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Local content: policy, pressure points, options, impacts

The Federal Government is examining how to ensure audiences get to see local content and has called for submissions. Be afraid; be very afraid.

Fast-forward a decade. Now imagine that very little Australian film and television is made and seen because the Federal Government has decided it’s not important. It’s a scenario that could happen. But right now everyone and anyone can help make sure it doesn’t because the Federal Government is holding a review and has called for submissions. Reviews happen from time to time but, arguably, never before has the viewing landscape changed so fundamentally in such a short time. Understanding the tangled web of government intervention is challenging; knowing how to move the levers to ensure better outcomes is even more so.

Here can be found about 150 submissions from individuals, organisations and companies commenting on the state of Australia’s film and television production industry and on how to change the policy that, in part, determines the output of that industry.

The hundreds and hundreds of pages contain some fascinating reading, very different points of view, plenty of anxiety and some shocking statistics.

There are short, sweet heart-warming pleas to protect the Australian content that helps shape and preserve the identity of the nation, long meaty arguments crammed full of statistics and exposition, and lots in between.

Someone who thinks the current policy framework is so inadequate that it should be thrown out would be underwhelmed by how few new ideas and options can be found within the submissions.

Someone who thinks the framework can be adapted to modern times would be overwhelmed by the level of self-interest: it’s as if the submission writers expect the review committee to spend its time mediating between stakeholders rather than focussing on what would best serve the public interest.

Those within the interdependent Australian ecosystem have rarely stepped back and grappled with what might be good for all – including audiences – despite the biggest threat usually coming from outside the country. What’s happening in the landscape now is not that the amount of local content available has fallen like a stone; it’s that a feast of content from across the world means the proportion of local content has shrunk dramatically.

Television used to be the only game in town and it offered a set menu with five options. Now anyone with a reliable Internet connection can eat however much they like of whatever they want from a range of sources whenever they like.

Yet only commercial free-to-air (FTA) television is obliged to serve up Australian fare – and it’s uncertain whether it’s even possible to force content regulations on multinationals.

An Inquiry and a Review are underway

The local content rules are one strand of a web of government interventions. There are also tax rebates on expenditure on production, direct investment via Screen Australia, funding for public broadcasting and more. Each strand has a different purpose and works hand-in-hand with others.

Two groups are currently examining the system. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts is conducting an Inquiry into “factors contributing to the growth and sustainability of the Australian film and television industry”. The committee members represent the Liberal, National and Labor parties. Quite separately, an Australian and Children’s Screen Content Review is being conducted by the Department of Communications and the Arts, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and Screen Australia.

The submissions referred to throughout this set of articles were sent in to the House Inquiry. It is expected that many will be revised and sent to the Review, which is accepting submissions until September 21. The Review has a stronger gasp of the issues and more potential to have an impact than the House Inquiry. Go here to download and read the Review consultation paper, which includes instructions on how to have a say.

The Review consultation paper opens with these words: “The production and distribution of diverse Australian content delivers both a cultural and economic dividend. It helps define our national identity, strengthens social cohesion and values and develops cultural and creative industries. Australian content developed for our children is especially important in reflecting the world around them. Australian content projects Australia to the world. It showcases Australian talent, attracts tourism and returns revenue to the economy through our cultural exports”.

The paper lists these three “core policy objectives” for the Review:

  • securing quality content that promotes Australian identity and culture – implement measures that encourage the creation, delivery and export of diverse and high quality Australian content
  • securing quality Australian content for children – ensure content is developed for Australian children to help them understand the world around them and Australian values and culture
  • driving more sustainable Australian content industries – develop the right policy settings to enable Australia’s creative sector and talent to thrive, locally and internationally.

The aim of this set of articles is to: summarise how the government currently shores up the industry because clear thinking about future options is impossible without that knowledge; air the pressure points and options outlined in the House Inquiry submissions; flush out the potential impacts of some of those options; and encourage more people to engage with what could be a far-reaching Review.

THE QUESTIONS THE REVIEW WANTS ANSWERED

The Australian and Children’s Screen Content Review has invited comment. The following questions have been provided as prompts:

  1. Are the policy objectives and design principles articulated in the discussion paper appropriate? Why do you say that?
  2. What Australian content types or formats is the market likely to deliver and/or fail to deliver in the absence of Government support?
  3. What types of Australian screen content should be supported by Australian Government incentives and/or regulation?
  4. The current system of support for screen content involves quotas, minimum expenditure requirements, tax incentives and funding. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current system? What reforms would you suggest?
  5. What types and level of Australian Government support or regulation are appropriate for the different types of content and why?
  6. What factors constrain or encourage access by Australians and international audiences to Australian content? What evidence supports your answer?
  7. What would the Government need to consider in transitioning to new policy settings?
  8. Is there anything else that you would like the Government to consider that has not been addressed in your responses already?

Go here to respond.