, organisation or line of conduct in a manner calculated to promote or oppose, directly or indirectly, that product, service, person, organisation or line of conduct.

A broadcaster must ensure that Australian-produced advertisements occupy at least 80 per cent of the total advertising time screened in a year between the hours of 6 am and midnight, other than the time occupied by exempt advertisements. Exempt advertisements include those for imported cinema films, videos, recordings and live appearances by overseas entertainers and community service announcements.

Anti-siphoning of sport

The anti-siphoning list is a list of sporting events that the government has determined should be available on free-to-air television for viewing by the general public. It is called the anti-siphoning list because it aims to prevent these events being ‘siphoned off’ by subscription television to the detriment of free-to-air viewers.

The anti-siphoning scheme does not reserve listed events solely for free-to-air broadcasters. Subscription television licensees can acquire the rights to broadcast events on the anti-siphoning list if rights are not acquired by free-to-air broadcasters or if those rights are held by commercial television licensees who have the right to televise the event to more than 50 per cent of the Australian population or if the rights are held by either of the public broadcasters (the ABC or SBS).

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