Why it’s high time Australia had content quotas for streaming platforms

If you think companies like Netflix will voluntarily support the local film and TV industry in a meaningful way, you’re kidding yourself

I may not have the data to prove it, but I dare say it is an incontrovertible fact that no pickup line in history has ever incorporated the words “content quotas”. At least no successful pickup line; it’s possible such a feat could have been attempted at some film industry event in between hors d’oeuvres. Even for people in the know, those words solicit a range of responses, from “let’s not talk about it again” to “finally, we need to have this conversation”.

Widespread support of content quotas from inside the local film and TV industry is unsurprising, given they’re wrapped up in a conversation about the viability of the industry’s very existence. People unfamiliar with this topic, which has been the subject of debate within the entertainment biz for years, might want the following response added to the list above: “What even are content quotas, and why should I care?”

Well, there are numerous reasons why you should care – provided we can first all agree on the following two things. The first: that we ought to live in a world where Australian films and TV shows continue to get made and seen. And the second: the world we live in is dominated by the commercial interests of a small number of hugely powerful corporations.

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This applies in general as well as specifically to streaming platforms in Australia, which are the focus of the content quota debate. Most are run by large multinationals: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and the Murdoch-owned Binge. Stan, among Australia’s most popular streaming services, isn’t owned by a multinational but rather Nine Entertainment, which isn’t exactly a mum-and-pop store.

Local content quotas are a way for the government to tell these services: you guys need to cough up some coin to support Australian productions, lest they wither on the vine – and here is the minimum amount of content we require.

To use the example of Netflix, a 2018 study found that Australian productions made up just 1.6 per cent of its library. That percentage may have slightly increased, with local productions added to the service including TV shows such as Lunatics and Tidelands, and films such as Sweet River and Hot Mess. But the percentage is still very, very piddly.

If you think companies like Netflix will voluntarily support the local industry in a meaningful way – out of, I don’t know, the goodness of their hearts – you’re kidding yourself.

Or, to put it another way: it would be foolish to embrace the outdated libertarian ideal that the market will ‘work itself out’ and relevant businesses will do the right thing in the long run. They won’t if they don’t have to.

Hot Mess
Hot Mess. Credit: Emerald Productions

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In an increasingly centralised online world, where a small number of tech giants wield an alarming and at times Orwellian amount of influence, arguments against government regulation are almost laughable.

That’s why even the Liberal Party, which has a long and disgusting history of flopping around in bed with big business, is engaging in a battle to get Facebook and Google to pay for Australian news distributed on their platforms. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, usually a staunch defender of huge corporations, has said he will introduce a mandatory code to get these companies to start ponying up some dosh.

The tech giants responded aggressively, with Google launching a scare campaign and Facebook threatening to block Australians from even sharing news on its platform.

This is a separate issue to content quotas, but it’s connected, and indeed, part of the same dilemma: how to protect homegrown industries from destruction at the hands of tech giants, which are like hideous neoliberal Pacmen, chomping their way across the globe and wolfing down local businesses.

Before you consider saying “don’t get crazy, there will always be an Australian film and TV industry”, well, ha, that’s cute. Let me remind you that people used to say the same thing about the once-proud Australian automobile manufacturing industry. The last Holden rolled out of the factory line in 2017. Local car manufacturing has gone the way of the dodo. For many people, the unthinkable occurred.

So, shock-horror: some industries need good regulation in order to service and potentially even flourish. Double shock-horror: providing such regulation is the sort of thing good governments are supposed to do. To say the Australian government is dragging its heels is something of an understatement, although in its defense it is rather busy cultivating an entirely justified reputation for being some of the world’s worst climate criminals.

Various groups and individuals have been campaigning for local streaming content quotas for several years now, including the star-studded Make It Australian campaign, supported by talent such as Cate Blanchett, Gillian Armstrong, Peter Weir, Rose Byrne and Phillip Noyce.

Cate Blanchett in Stateless
Cate Blanchett and Dominic West in ‘Stateless’. Credit: Netflix

If you’re new to this debate and wondering why Australia doesn’t yet have content quotas in place, the answer is we actually do – but not for streaming. A key part of the challenge is to bring current legislation kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Content quotas for Australian broadcast television were introduced in 1989 and expanded in 1996. The existing quotas stipulate a minimum of 55 per cent Australian programming every day from 6am until midnight (of which only a small amount is scripted productions).

In the era of online streaming catalogues, when we can watch whatever we want whenever we want, quotas matched to times of the day obviously no longer work. What stipulations take their place is the million-dollar question – or rather, one of several issues to sort out.

As a pessimist by nature, I expect the Liberal Party to eventually introduce thoroughly meek and insubstantial quotas. But by god, it’s time they introduced something.

The Australian film and TV industries have always had to fight for their survival – to retain, among other things, our national voice, our character, our cultural independence from bigger and more powerful countries such as the US and UK.

The current push for content quotas is extremely important – and also all just a little bit of history repeating. In the early 1960s, a mere 1 per cent of dramas broadcast in Australia was locally produced; broadcasting television in the country at the time consisted of wall-to-wall imported content.

To fight for greater government regulation, activists launched a campaign called “TV – Make it Australian”. On one occasion, protestors even marched through the streets of Melbourne behind a coffin carried by half a dozen people, used to symbolise the dead state of the local TV industry.

This story had a happy ending: with bipartisan support, new legislation was passed and the industry lived to die another day. Wait, that sounds too bleak. It lived to… live another day? You get the point.

Content quotas: we need them.

They might not make good material for a pickup line, but they’re extremely important. Nobody likes to carry around a coffin – especially an empty one.

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