Screen industry vs 2020: will national content quotas make a difference?

Photo by Nicole Michalou from Pexels.

As 2020 played out, more Australian viewers than ever turned to online streaming services for entertainment. With the industry temporarily shut down, policy makers turned their attention to screen quotas for national content: an old debate, but one with potentially even greater significance as the industry recovers from the year that’s been.

Personally, as I reflect on the TV that got me through Melbourne’s two lockdowns I’m embarrassed to admit that very little of it was locally made. In the first half of the year I guiltily shelled out for a Foxtel subscription to binge all six seasons of The Americans ­­­(2013-2018) – there was something oddly comforting about retreating to Cold War intrigue in the midst of the real-life history we were suddenly living through.

Then it was onto another six seasons of spy drama in The Bureau (2015-current), good for brushing up on my French but not so much my Australian culture. I watched shows everyone was talking about like Unorthodox (2020) and Sex Education (2019-current), countless films (agreed to only after long negotiations with housemates) from Saving Private Ryan (1998) to 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), and re-watched every episode of the West Wing (1999-2006) while also listening to an in-depth podcast about the show. Then there was my slow but steady re-watch of the entire six-season run of Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003) ­– another regression, this time to my teenage years.

So where was the Australian content? I managed a couple of seasons of ABC dramas: Stateless (2020), the incredible and too-close-to-home ABC drama set in a detention centre, season two of the critically acclaimed Mystery Road (2018-current), and most of the very underwhelming Operation Buffalo (2020, also ABC). My household re-watched Top End Wedding (2019). Put like this it doesn’t seem so bad, but my sense is that a couple of one-season dramas and a film pales in comparison to the sheer volume of US content I inhaled to distract myself from what was going on outside my front door.

With cinemas closed and live free-to-air TV all but forgotten, the vast majority of my TV and film consumption during lockdown was via streaming services. This is not a huge change from life pre-Covid, and it is hardly surprising: in December 2019, Roy Morgan Research put the combined audience for Pay or Subscription TV at 70 per cent of the Australian population, with 57 per cent having a Netflix subscription in their household. In July 2020, Roy Morgan reported that the number of Australians with access to a subscription TV service had risen by 5.9% in only three months.

One only need consider the fact that Netflix’s stock prices dropped after Pfizer announced promising results in its coronavirus vaccine testing in November 2020 to conclude that, in the minds of some investors at the very least, the pandemic has been good for streaming services.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise Australian content was neglected. In June 2020, the percentage of Australian content in the Netflix catalogue was a measly 1.9 per cent – compared with Stan’s slightly more impressive 7.2 per cent and Apple TV+’s embarrassing 0.0. per cent.

The problem of Australian content on streaming services has been bubbling away for a while now, and, as with so many other things, 2020 seems to have brought it to head. Companies like Netflix have so far not been subject to the same requirements as free-to-air broadcasters, who until April this year were regulated by quotas requiring them to screen specific amounts of new Australian children’s, drama and documentary programming. But as the impact of the virus and shutdowns began to hit, the federal government suspended these sub-quotas, while still requiring each network to screen at least 55 per cent Australian content overall.

This led to productions being put on hold, and a sense of uncertainty as it wasn’t clear when (or if) the quotas would be reinstated. Free-to-air networks were in favour of dropping the quota requirements, especially in regards to children’s programming. In February 2020, Seven West Media even threatened to stop producing new children’s content in defiance of the quota requirements.

As it turns out, quotas will be reintroduced but in a modified form: in September, the federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher announced the reintroduction of a new system from January 2021: broadcasters will still need to meet a certain threshold of investment, and the 55 per cent requirement will remain, but they won’t need to adhere to the sub-quotas across the three genres. In other words, commercial networks won’t be required to produce specific amounts of children’s programming, which according to the Minister ‘hardly any child watches’. As he notes, the most beloved children’s programs are on the ABC.

But this still left the streaming services. According to a joint submission by Netflix, Stan, Prime Video and Disney Plus to a government options paper earlier in 2020, there was no problem in need of fixing ­ – the streaming services argued that they were already investing in Australian content and that the Australian screen production industry was ‘healthy and growing’. But the Australian screen industry appeared to disagree, relaunching its ‘Make it Australian’ campaign in September this year and continuing to lobby for streaming services to be subject to quotas.

The government is prepared to make a move on this issue. On November 30, the Department of Communications released a green paper seeking comment from interested parties on a number of proposed media reforms, including setting an ‘expectation’ that streaming services invest a percentage of their revenue in Australian content, that they ‘make Australian content discoverable to Australian audiences’ and report to the regulatory body the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) on their performance for these requirements each year.

The language is interesting here – ‘expectation’ rather than requirement. The paper suggests the Minister be given the power to impose formal regularly requirements on any service that does not meet requirements for two years running. In other words, it seems the streaming services will still get somewhat special treatment (at least for the first two years), as content quotas for free-to-air networks are already a formal requirement.

As part of its proposal, the government asks whether an expectation that five per cent of Australian revenue be invested in Australian content would be reasonable. To give some context, the French government is currently proposing that companies like Netflix and Amazon be made to reinvest 25 per cent of their French-earned revenue into making French and European content (streaming services and TV channels are currently required to reinvest 16 per cent into French content).

Curiously, the government is also proposing that the ABC and SBS would be subject to new Australian programming requirements – despite the fact that both are governed by charters that essentially require this very activity. Indeed, the paper describes it as ‘codifying what they already do’. The ABC has come out against this proposal, arguing it may undermine its independence by dictating how its funds are spent.

The green paper notes that the ABC has invested over $200 million in Australian drama, comedy and Indigenous content over the past five years, while the SBS broadcast 171 hours of locally commissioned content, with 27 per cent of all content being new Australian content.

The ABC will also be required to report to ACMA on its activity as relates to Australian content. While this suggestion was supported by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), the ABC argues it is not clear what benefit additional reporting would provide.

It’s also worth noting that these reforms are just proposals at this stage, and how the final policy might be influenced by responses to the green paper from companies like Netflix remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it does seem that the year is ending on a note of hope for Australian screen creators, notwithstanding the yet-to-be-seen impacts of the 2020 shutdowns on the industry and the mental health of its workers.

But quotas are just one way to support Australian content, and the federal government has an exceptionally poor track record when it comes to another major way to promote production of new Australian content: funding. In its most recent budget, the government allocated an additional $33 million to Screen Australia, the government’s key screen production funding body. The green paper also proposes using funds from new licencing arrangements to establish a trust fund for Australian drama, children’s and documentary content, to be administered by Screen Australia.

However, these measures follow successive cuts to the key bodies that support the creation of Australian content. In the years between 2014 and 2018, Screen Australia lost $51.5 million from their estimated budget­, while a Per Capita report produced for GetUp in May this year showed that the ABC had lost $783 million in funding since 2014, and the number of hours of scripted Australian drama on ABC TV had halved.

In the meantime, it’s almost Christmas, and I find myself churning through the seemingly endless array of US-based Christmas movies the Netflix algorithm throws my way, which range in quality from mediocre to abysmal. While it’s up to us as consumers to seek out Australian content, it’s also surely up to the government to ensure Australian filmmakers and our public broadcaster have the resources they need to make that content.

And perhaps with proper funding, our creators will be allowed to make not just Australian equivalents of deeply formulaic (albeit enjoyable) Christmas films, but high-quality film and TV that really reflects the country we live in.

Rosie Hunt’s writing has appeared in M/C JournalLip MagazineRACT Journeys and Aphra Magazine. She lives in Melbourne.