There has long been widespread community, political and industry agreement over the important place of Australian content in the media mix, but debate continues over what counts as such in different media, how that content is defined, how much there should be, whether particular genres should be privileged, who should finance production, and how all of these things should be regulated.
The history of Australian media content has largely been a history of regulation. Social and cultural policy objectives have most often been cited as the grounds for government intervention, although various policy domains, including international trade, communications, innovation and employment, can influence the regulatory approach. The many reviews and inquiries conducted since early last century by parliamentary committees, special commissions and successive regulators have produced myriad reports, recommendations and regulations designed to ensure the presence of Australian content in media markets. Taxes and tax-based incentives, direct and indirect financial subsidies and investment mechanisms have been implemented to support domestic production, and to preserve a local media production industry. A complex system of quid pro quos has justified the imposition of content obligations on broadcasters in return for protection from competition, and for their privileged access to the broadcast spectrum. But with the prospect—and recently the reality—of content services delivered via the internet rather than over the air or via cable or satellite, the rationales for Australian content regulation and the forms that regulation may take have increasingly been called into question.
The regulatory framework has been shaped by a core set of rationales, including protecting media proprietors’ commercial interests; providing employment and opportunities for Australian practitioners; limiting the ‘dumping’ of international content and the influence of American cultural forms; serving the national public interest in accessing Australian material; engaging with the best of the world’s media content; and ‘telling our own stories’ and ‘dreaming our own dreams’. Debate has been most robust in relation to broadcast and screen media, although there are parallel histories in other media and arts forms.
In cinema, calls for government intervention to assist the once thriving film industry met with limited success until the Australian Film Development Corporation (AFDC) was established in 1970. The Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry in Australia (1927–28) recommended an ‘Empire quota’, but lobbying by US film companies meant this was never implemented. In 1934, an exhibition quota of Australian films was legislated in New South Wales but again not enforced. The Australian Film Development Corporation Act 1970 instituted the practice of government funding for feature film production. In order to qualify as Australian, a film had to display ‘significant Australian content’. Today, Screen Australia administers a similar ‘significant Australian content test’, although films are no longer required to be wholly or substantially made in Australia.
The original Australian Broadcasting Commission Act 1932 did not specifically require the broadcast of any Australian content on radio, although the ABC was expected to encourage local talent, and to establish orchestras, choirs and bands around the country. The Australian Broadcasting Act 1942 imposed a similar local talent requirement on commercial radio licensees, and established the first local content quota, requiring both national and commercial radio services to devote at least 2.5 per cent of music time to the work of Australian composers (rising to 5 per cent in 1956). Although around 10 per cent of commercial stations consistently failed to meet the quota, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) did not deem this sufficiently serious to merit any kind of sanction, let alone the ultimate penalty of licence cancellation.
In 1973, the ABCB introduced a 10 per cent ‘Australian musical performances’ quota, rising to 20 per cent in 1976. In 1999, the quota was recalibrated by genre under Commercial Radio Australia’s Code of Practice for Australian Music. Mainstream pop/rock attracted the highest quota of 25 per cent, a quarter of which has to be less than a year old. The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Act 2006 requires regional commercial radio licensees to broadcast set levels of ‘material of local interest’, and to maintain prescribed staffing levels and facilities when a licence changes hands. In 2010, the Australian music quotas were waived for digital-only radio services. Despite the Convergence Review’s 2012 recommendation that the quotas should be extended to these services, no such provision was included in the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Act 2013.
Regulation in support of local production and employment in television was considered before television broadcasting commenced in 1956, although it was not until 1960 that the first quota was introduced. The Postmaster-General, (Sir) Charles Davidson, then directed licensees to broadcast Australian programs for at least 40 per cent of transmission time by the end of their first three years of operation, with an additional one hour of programming per week in peak time (initially 7.30–9.30 p.m.) to be devoted to programs that were distinctively Australian in content and character. While the levels changed over subsequent years, the transmission and peak time quotas were the core of Australian content regulation both before the introduction of a qualitative points-based system in 1973, and again since 1990 when the points system was revised following yet another public inquiry. The new transmission quota was progressively increased from 35 per cent in 1990 to 50 per cent in 1993, rising to its current level of 55 per cent in 1998.
Genre quotas were introduced following the recommendation of the Senate Select Committee on the Encouragement of Australian Productions for Television (known as the Vincent Committee, 1962–63) that special consideration be given to Australian drama and children’s programs. ‘Credit loadings’ were introduced in 1966, with particular genres and levels of Australian employment given additional weighting in the calculation of licensees’ transmission obligations. Minimum hourly requirements for drama and children’s programs were introduced in 1970, before the entire framework was over-hauled under the new points system in 1973 that privileged certain Australian programs—notably drama, news and current affairs, documentary and children’s shows.
The points system privileged onscreen indicators, with the ‘Australian look’ of programs as well as their genre, cost, employment and length determining the points they received. The system in part reflected the success of a lobbying campaign, ‘TV Make it Australian’, which had been established in 1970 to advocate for content regulation—especially for drama. The system was revised in 1976, and while in subsequent years many stations exceeded their overall requirements, many failed to meet the drama and children’s quotas. Sympathetic to industry lobbying over the impact of the requirements on stations’ profitability, the ABCB continued to overlook this widespread non-compliance. Ultimately the points system failed to meet its objectives of increasing the volume and diversity of Australian content. It was revised in 1990, and again in 1996 when a new drama points arrangement and a new definition of Australian content were introduced, along with a quota for first release documentaries.
The content standard was amended again in 1999 after the High Court ruled in favour of New Zealand producers who had argued that the non-discrimination provision of the Australia–New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Agreement meant that New Zealand programs could count as Australian for quota purposes. Another trade agreement, the 2005 Australia–United States Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA), placed further restrictions on future expansion or modification of content rules. In radio, further music quotas may be imposed, although they cannot exceed 25 per cent of programming time. Any future reduction of either the commercial television transmission quota from its current level of 55 per cent, or the 80 per cent Australian advertising quota, cannot subsequently be reversed. The AUSFTA does permit the imposition of rules or measures to ensure the availability of Australian content in online services, but only if such content is not readily available, and only after consultation with the United States.
The Convergence Review was established by Minister for Communications Senator Stephen Conroy in late 2010, in part to assess the effectiveness of media and communications regulation in the light of digitisation, rapid technological change and the availability of new online services. Australian content was a principal focus. The Review’s final report (2012) recommended the eventual introduction of a uniform, platform-neutral system, with responsibility for financing Australian content production falling principally to the largest media enterprises. Recognising that this system could not be introduced immediately, the Review made a series of transitional recommendations, including extending the expenditure quota for pay television services to documentary and children’s programs as well as drama; increasing the drama, documentary and children’s sub-quotas for free-to-air broadcasters; and imposing transmission quotas on the public service broadcasters for the first time. Ultimately, the Gillard Labor government did not accept the Review’s proposals for fundamental change. The Australian content provisions in the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Act 2013 were limited to the introduction of a time-based Australian program quota for free-to-air broadcasters’ digital multi-channels—albeit at a lower level than that at which most were already recording. The Convergence Review had proposed to balance ‘flexibility’ for the free-to-air networks with increases to the sub-quotas, new requirements for pay television and the public broadcasters, and increased tax credits for producers. The 2013 Act includes none of these. As a result, the question of how Australian media content may be secured in the future remains unresolved.
REFs: ABA, Australian Content: Review of the Program Standard for Commercial Television: Working Paper (1994); Convergence Review, Discussion Paper: Australian and Local Content (2011); Screen Australia, Convergence 2011 (2011).