TV networks should ‘hand licences back’ if they aren’t producing local content

Mainstream television networks which push back against local content quotas have been told to hand their licences back.

In a heated debate about local content obligations at Screen Producers Australia’s Screen Forever conference, Georgina Downer, an adjunct fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) said taxpayer dollars should not be propping up the local industry, but Screentime’s Bob Campbell hit back arguing TV networks have no right to exist if they don’t follow the rules.

Peter Khalil, Fiona Eagger, Pallavi Sharda, Virginia Trioli, Rose Troche, Georgina Downer and Bob Campbell at Screen Forever

Asked about why the IPA – a  Melbourne-based right-wing think tank – doesn’t support local content quotas, Downer said government and broadcasters should not impose their views on the public.

“Ultimately, we don’t think that there should be any public funding or requirements that are basically imposing obligations on production companies and broadcasters to force you to watch what they want to watch,” she said. 

“These days local content obligations, I think, are going to be a thing of the past given we don’t have a limited spectrum any more. We have unlimited options basically to watch whatever you want. It doesn’t suit the environment that we’re living in where we should be able to watch whatever we want and not have 55% of TV between six and 12 on the poor commercial stations be Australian content. I actually want there to be Australian content and I don’t think local content obligations, if you remove them, would mean you don’t have any Australian content.”

The belief that the Australian screen industry needed support and guarantees at a government level came from insecurities within the sector, rather than free-market realities, she said.

“I think there absolutely is demand for that content and I think the industry should be much more confident in the demand out there in the Australian community for it. The arguments that the local content obligations have an economic benefit aren’t actually sustainable if you look at the raw numbers – the amount of taxpayer money that goes in to supporting the local content obligations actually is not, far exceeds, the economic growth and jobs. So on that perspective I don’t think you can sustain an argument for it.

“In terms of our identity there is often an argument that local content obligations are required to support a sense of identity in Australia, well, I think we will have that anyway, because we do as Australians want to see our own shows, our own people, our own actors and I don’t think we need the government mandating that certain content be produced in order to fill that demand that’s already there.”

Georgina Downer: The market will work itself out

Campbell, however, hit back saying the free market had ebbs and flows in its demands for local content and thus required a consistent safety net.

“It will come are no surprise that I am very much in favour of the retention of quotas,” he said.

“The great writer Tony Morphett said ‘Australian children need to dream Australian dreams’. And I think that’s at the core of what we’re talking about. The fact of the matter is that unless you do today a significant proportion of your telecast hours as Australian content, you’re going to go out the door backwards. So the market is, to a degree, looking after it. So therefore, what’s wrong with having a safety net of quotas there?

“Because from time to time, the market hasn’t always done that. It’s seen some ebbs and flows.”

Campbell said he was aware of the competitive pressures from both online and abroad which were straining the free-to-air television networks, but argued if they don’t like the rules, they are more than welcome to leave the game.

The broadcasters have licenses that they’re responsible for. If they don’t want to fulfil the obligations of the licences, which is domestic content, hand the licence back. You can’t have it both ways. So my view is simple. The way to survive in this increasingly competitive environment is to produce unique content that can’t be seen elsewhere. And that in the case of the Australian broadcasters is Australian content. That should be supported by the quotas that help to underpin it.”

Furthermore, Campbell said if the governments give broadcasters wriggle-room, they will exploit it.

Around the world, governments want their constituents, their audience, to see their stories. If there is a crack in the dam, we’ve seen a bit of this recently, under closer economic relations, New Zealand content counts as Australian content. And as a result of that, the Australian networks are not fulfilling the content obligations with strictly Australian content. So find a loophole, and it will be exploited. That’s why I think the safety net is important.” 

The Screen Forever conference hosted the debate

Downer, however, was not convinced by any of the arguments at the table and said viewers – including children – will watch whatever they want to watch, regardless of regulation.

I have small children and they watch ABC 4 Kids when they’re watching TV. And aside from Jimmy Giggle, who’s quite possibly one of the most irritating characters on TV – he’s Australian – aside from that the shows are all overseas shows. Peppa Pig is a British Show, Octonauts, they’re not Australian shows.

Jimmy Giggle (centre): Too irritating to be on TV?

“So my kids almost solely watch that when they’re watching broadcast TV, and then of course, they have discovered the delights of YouTube, the delights of Netflix, so these local content obligations are all very well for producers, but we are talking, surely, about what society is consuming. Because of Netflix, because of YouTube, because of all the on-demand options we have on the internet, people aren’t going to watch what you force them to watch on the commercial, on the ABC, on the television anymore. They’re going to watch what they want.”



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