Fears for the future of local content
While there is no immediate threat to local content rules the profusion of on-demand services may render quotas irrelevant and Australian broadcasters could be forced by economic pressures to commission less expensive local drama.
That troubling scenario was put forward by media and entertainment lawyer Ian Robertson at the ASTRA pay-TV conference in Sydney on Thursday.
Speaking in a panel on content funding, the Holding Redlich partner criticised the federal government for cutting the budgets of Screen Australia, the ABC and SBS.
“The case for direct subsidy and quotas for Australian drama and docos and proper funding of the public broadcasters is as strong, if not stronger, than it’s ever been,” said Robertson, a former deputy chair of Screen Australia. “It’s very disappointing that the federal government is moving in the opposite direction.”
Robertson and fellow panel members Screentime CEO Bob Campbell and Foxtel director of programming Ross Crowley called on the government to increase the 20% producer offset to 40%, with one caveat.
That is, the higher offset cannot be an excuse for commercial free-to-air broadcasters to drop their licence fees by a commensurate amount. Crowley said a 40% offset would encourage Foxtel to commission more local drama.
Robertson questioned how long broadcasters would be able to afford funding Australian drama, which can cost $1 million or more per hour, when they can buy US series for $200,000, as their revenues continue to be squeezed.
The government has indicated it will review local content quotas later this year or early next year as part of a review of media regulations and ownership.
Robertson said that as on-demand services become more popular, “quotas may be hard to impose and enforce.”
He added, “Over time, the commercial free-to-air broadcasters may not be able to afford to commission expensive Australian drama.”
He cited the case of the Seven Network cancelling A Place to Call Home after two seasons although it was the top-rating Australian drama of 2013 with an average five-city audience of 1.47 million. The reason: the audience skewed too old.
Screen Australia chief operating officer Fiona Cameron pointed out that 70% of the drama on Australian TV screens is imported.