What future Australian content?

Dr Mary Debrett Dr Mary Debrett
Email: m.debrett@latrobe.edu.au

First published on On Line Opinion on 28 December, 2012.






Channel TEN appears to be ailing. The network is hemorrhaging viewers and advertising income with recent reports of its embattled directors keenly awaiting the decision of that other billionaire director, Gina Rinehart, on the latest capital raising venture – one which will virtually halve the actual share price in order to ease the debt load. Given the manner of the abrupt sacking of newsreader Helen Kapaolos last month, and the billionaire board members involved, there may not be much sympathy for TEN. That said, viewers may still wonder why the channel that produced Offspring, one of the most original local dramas of the season, and screenedHomeland, rated the The Age's top TV show of the year, should be failing so badly. TEN's decline of course reflects what is happening elsewhere in the industry. The internet is undermining broadcast television just as it did the newspaper business, and that most coveted demographic, youth, is abandoning the simultaneous 'appointment' viewing experience for personalized, on-demand downloading. While TV broadcasters are emulating this trend with online catch-up services, a host of new competitors, legal and illegal, are already exploiting the opportunities of faster broadband across the globe by offering access to vast reservoirs of audiovisual content.

Self-identifying as digital natives, generation Y, understandably keen to differentiate themselves from the oldies, tend to cast TV viewing as 'passive' and interactive media as 'active' – a distinction that incidentally contradicts several decades of television audience research undertaken across the globe around the notion of the 'active' interpreting audience. With the spread of on-demand media, downloading a program online is now deemed more 'active' than selecting it via a TV remote, albeit from a digital program guide, or one's own DVR. On-demand viewing by personal impulse, rather than by the personal choice enabled by time shifting or multiple synchronous channels, is the new premium viewing situation.

Famously described by Lord Thompson in 1957 as a 'license to print money', free-to-air commercial television has been a magnificent selling machine. Selling mass and niche audiences to advertisers, its investment potential won prominence in the business section of newspapers, and its bountiful cash flow provided ready finance for the expensive and risky business of television production. During the last two decades the relentless hunger of the 24/7 TV schedule has driven a host of cost expedient reality TV formats from the early docu-soaps of the 1990s, to Big Brother in 2000, to The Biggest Loser in 2006, and more lately the 'dramality' series, The Shire - not to mention the numerous variations of dance and singing quests that drew on the talents of celebrities and wannabes.

Such formats have brought Australian faces and voices to the small screen, and they come to us courtesy of the Australian content standard (ACS), legislated in the Australian Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and implemented via the state regulator, ACMA. Commercial broadcast television licenses have carried few obligations in Australia but the ACS requirement has been an important one for the local production sector. Spectrum scarcity in the analogue era and the notion of the electromagnetic spectrum as a public resource constituted the rationale for government regulation, although the ACS was also a hard fought battle. Being an English-speaking nation meant Australia's commercial television broadcasters had access to a great range of ready-made audience-tested content from the UK and the US. Given producers in these larger countries had already re-couped their production costs on their national market, their export prices could be adjusted downwards to whatever was competitive. Australian television producers, operating in a much smaller market and with less international clout, could not compete. Thus commercial advantage was a national cultural disadvantage - one that ultimately led to legislation mandating minimum quotas for local content.

When Senator Conroy recently announced that last year's cut to the commercial television license fee was to be a permanent reduction, amounting collectively to $100 million, it was described by Conroy as being about protecting 'quality Australian content'. Equity director Sue McCready, however, assessed it as 'smoke and mirrors'. Introducing a minimum-hours quota on the new digital channels while also introducing 'greater flexibility into the current arrangements for sub-quotas', the changes gave with one hand and took with the other. As both the Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA) and Equity note, the failure to foreground first-run Australian content or to increase minimum hours of endangered genres – drama, children's drama and documentary – where regulations have effectively been decreased, will actually lead to reductions in Australian content.

The ACS quota and sub-quotas have been vital for the viability of the local audiovisual production sector in which television production (advertising and programming) and feature film production have cross-fertilised and cross-subsidized one another. While much is made of IPTV as a new age of choice and a boon to consumers, this trend threatens the sustainability of local production unless our government acts to protect it, since economies of scale still apply in the online world. Eventually, no doubt, new systems will emerge but for the time being bridging the transition constitutes a make or break challenge for Australia's screen production industry.

The promise of Chris Anderson's long tail - the idea that the low overheads and search engine filters of online distribution would contribute to a new economy in which business would operate on multiple incremental income streams across a very long time frame, 'selling less of more' - is more difficult to apply to screen production where large upfront investment necessarily involves high risk and requires the possibility of rapid up-front high returns to make it attractive. Among the most popular programs downloaded, the successful television drama series emerging from the cable network, Home Box Office (HBO) in the US, such as, Madmen, The Good Wife and Homeland, reflect the established system of high value up-front investment and conventional marketing and distribution networks. While alternative models such as crowd-sourced funding and social media marketing are proving successful for some, it is significant that the conventional high-end production system typified by HBO still draws a huge viewership around the world, indicating that while viewers may be using different platforms and choosing on-demand viewing, their taste for content may not have shifted that much.

But the fact that television viewing now occurs across multiple platforms, and that this is diminishing the profitability of commercial free-to-air broadcasters, has major ramifications for the funding model of Australian television production. For Australians, the new era of choice should include the choice of Australian content as the NBN is rolled out. Free-to-air as a mass media platform retains a key role to play as the site of first launch and offers the best chance for promoting and driving the distribution of Australian content across the on-demand platforms.

UK commentator Brian Winston's thesis that new technologies are generally constrained until political, economic and social needs all coincide, when the 'play-off between social necessity and suppression' is resolved, suggests that although increasing public uptake of new methods of TV viewing may be drawing advertising and thus challenging the old broadcasting institutions, the latter are likely to survive as long as there's political will. Certainly Senator Conroy's latest protection measure, the license fee concession, reflects this political will but appears less about protecting free-to-air or even Australian content of the more cost-expedient kind, than protecting the protectors.

As far as TEN's crisis goes, Gina Rinehart did apparently support the float and so the network struggles on for the time being. But like Conroy, her decision may well have been motivated more by political rather than other considerations.

Mary Debrett is a senior lecturer in the School of Communication, Arts and Critical Enquiry at La Trobe University.