Local quotas suspended, spectrum fees waived in media rescue.
Networks, guilds & unions all respond to major assistance steps -with mixed feelings.
- Local content sub-quotas suspended for rest of year
- Spectrum fee relief
- $50m for regional journalism
- Fast-tracked consultation on quotas for streaming services
Australian drama, children & documentary content obligations have been suspended until the end of the year as part of a major assistance to the media sector, reeling from COVID-19 impact.
Spectrum fees are also being waived and the Federal Government will provide $50 million for regional journalism.
Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, Paul Fletcher said “Many Australians are doing it tough right now and the media sector is sharing that pain, especially in regional areas. Broadcasters and newspapers face significant financial pressure and COVID-19 has led to a sharp downturn in advertising revenue across the whole sector.
“We are acting to offer urgent short-term support to the media sector. At the same time we are progressing our December 2019 commitment to consult on the future framework to support Australian stories on our screens.”
Radio & TV broadcasters will receive $41 million worth of financial relief, while a $50 million Public Interest News Gathering (PING) program will support journalism in regional Australia.
“The Government recognises that public interest journalism is essential in informing and strengthening local communities,” Minister Fletcher said.
“As an emergency red tape reduction measure, I have suspended Australian drama, children’s and documentary content obligations on free-to-air and subscription television for 2020. A decision will be taken before the end of this year as to whether this suspension should continue in 2021.”
COVID-19 has effectively halted production of Australian screen content, making it impossible for free-to-air and subscription television businesses to meet Australian content obligations.
“I want to thank ACMA and Screen Australia for their detailed, evidence-based study of the state of the Australian film and television sector, which carefully considers the cultural and economic importance of screen stories, the regulatory framework, and the support the Government provides to the screen sector through a range of mechanisms and policy settings,” Minister Fletcher said.
“Regulated free-to-air broadcasters are competing with unregulated digital platforms and video streaming services. It has been evident for some time – and the COVID-19 crisis has made it even more obvious – that this is not sustainable.
“These arrangements threaten the sustainability of television broadcasters – and in turn the sustainability of the film and television content production sector.
“That is why I want to seek industry feedback on the options put forward by ACMA and Screen Australia, and work with industry on a plan for the future, including how to best secure the market opportunity created by the explosion of streaming services.
“We need to re-emerge from COVID-19 with a regulatory framework suited to the twenty-first century that recognises today’s competitive landscape – where television broadcasters compete with streaming services and a myriad of other internet-based businesses – and which positions both the television sector and the content production sector for a sustainable future,” the minister said.
The government will also release an options paper put together by the Australian Communications and Media Authority and Screen Australia, to determine the future extent of Australian content obligations on free-to-air television broadcasters, and whether these should apply to streaming services.
Hugh Marks, CEO of Nine, said in a statement, “We thank the Minister for his efforts and the measures announced today which provide some short term relief to Australia’s media businesses. However, the current COVID-19 crisis only serves to further highlight the need for urgent long term solutions to the regulatory imbalance between highly regulated domestic media players and unregulated international technology companies.”
Seven West Media Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer James Warburton said: “We welcome today’s announcement from the Government outlining a range of short term measures to assist our industry deal with the immediate impacts of COVID-19.
“The media is playing a critical role during this crisis in keeping the public informed with Australians turning to our trusted and reliable news and public affairs services for accurate information, as shown by the substantial lift in viewership for 7NEWS, Sunrise and The Latest. We’re also seeing strong readership growth for The West Australian, Sunday Times and our regional papers. We are not businesses that can hibernate during these events but our revenue is significantly impacted.
“The impacts of COVID-19 on our industry further highlights the urgent need for regulatory reform to ensure media businesses in Australia are sustainable in the long term. This includes ensuring that foreign digital platforms are paying fairly for our content as well as reform of Australian content obligations, so we welcome the Government announcing its fast-tracked consultation process to deliver content reform.”
Screen Producers Australia
Screen Producers Australia (SPA) today expressed deep concern at the Government’s announcement that Australian content quotas would be suspended for 2020, with the option to extend into 2021. SPA CEO Matthew Deaner stated:
“These hard cuts have the potential to at worst cripple Australia’s production industry and at best snuff the opportunities for a rebound for much of our sector at a time when it is facing a very real battle for survival.
“Coronavirus assistance for Australia’s broadcasters should not have to come at the expense of our production sector, which has been amongst the hardest hit by widespread shutdowns and which is in need of a comprehensive support package itself. This announcement will just load up the pain on Australia’s struggling arts and creative sector, most of whom are now out of work and falling through the cracks of assistance measures.
“We understand better than most that there will be disruptions to the supply of Australian content, particularly drama, documentary and children’s content. Our members are standing down production teams, cast and crew and halting production activity on over 100 productions, with devastating economic and employment impacts. However, rather than a hard suspension of quotas, we suggested temporary averaging flexibility, to allow broadcasters relief in the coming year, contingent on the overall obligations being acquitted across the coming years when production activity can return. This would ensure demand returns to the system at levels sufficient to get the sector back on its feet and able to pump out productions and employ large numbers of people.
“It would also recognise that there is a significant amount of quota content already completed and sitting with the broadcasters (or soon to be delivered). We have surveyed our members and determined that there is a substantial amount of content ready to go on free-to-air television this year. A complete suspension of the quotas in 2020 is disproportionate to the actual level of disruption to the supply pipeline.
“Furthermore, with no incentive for the broadcasters to release hundreds of hours of already delivered but not yet broadcast children’s, drama and documentary content, it harms the Australian public’s ability to access the content which is sitting gathering dust on shelves.
“A complete suspension is also a very blunt tool when it is considered that some sub-types of production are still able to be commissioned, including animation and documentary. Suspension of commissioning activity essentially knocks out demand for these productions, which would have been crucial in keeping people in jobs in the industry during the wider shut down.
“It is imperative that these quota suspensions are strictly limited in time, so that when production activity can resume, there is sufficient commissioning activity to stimulate the rapid upscaling of production to drive the delivery of much-loved content and to reignite employment in the sector, which will be vital for the wider economy.
“The Government must institute a rigorous, evidence-based and open process to determine whether the suspension should be extended into 2021. This will require a detailed assessment of supply and likely production activity and must preclude any potential for gaming the suspension by broadcasters who have already publicly indicated their pre-coronavirus preference to dial down commissions in complete contravention of regulatory obligations.”
SPA today also welcomed the release of an Options Paper to look at how best to support Australian stories on our screens in a modern, multi-platform environment.
“We have been talking to Government for several years as to how to best ensure the continued production and distribution of the Australian stories audiences love and expect to see on their screens. We are pleased the Government has taken this step and look forward to engaging with the proposals in the options paper.
“However, an immediate crisis is unfolding in the production sector, and bold and decisive Government intervention is required to secure the future of the screen industry and harness its ability to gear up and return to making great local content as soon as possible. As announced yesterday, SPA is calling on the Government to implement a $1 billion content fund over the forward estimates to top up the existing tax offsets and supplement Screen Australia direct investment, and the immediate extension of content obligations onto SVOD services, to help share the load.
“This package is critical not only for our economy and cultural recovery but also to protect our national sovereignty.”
Free TV Australia:
Free TV has welcomed the urgent relief package announced today by Minister Fletcher which will greatly assist the commercial television broadcast industry to deal with the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 crisis.
Free TV CEO, Bridget Fair said “While we are still working through the details of the package, the suspension of content quotas for 2020, waiver of spectrum fees and support for regional journalism are very positive for the immediate pressures being experienced by the industry. However the ongoing requirement to meet the overall 55% Australian content quota remains a concern for the industry in an environment where there is less sport, drama and entertainment programming available due to the suspension or cancellation of many productions.
The COVID-19 crisis is having significant financial and operational impacts on our sector and these will take years to play out. It is therefore pleasing to note that the Minister has flagged that further consideration of content quotas for 2021 will occur later this year as we expect that further relief will be required in future years.
We also welcome the immediate release of the Options Paper and expedited consultation period for long term Australian Content quota settings. We are still working through the detail of the Options Paper and look forward to responding as part of the consultation process in coming weeks.
Free TV would also urge the Government to expedite the process for the ACCC Digital Platforms Code of Conduct. It is clear that negotiations between the parties to date have been deeply unsatisfactory. These platforms derive value from the news and Premium Australian Content generated by commercial broadcasters, but their market power means they do not pay a fair price for it. The Government must step into this process and drive a speedy resolution to the bargaining imbalance between the parties.
As the world cranks into post-isolation reality, commercial television will need an operating environment that provides certainty for the future. We need a new regulatory framework suitable for a world where broadcasters compete with unregulated online content providers and digital platforms that don’t have any of the same rules that apply to Free TV broadcasters.
We look forward to working with Minister Fletcher and the Morrison Government to achieve regulatory settings that are suitable for the post COVID world. Free TV broadcasters still account for the lion’s share of spending on film and television production in this country. A sustainable commercial television sector is crucial to the health of the broader production sector.”
The release of a screen options paper will guide the overdue debate about the future Australian screen content, says the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance.
MEAA, along with other members of the Make It Australian campaign, has long argued for Australian content rules to be brought into the 21st century to recognise audience preferences for streaming services.
The options paper is extensive and will take some time to digest and respond to. While some of the proposals in the four models set out in the paper should be ruled out, such as total deregulation, a range of viable positions are canvassed.
MEAA strongly supports regulatory equality and platform neutrality. This means platforms have meaningful obligations, rather than all platforms being subjected to a vastly diluted Australian content regime.
“The Australian screen sector employs tens of thousands of creatives, performers and technicians,” Mr Murphy said.
“The sector has been pummelled by the coronavirus. As we look to the future, one of the most significant pathways to resuming production and getting our creative workforce back in business will be strong, fit-for-purpose content regulations that apply to all platforms in a balanced manner.”
ViacomCBS Australia and New Zealand chief content officer and EVP, Beverley McGarvey, said: “The measures announced by the Communications Minister are a great first step in helping us keep our focus on delivering important news and entertainment to our growing community of Network 10 viewers during these uncertain times.
“It’s important to remember that we are only at the beginning of this global crisis and the impacts to our industry, in both the revenue and production capacity, are likely to be felt well into the future. We need to look at further measures in the short-term that will help us plan ahead so we can continue to deliver free, high-quality content to our audiences.
“The Minister was right to release the local content options paper without delay because it gives us the chance to shape the long-term future of our important industry before the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis make the decisions for us.
“We hope that all stakeholders can work together on outcomes that not only build a flourishing local production sector but allow the commercial free-to-air broadcasters to thrive amongst the growing global competition for Australian audiences.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the financial sustainability of our national television broadcasters, the Morrison Government today announced a suspension of content obligations until the end of this calendar year. While there will be no change to the requirement for broadcasters to meet a 55% Australian content obligation, broadcasters have been released from drama, children and documentary content quotas. This news is delivered at a time when Australians are streaming more content than ever, and global tech giants are prospering without regulation.
Over recent weeks, Seven West (with a net debt of $540m) cut salary costs by 20% and Nine communicated a $200m cost-saving strategy. The current crippling cashflow crisis facing commercial broadcasters has precipitated a federal decision that was being carefully considered by multiple stakeholders prior to COVID-19. By postponing local content quotas to alleviate immediate financial pressure, the government will prematurely alter our TV landscape, in turn diminishing long-term employment prospects for writers and weakening our unique cultural voice. Paul Fletcher’s suspension of Australian drama, children and documentary content obligations until the end of December 2020 will allow broadcasters to evade local scripted production across two financial years and give them the option to hold back content that has already been produced.
‘The suspension of the quotas for Australian drama, children and documentary content until at least the end of the year is deeply concerning for the future of the entire industry,’ said President of the Australian Writers’ Guild, Shane Brennan.
‘The economic downturn caused by COVID-19 has given Australian networks the excuse they need in their quest to end the quota system once and for all. With this decision, the Federal Government has turned its back on the thousands of talented workers in this industry in favour of supporting a handful of media companies,’ said Mr Brennan.
In response to this announcement, the Australian Writers’ Guild urges Paul Fletcher to strengthen his position on the regulation of global streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Disney+ by imposing local content obligations to mitigate the negative impact on the Australian screen industry. AWG welcomes today’s release of an options paper that was co-authored by Screen Australia and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to consider an updated support framework for Australian stories in a multi-platform environment.
Alongside SPA, MEAA and ADG, AWG is calling for the government to contribute a $1bn content fund to supplement Screen Australia investment and the immediate imposition of content obligations on SVOD services.
The Australian playwriting community is also reeling from the Australia Council’s recent four-year funding announcements, where small-mid producing companies with track records of commissioning, developing and producing new Australian plays were hit hard. La Mama, ATYP, The Blue Room and Barking Gecko were all unsuccessful in securing four-year funding, decimating opportunities for playwrights. ATYP’s National Studio was celebrated by playwrights as one of the best script development programs in the country. This feedback was highlighted in AWG’s submission to last year’s REĂ Review. The Guild is in conversation with Australian Plays and Playwriting Australia as they strive to achieve funding beyond 2021 for a new entity for playwright and play development.
AWG will continue to fight to protect local content quotas, effective arts funding, our members’ livelihoods and our national cultural identity.