Government offers urgent relief to media companies, including suspension of content quotas

The government is suspending content quotas for the rest of the year, offering $41m in tax rebates, and establishing a $50m regional journalism program to help media companies cope with the severe revenue impacts of COVID-19.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher acknowledged that COVID-19 has led to “broadcasters and newspapers fac[ing] significant financial pressure” in his response to the industry’s resounding cry for help, including commercial radio’s plea for a government bailout last week.

Fletcher (left) announced the government package today

“As an emergency red tape reduction measure, I have suspended Australian drama, children’s and documentary content obligations on free-to-air and subscription television for 2020,” Fletcher said, noting that the production of multiple local shows has been halted due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“A decision will be taken before the end of this year as to whether this suspension should continue in 2021.

“It remains critically important that we have Australian voices on Australian TV, so there will be no change to the requirement for broadcasters to meet an overall 55% Australian content obligation.”

Last month, Seven CEO James Warburton and Nine CEO Hugh Marks agreed that quotas – including an obligation under the Broadcasting Services Act to air 260 hours of children’s programs, 130 hours of preschool programs and 250 points of first-release Australian drama – should be scrapped. Warburton signalled that he would be willing to breach those legal requirements, and argued they stifle commercial networks while not applying to streaming platforms.

Yesterday, CEO of Free TV Bridget Fair repeated the argument in an opinion piece published in The Australian Financial Review, opining that free-to-air broadcasters must be “unburden[ed]” from “last century rules”.

Today, the government agreed that the current arrangements are unsustainable, and said it will accelerate its decision about the future extent of these quotas, and whether they should also bind the likes of Netflix, Stan and Disney+.

“Regulated free-to-air broadcasters are competing with unregulated digital platforms and video streaming services. It has been evident for some time – and the COVID-19 crisis has made it even more obvious – that this is not sustainable,” Fletcher noted.

“These arrangements threaten the sustainability of television broadcasters – and in turn the sustainability of the film and television content production sector.”

Accordingly, the relief package also includes an options paper, developed by Screen Australia an the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which commences a fast-tracked consultation process regarding how best to support Australian content.

“We are acting to offer urgent short-term support to the media sector. At the same time we are progressing our December 2019 commitment to consult on the future framework to support Australian stories on our screens,” Fletcher said.

Nine boss Marks responded to the announcement with a message of thanks, but urged the government to also be acting upon long-term solutions to level the playing field between local media companies and global tech companies, including digital platforms and streaming services.

Nine CEO Hugh Marks

“We thank the Minister for his efforts and the measures announced today which provide some short term relief to Australia’s media businesses,” he said.

“However, the current COVID- 19 crisis only serves to further highlight the need for urgent long term solutions to the regulatory imbalance between highly regulated domestic media players and unregulated international technology companies.”

Commercial Radio Australia (CRA) boss Joan Warner added that the move to waive spectrum fees was welcome, but the measures do not go far enough to alleviate pressure on the radio industry.

“We are grateful for the one-year waiver of spectrum taxes which amounts to about $1.2 million for radio, spread across the large number of networks and stations,” Warner said.

“However, we are disappointed that commercial radio, as the most hyper local of the mediums, has been largely overlooked in spite of its continued delivery of service to the Australian community during the pandemic, and before that, during the bushfires and the drought.”

The tax relief, meanwhile, will assist commercial TV and radio companies, by offering a 100% rebate on commercial broadcasting tax for 12 months, backdated to start from 14 February, 2020.

The $50m Public Interest News Gathering (PING) program will support TV, newspaper and radio businesses in regional Australia. $13.4m of that sum is ‘new money’, in addition to the repurposing of unallocated funds from the Regional and Small Publishers Jobs and Innovation Package.

The decision follows the release of $5m from a $48m Innovation Fund to assist regional publishers last week, which the industry’s union labelled “wholly inadequate” to effectively mitigate the likes of News Corp suspending its community print titles, Nine ceasing production on a number of print sections, and Antony Catalano’s Australian Community Media yesterday pausing non-daily titles, closing four press facilities, and standing down staff.

Pay cuts, reduced hours, forced leave arrangements, stand downs, and redundancies (either resorted to already or forewarned) have been commonplace across the industry.

“The Government recognises that public interest journalism is essential in informing and strengthening local communities,” Fletcher said.

He added that the government’s priority is coming out on the other side of the pandemic with regulations that suit the current climate.

“We need to re-emerge from COVID-19 with a regulatory framework suited to the twenty-first century that recognises today’s competitive landscape – where television broadcasters compete with streaming services and a myriad of other internet-based businesses – and which positions both the television sector and the content production sector for a sustainable future,” Fletcher said.

The Screen Australia and ACMA options paper will see consultation with key stakeholders, including ministerial roundtables, occur across the next two months.


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