Foxtel will be able to halve its commitment to producing Australian drama under new government legislation that also appears to backtrack on a pledge to force Netflix and Amazon to make local shows.
The Morrison government’s new broadcasting bill, which slashes Foxtel’s requirement to spend 10% of its drama budget on Australian content to 5%, makes no mention of the streaming services although the communications minister, Paul Fletcher, referenced them this week when he attempted to explain why Foxtel was getting a reduction.
“As the green paper proposes, as well as reducing the Australian content spend that Foxtel has, we will for the first time impose an Australian content spend requirement on the streaming platforms,” Fletcher told ABC radio Melbourne. “The idea would be to harmonise both of those at at 5%.”
The struggling screen industry wants the major streaming platforms to spend 20% of their local revenue on new Australian drama, documentary and children’s content, to bring us into line with France and Canada.
Both Labor and the Greens have criticised the Morrison government for dragging the chain on regulating the streaming services.
The Greens media spokeswoman, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, said the legislation was “just another Morrison government favour to Foxtel, off the back of the $40m they’ve already handed out to the Murdoch-owned company”.
Days after tabling the bill, Fletcher attacked the ABC as “precious” after the public broadcaster rejected his call for formal quotas for Australian content as “an incursion into its independence”.
In an opinion piece published in the Australian, Fletcher said the ABC’s response to the proposal had been “quite surprising – and, frankly, disappointing”.
The ABC already exceeds the commercial network quota of 55% and no other network produces more Australian content. In 2019/20 80% of programs broadcast on the main ABC channel between 6am and midnight were Australian.
The ABC managing director, David Anderson, said setting a minimum level of expenditure for television production would reduce the broadcaster’s flexibility.
“Essential to the perception of the ABC’s independence and impartiality is the reality that we are independent and detached from government direction,” Anderson said.
Commercial free-to-air broadcasters are required to ensure that 55% of all content they broadcast is Australian and are large investors in Australian drama; while Foxtel has been required to spend 10% of its drama budget on Australian productions.
A spokesman for Fletcher confirmed there was no current proposal for a 5% quota for the streaming giants but declined to elaborate on what the minister meant.
Hanson-Young said the local industry is in a precarious position and streaming platforms have millions of Australian subscribers and are making hundreds of millions in revenue but there is no requirement for them to spend that revenue on Australian stories.
“Halving local content quotas will harm our local screen industry and cost Australian jobs,” Hanson-Young told Guardian Australia.
“Rather than just cutting regulations to suit their Murdoch mates, the government should be moving now to regulate the streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon.”
The Labor communications spokeswoman, Michelle Rowland, said the government was “all over the shop on Australian screen content rules”.
“So far, this government’s idea of harmonisation is the deregulation of safeguards to support Australian screen production,” Rowland told Guardian Australia.
“Labor first committed to regulating streaming services for Australian content two years ago, to level the playing field and secure Australian stories on our screens.”
The CEO of Screen Producers Australia, Matthew Deaner, said it made no sense to align Foxtel’s requirement with that of Netflix because the platforms were so different.
“We think this change will let audiences down,” Deaner told Guardian Australia. “The Foxtel requirement was already modest at 10% and a reduction will only reduce choice and diversity for Foxtel’s viewers.
“Harmonisation of the media landscape should be our goal but it can’t be done at the expense of Australian audiences and the local industry.”
Instead of a content requirement the government expects all streaming services to report their 2020 investment in Australian-made content to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
Foxtel welcomed the reduction and said it won’t alter its commitment to Australian production, which includes recent dramas Wentworth and The End and entertainment programs Gogglebox and Selling Houses Australia.
“We believe reducing the [drama] obligation will provide Foxtel with flexibility for investment in Australian content across a variety of genres,” a spokesman said.