The ABC says imposing programming quotas could undermine its independence as the government proposes sweeping changes to media laws that would force Netflix to make more Australian content.
To level the playing field with the commercial free-to-air broadcasters, the Australian government proposes making Netflix, and the other streaming services such as Foxtel’s Binge, Disney Plus, Amazon’s Prime Video and Apple TV, commit to a yet-to-be determined level of investment in original content.
The streaming service Stan, owned by Nine Entertainment, would be exempt because Channel Nine already has content obligations.
Under the current rules only the commercial broadcasters must meet a quota of 55% Australian content, and Foxtel 5%.
The Morrison government suspended a raft of local content obligations for 2020 in April as the industry struggled to survive the economic impacts of Covid-19 but the 55% obligation remained in place.
Although it is not subject to content laws, the ABC produces more Australian drama than all the commercial networks put together: its five-year average is 24 productions compared with channels Seven, Nine and Ten combined with a total of 21. The streaming services produced six drama titles combined in five years and subscription TV and SBS produced five each.
“This proposal is intended to guarantee a minimum level of investment by these services in new Australian content and provide a more equitable regulatory framework where Australian screen content obligations apply to the wider market, rather than only to traditional broadcasters,” a media reform green paper released on Friday said.
While the ABC’s production of Australian content is already very high, the corporation opposes the idea of a quota in principle because it allows governments to dictate how the public broadcaster should spend their budget.
“For more than a decade the ABC has consistently opposed the imposition of quotas because of the risk that they could undermine the ABC’s independence and limit its ability to invest in local news and investigative journalism,” an ABC spokesperson said.
The Greens’ media and communications spokeswoman, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, said reform to regulate online streaming services in Australia was well overdue.
“The Greens have long been calling for the government to regulate streaming giants like Netflix that are making billions of dollars from Australian subscribers without any obligation to host any Australian content on their screens,” she said.
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance chief executive, Paul Murphy, welcomed the proposed changes, which would give certainty to thousands of skilled writers, directors, creatives, technicians, performers and other workers.
In the past five years the ABC’s investment in local production included $200m on Australian drama, comedy and Indigenous content, producing more than 70 hours of content a year; $70m on factual programs and documentaries, producing an average of 140 hours a year; and $90m on children’s content, producing an average of 310 hours of content a year.
The communications minister, Paul Fletcher, is seeking public submissions on the green paper by 7 March 2021.
“The media landscape has changed significantly over the past decade, with faster internet allowing digital technologies to generate significant benefits for industry and consumers,” he said. “However, these technologies have also fractured business models and rendered many of our regulatory structures obsolete.
“With declining revenues, rising costs and an outdated regulatory framework, the capacity of Australia’s media sector to provide Australian programming, local content and public interest journalism is being challenged. These structural pressures have been accelerated by the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, reinforcing the need for regulatory action.”