For 12 years the commercial networks have been able to claim New Zealand content in their obligations to show local drama. It’s time for that crutch to be removed, Colin Delaney argues.
With a certain layer of guilt, Australians have long claimed Kiwi talent as our own; actors Sam Neill and Russell Crowe, Crowded House’s Neil Finn, Keith Urban and perhaps in a couple of years, Paul Henry. However in TV land they’ve been able to do so completely guilt-free for 12 years. The three big commercial broadcasters, in accordance with the Australian Communications and Media Association regulations, must air a certain amount of Australian-made drama. A point system for tallying the hours of broadcast must total a minimum of 250 points a year. Different types of drama get different numbers of points per hour. The regulation is to both protect Australian culture in the media, and to create work within the production sector.
However in 1998, a ruling by the High Court of Australia allowed New Zealand drama programs to be considered local drama content to remedy an inconsistency within a much larger economic trade agreement between the two countries.
For the first time since the decision, results released this week by ACMA, showed Network Ten would not have cleared its 250 drama points in 2011 without New Zealand drama content. Ten’s 27 hours of Kiwi content contributed 68 of the channel’s 267 points.
No network has even come close to relying on NZ content to hit its quota before. Data from 2002 to 2006 suggests that Nine and Ten aired no NZ content at all, while Seven carried just 3.63 hours.
But the numbers did begin to grow slightly from there, with Nine showed 11 hours in 2007, Ten showed seven hours in 2008. The loophole hadn’t yet been exploited.
Even in 2010, when Ten’s NZ content began to rise dramatically, it didn’t make the difference because of long-running series Neighbours. But shifting it to digital channel Eleven – where quotas don’t exist – left a hole for Ten.
It’s clear that the networks are legally entitled to lean on NZ content, but is it morally correct.
Let’s not forget that in 2010 the networks won a quarter of a billion dollar windfall from media minister Stephen Conroy with the justification that it was to help them meet their local content quota obligations.
Clearly the growth of NZ content could damage the local TV drama production sector.
My concern isn’t about the protection of Australian culture in the media. If that were the case I’d be arguing more about self-sabotage. And New Zealand culture isn’t infringing on our sets the way we’re being invaded by bad US sitcoms and initial-based cop shows. The problem is, by accepting pre-packaged Kiwi product it reduces investment in true local drama production, a sector of the industry where too large a proportion of qualified film-makers struggle to keep consistent employment. I’m sure our film-making brethren from across the Tasman would agree – they’d like less Home and Away and Neighbours in favour of working professionally in their field beyond Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop.
To Ten’s credit the network wiped 120 points of commissioned local drama when it moved Neighbours. In the current landscape, I believe multi-channels are chance for experimentation – they shouldn’t be a dumping ground for The Love Boat and Brady Bunch re-runs.
Out of the recent Convergence Review was a recommendation to increase local drama quotas across the board but to also count digital channels towards the network’s total which would see Ten breeze through. But when Neighbours qualifies again, will we still see these New Zealand shows run? I’d like to think so, because Outrageous Fortune is pretty classic, but perhaps it would be dumped for more NCIS.
The matter of supporting a local production industry is minutiae in the much larger and long-winded Australia New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement, but a matter worth raising if in fact its going to support both nation’s local industries.
Alas, in the face of the trade agreement, if the networks can continue claiming New Zealand content, I suggest we continue to take their talent, but this time guilt free. We’ll accept Shortland Street on 7mate on the condition Brett and Jermaine of Flight of the Conchords are given Australian passports and All Blacks captain Richie McCaw swears to the green and gold.