Content review: international insights

Jean-Pierre Blais, Jane Wrightson and Jonathon Taplin at the ACMA content conversation. (Photo: ACMA). 

The Federal Government’s review into Australian and children’s content is now underway, with aims to create policies that will ensure a strong Aussie screen sector into the future.

However, our industry is not alone in grappling with how to sustainably produce local content in a digital era.

At the recent ACMA content conversation conference, international regulators and funding agencies gave insight into how they had adapted to try to deal with changes in the global market.

Jane Wrightson, CEO of NZ On Air – the funding agency that supports public broadcast media in New Zealand – pointed out New Zealand differs to Australia in that it has virtually no media regulation. This includes no cross-ownership restrictions, quotas, licence fees or conditions. There’s also no non-commercial mainstream broadcaster except Maori TV. Interventions in the market include a broadcast complaints mechanism and funding incentives for film and television.

“The sky does not fall in with deregulation,” she said, arguing that her agency had help build NZ’s independent production industry and reduced the cultural cringe on the airwaves.

However, Wrightson said that in recent years NZ On Air had amassed a complex web of funding streams, and was receiving “increasingly safe, unadventurous applications for broadcast and increasingly good ideas for online only with weaker commercial cases.”

“We were set in our ways and we had no good way to properly encourage innovation,” she said.

As a result, the agency has recently “started again” and established a platform neutral fund which will launch in July. It has three investment drivers: quality, diversity and discoverability, and four funding streams: scripted, factual, music and platforms.

“We took a clear public media focus. We didn’t get diverted into the glamour of red carpet production or whizzbang new tech like VR: last year’s rage, or AR: this year’s rage,” said Wrightson.

“That’s because we think our taxpayer funding is for New Zealand public media which is free to access, on the main platforms used by New Zealanders, with a clear cultural and social focus.”

The starting point for funding is now whether it can attract an audience.

“We’re looking gimlet-eyed at promotions plans. We all know that finding content is the hardest thing to achieve in a crowded marketplace,” she said.

Chair of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission Jean-Pierre Blais also underscored the importance of content being able to reach audiences, arguing that promotion – as opposed to protection – is key in a digital era.

Canada has recently rejigged its own television regulation, the starting point of which was talking to the public, said Blais. Over 15,000 people participated in a survey, called ‘Let’s Talk TV’, about what they wanted from Canadian content.

“Our process in all of this was quite different than looking at it from what the industry wanted. In fact we set it up so that we spoke to Canadians first and heard from the industry later,” said Blais.

“It was a gamechanger for the Commission which historically had always described its mission as balancing the interests of the industry with the interests of Canadians. And frankly we shifted that. It’s all about the viewer.”

Canada has relaxed its screen quotas, a decision which Blais said was in part to reduce “tonnage” and focus on quality.

“Our perspective now is that you have to spend a certain amount of money – 30 per cent – of the previous year’s revenues on Canadian [content]. But you can produce what you think is required on the various broadcasting platforms you have to reach audiences domestically and internationally.”

Dealing with the ‘global elephants’

Wrightson said New Zealand and Australia’s industries face “similar threats”, as in, “global elephants gobbling up audiences and revenues in the very small local room”.

The CEO argued Netflix’s launch in New Zealand had already changed viewing habits forever.

“Our pay television monopoly, Sky, which used to be in over half the households in New Zealand, has been badly hit,” she said.

“In part because it has never seriously worked on an online strategy and in part because channel bundling is now seen by the audience as more of a rip off than a gift. And the free-to-air broadcast television model is of course under threat. We’ve got too many channels and declining revenue.”

Wrightson said that in a marketplace of what is “probably permanent ongoing fast change” public policy interventions have to be simple and nimble, and argued that to her outsider’s eye, the Australian system “seems complicated and rule-bound.”

She underlined that a key conversation has to be around trust. “Does the sector conversation around change have to be antagonistic? Do media organisations always have to compete aggressively with each other, rather co-operate locally to take on the globals?” she asked.

Wrightson asked that if Aussie free-to-air networks were seeking to escape regulatory obligations, could they not “volunteer an adult conversation” about a new way to contribute Australian content on an ongoing basis?

She encouraged the breaking down of sectors’ siloes – regulators, content creators and broadcasters – to reach the best solutions.

“What we collectively know is that our own cultures need fierce and clever champions, because if we in the media don’t do this, who else in our world of global partners and competitors will?”