While federal communications minister Paul Fletcher has tipped his hand ahead of next week’s reading of the 2020-21 budget regarding new investments in Australian film and television productions, the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance (MEAA), Labor and the Greens have hit back to say that the government’s plans actually take Australian productions a few steps backward from previous years.
Fletcher unveiled his ministry’s plans on Wednesday, where he summarised the announcement of new funding and content packages as a “simplifying” of regulations that merges film and television productions under the same banner while deferring investments towards new productions overall.
“The Government is providing $30 million in funding to Screen Australia over two years to support the production of Australian drama, documentary and children’s film and television content,” Fletcher announced.
“Screen Australia will also receive an additional $3 million over three years to establish a competitive grants program to cultivate quality Australian screenwriting and script development.
“We are also providing $20 million to the Australian Children’s Television Foundation over two years to boost the development, production and distribution of high-quality Australian children’s content,” added Fletcher, as the core elements in his announcement regarding future funding of productions.
However, while the government’s new intentions under these packages possess the intent to represent more attractive content to market to overseas markets and to streaming providers such as Netflix, Stan, Disney+ and Amazon Prime, the MEAA – the union looking after the arts and entertainment sectors – fears that overall content for Australian audiences will be diluted.
Paul Murphy, the chief executive of the MEAA, has called out Fletcher and the Morrison government for not reining in the loose regulations that the streaming services now enjoy within Australia’s borders.
“How the Government has missed the boat on regulating streaming services and requiring set levels of Australian content each year defies belief. This government seems intent on deregulation rather than creating a playing field that is level for all,” said Murphy.
“Streaming services – yielding billions in income each year – will be celebrating that they have again avoided any content rules,” added Murphy.
Murphy also views Fletcher’s announcement as a bit of a trojan horse – using the buzzwords of “essential to Australia’s cultural identity” and “jobs and growth” to hide the fact that the sectors’ employees may not have enough work towards what may be feared to be a fewer allotment of overall productions.
“The new flexibility provided to Australian commercial television networks will also lead to fewer productions across the board,” Murphy said.
“Moving Foxtel and other subscription broadcast television broadcasters to five percent from ten percent of program expenditure for each drama channel just reflects a government that is not serious about the provision of quality Australian content for our growing nation,” added Murphy.
Meanwhile, a pair of key Labor shadow ministers have already pinned the potential impact of the government’s content plans as leaving Australians poorer off.
“For commercial TV, children’s content obligations are watered down. For Foxtel, content obligations have been halved. For streaming providers, there remains no obligation at all. That leaves just the ABC – which has been the target of constant Liberal cuts over the last seven years,” said Tony Burke, who looks after the ALP’s arts portfolio.
And Michelle Rowland, the ALP’s shadow communications minister, has said that Fletcher and the government have failed to meet their obligations to allow the domestic film and television industries to adapt to a changing environment.
“He has failed the creators and small businesses that comprise the screen sector. He has failed Australians who want more Australian stories,” said Rowland.
“He has even failed his own test. Fletcher has previously announced he would harmonise the regulatory framework and address the disparity in regulation between broadcasters and online streaming services. But he has failed to deliver on that,” she added.
And Sarah Hanson-Young – who holds the communications portfolio for the Greens – has called upon the streaming providers to pay fairly for the right to carry all content within Australia, while Australian content and the jobs which produce them remain under siege.
And actually has the potential to carry out the reverse intention that Fletcher wishes to protect and enhance.
“The Government has failed to deliver real reform… and has let the global steaming giants off the hook. This is a decision that if not corrected, will cost local jobs and undermine Australia’s creative and cultural heritage,” Hanson-Young said.
“The Government’s reforms to local content quotas must result in more quality Australian stories on our screens, not less. This will only happen if the global streaming giants are regulated properly,” she added.
Fletcher cited that the items announced have come as a result of consultations received in the government’s “Supporting Australian Stories On Our Screens” discussion paper released as a joint endeavour between the government and Screen Australia in March, as a response to the three-part digital platform inquiry undertaken by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
“The views of stakeholders and interested parties were very clear – we need to continue our support for the production of Australian content, but we also need to remove unsustainable obligations on industry and tailor our interventions to match the new and diverse ways Australian content is being produced and consumed,” said Fletcher.
However, Hanson-Young claims that while domestic broadcasters are still required to provide 55 percent overall Australian content on their primary channels between 6:00am and midnight, and to provide 1,460 hours of Australian content per year on their multi-channels, Australian audiences – including that for children’s programming – may suffer from an overall lack of quality.
“Without legal requirements on the global giants, our screens and children’s devices will become even more clogged with trashy, cheap shows from America. Our Aussie kids deserve better than this,” Hanson-Young said.
“The Greens will fight for local content requirements on streaming services to be legislated.
“Research shows two thirds of Australians support laws requiring streaming services like Netflix and Amazon to show and fund locally-made shows and films – this was a no-brainer and the Morrison Government has missed it,” added Hanson-Young.
“This Government talks a big game about levelling the playing field with the so-called ‘digital giants’, but it has baulked at actually doing so,” concurs Rowland.
Also by William Olson:
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