The chiefs of the Seven, Nine and Ten Networks today pressed their case to scrap the quotas for children’s and pre-school programming and to raise the TV producer offset to 40 per cent.
All three urged parliament to pass the government’s media reforms and they vowed to plough the savings from the abolition of annual licence fees into local content.
However Nine Entertainment CEO Hugh Marks indicated that some of that money would be invested in distribution platforms to make Nine’s content more widely available.
Ten’s CEO Paul Anderson called for the removal of Screen Australia’s 65-episode cap on funding dramas and changing the definition of “first release” in the Content Standard to enable networks to collaborate with pay TV channels.
Marks advocated a wholesale review of the public broadcasters, questioning whether both need their current number of channels to fulfil their charters.
He complained SBS has driven up the costs of international content by outbidding the commercial networks for shows such as The Handmaid’s Tale, which Nine wanted to buy.
Similarly, Seven West Media CEO Tim Worner said Seven is regularly outbid by SBS for US and UK dramas, which his colleague Therese Hegarty suggested are outside SBS’s charter.
The execs appeared separately before the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts in Sydney, which is conducting an inquiry into factors contributing to the growth and sustainability of Australia’s film and television industry.
Worner argued the children’s quotas are outdated and unduly restrictive, observing “it is not sustainable or defensible to spend millions of dollars on children’s programming” which often is watched by 6,000 kids or fewer.
Anderson pointed out kids are watching the ABC’s dedicated children’s channels and iview, pay TV kids channels, Netflix Kids and YouTube, with the result that Ten’s shows are usually watched by around 2,000 5-12-year-olds.
“These programs are also almost impossible to monetise due to the low audiences and the extremely restrictive advertising restrictions around them,” he said, adding that he rejects suggestions that children aren’t watching Ten’s C and P shows because the content is not high quality or they are not properly marketed and scheduled.
Worner called for simplifying the process of approving visas for foreign actors and technicians (which entails consultation with the MEAA), claiming it is time consuming and expensive. He insisted this reform would not lead to a large increase of foreign personnel coming to Australia.
Ten’s chief content officer Beverley McGarvey told the inquiry Ten decided to proceed with series six and seven of Offspring although the Endemol Shine Australia production no longer qualified for Screen Australia funding.
The broadcaster was willing to take a “massive hit” financially on the show because it is important to Ten’s brand, she said. Anderson revealed the drama’s budget went up from around $650,000 an hour to just under $1 million and the company loses money on all its Australian dramas.
Anderson acknowledged that abandoning the current regulatory settings altogether would most likely bring about the collapse of the local production sector, stating: “That cannot be allowed to happen because we need to grow and retain the skills and enormous talent base we have in this country and we need a strong local production sector to do what we do.”
All three networks called for the removal of the outdated two-out-of-three and 75 per cent reach rules. “By severely restricting local media companies from acquiring much needed scale and capital, these rules are actively threatening diversity,” Anderson said.
“It does not make any sense that there is not an Australian media company of any size that is currently allowed to buy Ten. How are we supposed to compete with Google and Facebook, companies that are over 2,200 and 1,500 times bigger than us respectively, when we are completely hamstrung by these pre-internet laws?”
Marks revealed that Nine spends $600 million annually on local content, divided roughly equally between news and current affairs; sports; and programming including dramas, reality shows and documentaries.
Marks was asked his view on proposals by Screen Producers Australia and others to apply local content regulations to Netflix, Stan (a joint venture between Nine and Fairfax Media) and other streaming services.
He opined that quotas would be “very detrimental to the development of these businesses.”