News & Commentary, Screen, TV

It’s time for an Australian content quota on Netflix — before things get more complicated

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Australian television has rarely been better. The future of Australian television may be hanging in the balance.

These two statements are not incompatible. With reference to the first: there is a compelling argument to say we are presently enjoying a glut of high quality locally-made content. And that Australian narrative television – led by heavy hitters such as Please Like Me and The Kettering Incident – is now more bingable than ever.

Statement number two is more hyperbolic, perhaps, but not out of step with some voices from within the film and TV sector.

The debate about content quotas (that old chestnut) has flared up again, in relation to whether online streaming providers such as Netflix and Stan ought to be forced to contribute a prescribed amount of locally-produced programming.

Gazing into the crystal ball, and not liking what he sees, Matthew Deaner, president of Screen Producers Australia, told the Sydney Morning Herald this week: “We’re at a tipping point, and what the government decides will either grow the industry or decimate it.”

The federal Department of Communications is expected to hand down recommendations by the end of the year. To quota or not to quota? That is the question. If, indeed, we insist that we must keep on asking it.

Introducing such quotas for platforms like Netflix and Stan will be catching up to present reality, not anticipating the future.

We know what the Australian television landscape would look like without content quotas. In a word: imported. Wall-to-wall programs sourced from America and the mother country, plastered across our networks day and night. Many of these, unlike local productions, benefiting from huge budgets and economies of scale.

Current content quotas stipulate a minimum of 55% Australian programming from 6am until midnight, though only a small portion of that is scripted drama. Also, preposterously, current regulation considers New Zealand and Australian productions to be the same thing. When the Seven Network aired New Zealand From Above in 2015, it counted as Australian.

So that beautiful, idyllic, true blue television landscape, choc-a-bloc with Australian stories, created by our own industries? That is not the world we live in. But something, as they say, is better than nothing, and there’s no doubt the current quotas have value.

Should there be content quotas for streaming providers? Please. Of course there should. With the slow death of the traditional TV dial, all the big players will end up exclusively in this space anyway. Introducing such quotas for platforms like Netflix and Stan will be catching up to present reality, not anticipating the future.

And what, pray tell, does the future have in store for the boob tube? That’s the $64,000 question, on which so much depends. The truth is that nobody knows. But here’s a few things that might get you thinking.

While the content quotas conversation resurfaced in Australa, a series of compelling news reports came out of America. Compelling, because they paint a rather interesting – and perhaps unexpected – picture of the future of home entertainment.

A tiny, community-run organisation called Facebook announced its first commission of a long-form television-style original series. It’ll be reality TV, but the social media network is also currently in talks with Hollywood studios about producing scripted content, reportedly prepared to cough up $3 million per episode.

In a future world where Facebook has added “major television broadcaster” to its list of achievements … how will an Australian government regulate that content?

A small, inconsequential company – some dudes working for something called Apple – furthered its own push into original content. They poached Sony co-presidents Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg to head their video programming department. Erlicht and Van Amburg are best-known for overseeing the production of Breaking Bad.

Something the kids use, called Snapchat, struck a deal with Time Warner (the company that owns HBO and Warner Bros.) to the tune of US$100 million. The multinational entertainment conglomerate will produce up to 10 Snapchat-specific shows each year for the next two years.

Not to be outdone, the slightly older, cooler kids at VICE put down their biodegradable bongs and collected US$450 million to boost their own video content. They will create subscription services to sell videos to consumers.

All these announcements arrived in the last fortnight. Meanwhile, at the arse end of the world, Australians discussed content quotas on streaming providers. Cripes. If this conversation didn’t feel a mite old hat before news arrived about what the big yank tech companies are up to, it certainly does now.

In a future world where Facebook has added “major television broadcaster” to its list of achievements, and the competition has followed suit, how will an Australian government regulate that content? What kind of quotas will, or could, possibly be put in place?

It’s not just the future of Australian television, but television itself (at least in the form we presently know it) that might be hanging in the balance. All the disruption we’ve seen so far from Netflix and the like may be child’s play compared to what’s in the mail.

So pay attention, federal government, and pass those new content quotas already. The future is going to get a lot more complicated.

12 responses to “It’s time for an Australian content quota on Netflix — before things get more complicated

  1. There’s another way: real, substantial Government support for the local industry to compete on the local and international markets

  2. And if two countires impose >50% content requirments on a streaming service does that mean that some of that content will only be shown in the respective countries?

  3. Netflix already are working on “Tidelands” in Australia and another series of SF short stories written in Australia and most likely produced here as well.

  4. Preserve us from wall-to-wall Aussie Reality TV streaming on Netflix and Stan!! That’s what we’d get if the quota is introduced. If i want “cheap and nasty” Aussie shows I have plenty to chose from on free-to-air. Let’s not do the same to the streaming channels, now we finally have them…

  5. Quotas, a 20th century anachronism which has been superseded by the globalized world in which we all live. Technology has achieved what generations of Australians have dreamed of for decades – price and choice equality with the rest of the first world, free, for the first time from their intrusive, interfering government whose policies were set by monopolies intent on maintaining their iron grip on our right to choice and a competitive marketplace.

  6. The entire Aussie audience is small bananas to the streaming providers. The possible results of a quota? The first, as mentioned by others above, wall to wall crud. The second is that they just drop our market entirely, and if they want our subscriptions they will just accept them back in their home countries. Lots of luck asking for quotas there!
    The real question is, are our shows good enough to make it on the world stage. If they aren’t then they deserve to disappear. If they are good enough, but they are so parochial that nobody overseas wants to see them, then we need to reassess our world view. If they are great by any standard then we should be exporting them into other markets with more intensity. Perhaps by starting a streaming service in Australia and selling subscriptions in other countries, or opening for business in other countries where that is not allowed.
    The point is that we can’t hide behind quotas. They only ensure quantity, not quality, and they will end up making our television production even more of a mud wallow than it already is.
    Yes, we have great productions, but if they can’t survive in a world where they have to compete, then keeping them afloat artificially seems to be a pointless exercise. The motor vehicle industry proved that.

  7. Actually, there are Australian shows already being screened on Netflix such as Janet King, Rake, Cleverman and Jack Irish as you are probably aware. They have pretty good taste in what they put on.
    As for Australian TV, I can’t stand the reality TV drivel that passes for Australian content on commercial free to air.
    If I want to be dumb and stupid in my later years — I am 69 – then Australian content on free-to-air does the trick. .
    My fantastical inclination is to castrate all Australian TV executives and their owner/masters because of the crap they feed us in so-called primetime. When Reg Grundy used to fly into LA with a VCR and record American TV programmes to return and make Australian versions was fine in its time, but no longer.
    I subscribe and watch both Netflix and Amazon Prime (yes I have an Australian account) and I see that the former actually does many co-productions in countries which has Netflix. While it’s early days, I do believe Netflix will get more involved with Australian productions as they go along. It behooves them to do it in my view.
    My sense of Netflix is that they can’t get enough quality national content to supply local audiences so I am not in favour of content quotas at this point.

  8. As taxis, short term accommodation, newspapers and retail show, you cannot try to force the regulatory model from one to another. A (nearly) sixty year old concept is not just going to slip nicely over the streaming on demand model.

    For example, based on the list published on finder.com.au, there are currently around 208 hours worth of Australian content available on Netflix, and more original Aussie content is in the works for Stan and Netflix with regulatory intervention. That would take you more than a week to watch if you streamed 24 hours a day. I don’t know how many hours of content Netflix has available at the moment, but if anything even close to 55% is suggested, they’re going to have to host more Australian content than any other broadcaster in history.

    The percentage concept of a quota obviously won’t work. Broadcasters know how many hours are in a week. For streaming providers, the amount of available content changes constantly. Then there is the slightly icky implications of forcing Netflix to provide children’s content, as the current standards do for broadcasters.

    Rather than demanding that the Government solve everything by ‘passing those content quotas already’, the Australian Film & Television industry ought to come together and put together a sensible proposal. I really like this article, but it doesn’t make any suggestions, or indicate if the industry has any suggested fixes.

  9. Perhaps the Government will then also consider paying the long suffering viewers to actually watch more than 10% of that forced 55% quota that currently passes as Aussie content on FTA TV?

  10. Despite the assertions in one of those smh articles that I read on my journey down this rabbit hole just now, I can’t see how the Australian government can have any legal basis for imposing any quotas on international companies. To my knowledge (and to be fair it’s been a while since I’ve looked at the BSA1992 in any detail) the government has no power over companies like google, apple, or facebook in this sphere. What netflix, et al are looking to do is not traditional broadcasting, and any attempt to filter, restrict or censor web content is (and should be) doomed to failure.

    The opening up (smashing) of the traditional broadcasting model is well overdue. The market will decide what content is valued. If that is Australian content, hurray for Australia. But I resent the implication that we require mandated Australia content so that we don’t forget who we are.

    The government continuing to (or attempting to continue to) restrict and prescribe what we watch on our screens is crazy. The fact that all governments since the inception of television have been beholden to the commercial broadcasters is unfortunate, but politicians need to come to grips with the broadcasters’ rapid slide into irrelevance. Come to grips with it, and then let it go.

  11. Locak quota could be traded like carbon trading – trade and share . One year nine does more than seven as an example. Second window allows reduced points.

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