Producers won’t be taken for granted: SPAA

Geoff BrownIn the fifth and final part of our special report on the future of Australian television in a converged, multi-platform, multi-channel environment, we spoke with the executive director of the Screen Producers Association of Australia, Geoff Brown.

According to Brown, SPAA rejects the commercial broadcasters’ ‘crying poor’ argument and will continue to ask Canberra to review the Australian Content Standard and truly protect local drama and documentary production.

Editor’s note: This interview took place in April, before SPAA submitted its response to the industry review. Encore reported on their submission yesterday, and the full document can be found here.

Encore: What is SPAA currently discussing with the government?

Geoff Brown: SPAA has met with the PM’s senior advisers in Canberra to discuss with them complementary measures that can be put in place to reinforce Australian content in the face of the $250 million dollar rebate on the TV licenses. We didn’t go in being totally negative about that decision; what we saw was an opportunity to push for strengthening of the supply base of content rather than the platform base – the supply base being the independent production sector.

We put a few measures to the government which we think will strengthen content regulation going forward. Primary amongst those is a recommendation that the government immediately request the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to review the Australian Content Standard in respect to the sub-quotas for adult drama, children’s programs and documentary, and increase those levels immediately. Any increase on those sub-quotas is allowable under the US-Australia free trade agreement so there’s no complication there.

Any increase, we’ve argued, should be applied exclusively to the new multi-channels. So in other words, the primary channels still carry the main obligation, but any increase in the sub quotas in terms of hours or drama points be applied to each network’s digital multi-channels. This is a modest ask, but a necessary one to establish some sort of beachhead and get the ball rolling.

In addition to that, we’ve asked the government to look at withdrawing the producer offset benefit from the broadcasters in respect to their own in-house production. It was always an appalling piece of public policy, and it’s a doubly bad piece of policy now when it’s linked to the $250 million rebate.

We’ve also asked that the government, through the ACMA, move to increase the incentive for independent commissioning of adult drama by an additional point per hour as a further incentive for the networks to go external for their commissions. And we’ve also asked that the ACMA be asked to introduce minimum license fee levels for the genres of documentary, kids and adults drama to stop the exploitation of the New Zealand-Australia Closer Economic Relations (CER) agreement, whereby NZ programs can come in and be sold as first release Australian drama and get the same drama points, but at a fraction of the price of Australian drama. We’re also saying that’s an argument to support NZ producers because they’re being exploited in the process and not getting a fair return for their programs.

We’ve also met with Senator Conroy in Melbourne, and had a very frank and full discussion. It’s clear the minister understands where we’re coming from and the logic we’re trying to apply. We’re arguing that all these measures can be introduced at no cost to government, so what would be the obstacle? It requires political will and we argue that the supply sector, our issues need to be addressed just as directly as government has sought to address the platform sector through their rebates. The senator asked us to outline our position in writing which we’ve done and we’ve said that we’d like to see a pretty early response from government to our ask.

How do you respond to Free TV’s claim that content obligations would threaten the ongoing viability of digital multi-channels?

Let’s be clear: they were given those multi-channels at no cost, absolutely free. You start with that. But Go! took a 10 percent audience share a few months ago. That’s pretty significant, and as I understand from my contacts, that came as a hell of a surprise. In any event, the modest ask that we’ve put to government will not send those channels broke.

These are all indicative of the spend that the networks are putting on their current circumstances. None of us believe that they should have got the $250 million relief; the cost of digital switchover should have been met in balance sheets going back the last 10 years with money put aside like any other business had to.

Especially in the post-production sector, we were all asked to go digital with no compensation from the government, and now are into our third generation of digital equipment. The crying poor argument is going to drop short and we know it’s dropping short in Canberra. They’ve got to come on board; they’ve got these channels and spectrum for nothing, and if they don’t want to meet their minimum obligations, if it’s too tough, get out of the market. Let somebody come in and buy these assets and have a go.

We’re not even talking about a transmission quota on these multi channels; we’re clear on that. We’re talking about the application of a sub quota and a whole lot would go under the transmission quota of the primary channels until switchover. So you’d be asking for a whole year, for instance, of maybe 20 hours of Australian adult drama on these digital channels per network. Now we understand if the economics aren’t there, production values won’t to be the same as Underbelly or Sea Patrol, but it’s a modest ask and they should be able to achieve it.

We totally reject the networks’ arguments and the sense in our business at Canberra is that Canberra rejects them as well.

What are the steps you would like to see the government take to secure local content for the digital future?

Make a firm commitment through a specific reference to the ACMA to immediately examine these levels and implement modest, significant content obligations on the digital multi-channels. Nothing short of that will reinforce the importance of regulation going forward. The minister at the SPAA conference last year, on the one hand, came out fully supportive and said that this government would never allow Australian television to be trivialised to the point where it’s just an outstation of American TV.

On the other hand, he said we think a bit naively, that notwithstanding regulation, Australian audiences will demand Australian product anyway. We understand where he’s coming from in terms of the broader entertainment audience, and the likes of Masterchef and Dancing with the Stars will always rate and they will always do those anyway. But that’s not Australian adult drama content. That’s not carrying the obligation for children’s programs or Australian documentary and its naïve to think that they’d continue to carry those if they didn’t have to.

So you don’t agree with Conroy that there will be a natural response of local content from the networks because the public will want those shows?

We don’t believe it, absolutely not. The bean counters are there, $330,000 an hour is the standard license fee for an adult drama. With this cheap NZ programming they’re probably paying $30,000 an hour. And a high-flying US series, with their output deals and advertised across the whole period, might be $50,000 an hour. There’s no way they’re going to be altruistic, we wish they were, but they’re not. And to suggest that they will be is just naïve in our view, hence our argument of content regulation.

How do you think the rebate should be used and, with the way that it’s been handled, do you think that it’s a lost battle already?

We refuse the basic argument that the networks could not meet their Australian content obligations and still continue to pay their license fees. These networks were the most profitable FTA commercial networks in the world. We’re turning more than 30 percent on operating costs. The international standard is around about 14 percent; that’s where I go back to my earlier point- adequate provision should have been made in balance for the switchover to digital. Instead they were cash-cows and their owners just took the money out as it came in. Why should the taxpayer be expected to pick up the bill for poor business management?

To give them a $250m break on the back of all the other breaks they’ve got, well, you’ve read the press, no-one can understand it. We’re sort of over it, the decision has been made, they won’t go back on it unless the opposition votes it down; there’s still a prospect in that.

We just want to move on and say to government, ‘if your intentions were honourable, and if you did this thinking you were protecting Australian content regulation, then reinforce that by introducing these simple measures that we’ve put to you, and then you’ll restore faith in the independent production sector and we can all go forward’.

When I’m talking here about the independent sector, I’m not just talking about the producers. I’m talking about the actors, writers directors, crews and the producers who all feel that the government has to move and act now on issues affecting the supply sector. If we don’t have any content regulation that underpins adult drama, kid’s programs and documentary, we just will not have them, at least not on our commercial networks.

You can say, ‘we’ll still have the public broadcasters and we’ll fund the ABC and SBS to do that’. That is not a solution; it does not provide the diversity that is needed. We make the point that Hi-5, which has been very successful for Nine, probably wouldn’t be picked up by the ABC as a program with their style and presentation. And those things are critical and we just cannot have Australian content narrowed down to the public sector.

Are there any overseas examples that Australia can learn from?

If you look into the British example, they’ve got a 25 percent output quota still applied across the whole spectrum, so there’s no diminution in theory. The Canadian decision – we’re still looking into it – would appear to be a sellout to broadcaster interests, similar to what we have here. But everywhere you turn, especially in those English-speaking countries where you’re dealing with the gorilla which is US programming, there appears to be an understanding and acceptance that you have to put a buffer against their unfettered marketplace power; if not for cultural reason, for cultural and economic reasons.

We shouldn’t just think that Australian content is expensive and doesn’t make money. Seven sold Home and Away to channel 5 for £25m. Grundy and now Fremantle are still making money out of Neighbours. And the ratings last year showed, with Underbelly in particular, that the networks in meeting their minimum obligation under the Australian content standards are still making money out of these programs. So there are arguments on all levels.

Will this debate have an impact this election year, and will Australians continue to discuss this issue, or will it fade into obscurity?

There will be a discussion. If the industry doesn’t see within the next six or eight months some sort of supportive response to government from the claims we’ve put forward, it could lead to agitation from the industry prior to the election. We’re not going to be taken for granted.

The Labor party seems to patronise us because they see us as part of their natural constituency, but we’re not going to be taken for granted leading up to the election. If we don’t think the government is good enough to reinforce the role of Australian content regulation into 2013 and beyond, we will think about where we will cast our votes.

In relation to the second point, do Australians care? Yes, they do.

All our research points to yes, they do care and are passionate about the fact that they can see their own programs, and especially kid’s programs. This is the great untold story; any move to effectively reduce the level of Australian kid’s programs will be met with an almighty backlash not only from us but from parents across the land. So the government shouldn’t underestimate the audience appeal and the strength of the audience going into the voting year, to cast their votes whichever way will prop up Australian content going forward.

-by Micah Chua


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