By William Olson
As if the recent budget cuts to the ABC weren’t bad enough – and cuts which the Morrison government denies are actually cuts at all – now comes word that a permanent abolishment of requirements for local content across Australian television and streaming services is in the works.
And the decision by Paul Fletcher, the federal communications minister, has come under attack from several opposition politicians holding arts and communications portfolios, and the salvos being fired against Fletcher are as potent as when the cuts to the ABC were announced a fortnight earlier.
Sarah Hanson-Young, the Greens’ senator from South Australia who holds both portfolios for her party, has led the attacks, imploring Fletcher to stand up for Australian content appearing not only on local television screens, via free-to-air and Foxtel alike, but also on major streaming services such as Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus as well.
“Letting broadcasters out of local content requirements and failing to immediately regulate streaming services put the jobs of every person who works on Australian drama, documentaries and children’s TV shows from actors, to writers, to crews at risk,” Hanson-Young said on Monday.
According to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), broadcasters are currently required to account for 55 percent of domestic content on primary channels and a minimum of 1460 hours of domestic programming on non-primary channels, all between the hours of 6:00am and 12:00midnight each day.
However, now that submissions for a Fletcher-sponsored discussion paper on the matter have closed, Fletcher is said to be giving a thumbs-up to ditching those quotas – something which Hanson-Young insists is unacceptable.
“The big wigs of streaming and broadcasting can’t be allowed to call the shots when it comes to Australian stories on our screens,” she said.
“Regulating streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Stan should be part of the government’s arts and entertainment industry COVID-19 recovery package, which is woefully inadequate, and therefore treated as a matter of urgency,” she added.
Previously, shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland had called out the Morrison government for their latest round of cuts to the ABC, where the expected shedding of up to 250 jobs comes on top of a previous 800 jobs lost at the national broadcaster since the initial cuts in 2014.
While stating that all forms of Australian media and news are struggling as well as those in creative industries as well, Rowland has warned that specific to the ABC, their creative efforts in programming that has produced such acclaimed shows of great variety in recent years as “Hard Quiz”, “Gardening Australia”, “Bluey”, “At Home Alone Together”, and “Mystery Road”, to name but a few, may be seen to dwindle without minimum quotas required for Australian-made and -produced content.
And that’s in spite of the Morrison government announcing a $250 million stimulus package for the arts – oddly enough, announced the day after revealing its cuts to the ABC.
“Our creative industries are struggling. Even as the Government considers a belated relief package, the ABC has been forced to reduce its commissioning budget by $5 million per year and show even fewer Australian stories,” said Rowland.
“The ABC warned these cuts would ‘make it difficult for the ABC to meet its Charter requirements and audience expectations’. These warnings are now materialising and will mean less Australian stories, less news and less sport,” added Rowland.
As for streaming services, the likes of Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus, among others, currently have no obligatory quotas unlike their free-to-air and pay-TV counterparts to produce content for the Australian market, and that is seen as a hindrance for Australian content as a whole.
“Australian stories are vital for our culture and social fabric and the sustainability of our arts and entertainment industry,” said Hanson-Young.
And with regard to the global phenomenon that the Brisbane-made and -produced children’s program “Bluey” has become, rivalling even “The Wiggles” as an Australian export, Hanson-Young added: “Good quality children’s content is good for the community and it creates jobs.”
Tony Burke, in his role as the shadow minister for the arts for the ALP, suspects that Fletcher may have a bigger agenda with regard to content numbers on Australian screens and devices.
“Minister Fletcher has previously described quotas as “red tape”, displaying an appalling lack of understanding from the man who is meant to be the voice of the creative industries in Cabinet,” Burke said last month, after the Morrison government announced the stimulus package for the arts sector.
“Now just three days after finally delivering some assistance they’re seeking to take away a critical support for our creators. It’s yet another example of the Government using this crisis as cover to push through extreme and permanent changes,” Burke added.
Whereas local content requirements were suspended in light of the pandemic, here’s hoping that Fletcher listens to his critics to return to them and extend them.
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