Australia Suspends Broadcaster’s Local Content Quotas; Producers Guild Says Move Could “Cripple” Industry

The Australian government has suspended its local content quotas for broadcasters for the rest of 2020, with the option to extend through 2021. The move is in response to the shutdown of the country’s production sector due to the ongoing coronavirus disruption, as well as the significant downturn in network advertising revenues.

“COVID-19 has effectively halted production of Australian screen content, making it impossible for free-to-air and subscription television businesses to meet Australian content obligations,” said the government’s Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher in a statement.

“The media sector is sharing that pain, especially in regional areas. Broadcasters and newspapers face significant financial pressure and COVID-19 has led to a sharp downturn in advertising revenue across the whole sector.”

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The quotas cover Australian drama, children’s and documentary content across free and subscription channels. However, the overall 55% rule remains in place, ensuring a majority of content shown is Australian, which means networks will still need to prioritize other forms of local programming.

Today’s government announcement, designed to boost the broadcast sector, also includes a 12-month waiver of spectrum tax for commercial television and radio broadcasters, and a $32M USD ($50M AUD) program to support public interest news ($8.5M USD of which is new money).

The package has been widely welcomed in Australia, but there are concerns that the quotas aspect could negatively affect the local production sector going forward.

“Be in no doubt the commercial TV sector is going through a really difficult time now too. But the key to the future here is to ensure Australian content doesn’t take a hit,” tweeted opposition Labor MP Tony Burke.

Screen Producers Australia (SPA) also took a dim view of the policy, releasing a statement condemning the decision.

“These hard cuts have the potential to at worst cripple Australia’s production industry and at best snuff the opportunities for a rebound for much of our sector at a time when it is facing a very real battle for survival,” said SPA CEO Matthew Deaner.

“Coronavirus assistance for Australia’s broadcasters should not have to come at the expense of our production sector, which has been amongst the hardest hit by widespread shutdowns and which is in need of a comprehensive support package itself,” Deaner added. “This announcement will just load up the pain on Australia’s struggling arts and creative sector, most of whom are now out of work and falling through the cracks of assistance measures.”

The local content quotas do not currently apply to international streaming services, a pre-existing bone of contention in the local industry. “Streaming services evade the current content rules. The solution isn’t to abolish the rules,” tweeted MP Burke.

In his statement, Fletcher added that he would consult with the industry to look into how the issue with streaming quotas could be addressed in the future.

“Regulated free-to-air broadcasters are competing with unregulated digital platforms and video streaming services. It has been evident for some time – and the COVID-19 crisis has made it even more obvious – that this is not sustainable,” he commented.

“We need to re-emerge from COVID-19 with a regulatory framework suited to the twenty-first century that recognises today’s competitive landscape – where television broadcasters compete with streaming services and a myriad of other internet-based businesses – and which positions both the television sector and the content production sector for a sustainable future.”

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