The Netflix chief executive, Reed Hastings, has claimed this week in the Australian media that the streaming giant will “voluntarily” produce Australian content, rendering the need for mooted Australian local content rules redundant.
Leaving aside the fact that Netflix is not the only streaming service in town, sadly Netflix’s performance to date does not inspire the type of confidence that should encourage the federal government to abandon its rule in promoting Australian content and stories.
It’s time for streaming services, which are enjoying growing and significant revenues from Australians, to stump up and support our own screen sector. They are currently getting a free ride and a competitive advantage over traditional media, which is both unfair but also denying Australians the chance to be part of our own stories.
The release of a new media consumer survey by Deloitte this week has highlighted three Covid-19 media trends: a massive increase (39%) in the hours we spend watching paid movie and streaming services; our desire to escape the pandemic through Disney+, which has been an instant hit; and the popularity of watching live media conferences from our political leaders. I suspect only two of those trends will be enduring.
It’s therefore not surprising that, like a modern-day gold rush, the world is currently in the middle of a global content boom, with a staggering $100bn being invested annually in new screen content.
This translates into thousands of jobs for creative professionals, actors, crew and in the myriad of other industries, such as hospitality and tourism, which support and benefit from the screen sector. Globally, consumption of screen content is at an all-time high, which is in turn driving the record levels of investment.
In Australia, we’re yet to fully realise this golden opportunity for investment, jobs and content. Our laws and support systems for Australian screen content don’t yet reflect the way in which all of us are consuming content. Some content providers have formalised requirements to carry Australian content, while others do not, creating an unfair imbalance.
Traditional content rules are not easily applied to multi-channel streaming services let alone platforms that offer screen content alongside other products. The simplest solution must surely be for those streaming services to be required to expend a percentage of their Australian revenue on new Australian content.
Australia’s screen sector contributes $5.34bn in value-add to the economy and employs more than 30,000 people. In normal times, it is an essential part of our tourism industry through the collateral benefits of Australian faces, stories and landscapes. Most importantly, it also produces the stories that tell us who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going, and which talk to our place in the world. There’s clearly a lot at stake.
The challenge has always been that in a small market like Australia, it is cheaper to purchase already made English-language drama and children’s entertainment from the United States or the United Kingdom, compared to generating our own. This has created a clear case for intervention to support a medium that is so powerful and important to our national identity, our country’s culture and the development of our children.
While governments of all forms have sought to address this by providing support to the sector through regulation, tax incentives, direct funding and training and skills development, these measures were first developed some time ago, in a world in which Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney and others either weren’t around or didn’t participate in the market in the same way they do today.
There’s no doubt it has been a challenging time for Australia’s screen sector, and the broader ecology within which it sits, with Covid-19 causing many productions to pause and creating significant challenges for broadcasters and cinemas.
The good news is that with rigorous safety measures agreed, and support from the government in the form of a $50m fund, production is now under way again and ready to resume supply of great Australian content, and employment for thousands of Australians. This adds to the considerable amount of work that, with innovation and ingenuity, was able to continue throughout the shutdowns (such as animation and documentary).
However, while the immediate ramping up of production is crucial, it is the longer-term reform project that will really set the foundation for the future of Australian content and realise the potential of Australia’s screen industry.
If we are to be serious about continuing to have a diverse and vibrant screen culture that delivers culturally relevant and popular content, and which stimulates widespread economic activity and employment, then we must take this opportunity to create a forward-looking, fit-for-purpose and resilient model of government intervention in which all who benefit from serving Australian audiences contribute fairly to providing Australian local content.
• Trent Zimmerman is an Australian politician, the member for North Sydney and co-chair of Parliamentary Friends of the Screen Industry