Minister for Communications and the Arts Mitch Fifield opening the ACMA Australian Content Conversation conference. 

Minister for Communications and the Arts Mitch Fifield has indicated a strong desire for the government’s review into Australian and children’s content to be industry-led. 

“What we want is your views,” the Senator told the ACMA Content Conversation conference this week.

“Dare I say it, the answers seldom come from government, or right answers seldom come from government when you are looking at policy settings. I have found in this portfolio and also in my previous portfolio, disability and aged care, that the answers come from the sector itself.”

The government’s content review was announced as part of its media reform package earlier this month, and will be jointly conducted by the Department of Communications and the Arts, Screen Australia and ACMA. 

Fifield said their objective is to hand down a report to government by the end of the year, which will suggest sustainable policies to ensure the ongoing availability of local content in the modern media environment. 

The Minister said the review starts from the perspective that government regulation and incentives need to enable the industry to capitalise on future opportunities and respond to challenges. 

Australia’s content regulation and policy framework had some “gaping holes” in the face of the digital disruption brought on by the likes of Netflix and its ilk, he said. 

“The way we impose quotas, the nature of the expectations we put upon broadcasters, the way in which we foster original content, the incentive structures in place, were all fit for purpose at a time that is no longer with us. The world has moved on,” said the Minister. 

While the terms of reference are yet to be made available, Fifield said the review is seeking an “identification of a mix of regulation and incentives fit for a multi-platform, highly competitive digital era that will ensure that quality Australian and children’s content continues to be made available for Australian and global audiences.”

“We want to make sure that these settings maximise audiences and allow growth and prosperity across platforms. I need to acknowledge that we are not starting from a green field,” said Fifield, later going on to acknowledge the tax offsets in particular. 

“The structures and policies we are seeking to modernise have served us well. They need to change but we do have strong base to contemplate the future.” 

He also said that the House of Representative’s parliamentary inquiry into the growth and sustainability of the film and television industry was a “complementary process” and that the submissions would contribute to the review. 

Formulating the review

Over the course of the conference, which Fifield called “the start of the conversation” about the review, there were some questions from industry about what sort of approach it would take. 

Australian Directors’ Guild CEO Kingston Anderson asked the Department’s Deputy Secretary for Content, Arts and Strategy Richard Eccles, whether the government was “fair dinkum” about the review. He raised the Labor government’s 2012 Convergence Review.

“A lot of work was put in by a lot of people in the industry, by your department, by Screen Australia. There was a document, I’m not saying it was perfect, but it was a beginning of a discussion,” he said, stating that the work seemed to have been lost in the change of government. 

Eccles countered there was a clear appetite to modernise policy, and that the government was looking to simplify the “sedimentary layers” that had built up over the years. 

“It was an absolutely fundamental part of the broadcasting package that was announced a couple weeks ago that there would be a content review. The government is fair dinkum about it. But of course, there is no doubt that the government and the department will be judged at the end of that and we’ve very happy for that to be the case.”

Concerns were also raised by Ausfilm CEO Debra Richards that the review would throw the “baby out with the bathwater”. 

She said that even though it was fine to debate over the levels of the offsets – for example, Ausfilm have long advocated for the Location Offset to be lifted from 16.5 per cent to 30 per cent –  they remained an important incentive to encourage production. 

Foxtel’s director of corporate affairs Bruce Meagher agreed, noting that while he didn’t think the content quotas placed on free-to-air networks were sustainable in the long term, scrapping them today without thinking about a transition plan would be “a disaster”. The fact that the United States Free Trade Agreement would mean that a lowered content quota could never be raised again means that all involved need to be “very careful.” 

Eccles said that he would not scrap things that were working well, rather, if it policy does work well, “it is really about modernising it and making sure that it’s fit for purpose, and that the way that we incentivise makes sense based on the way that people create.”

Overall, Eccles said for policy to withstand the centre of government, it would need to be ambitious but pragmatic, and speak for a range of people. In terms of keeping everyone happy, he drew laughter from the crowd when he joked the review team would “go for bronze”. 

He added the policy would need to be underpinned by evidence, modern and have inbuilt flexibility to be able to respond to disruption in the future. 

“Way too often, the way that governments put in place policy, it catches us up to where we are today. All too often it’s out of date within weeks, months, years. It was okay in the 1980s, because it took years for it to be less relevant. These days, in this sector, it is so much quicker,” he said. 

Wrapping the conference, ACMA chairman Richard Bean encouraged the crowd to think big and differently when it came to the review. 

“Can we please have some really open thinking from all of you, and from some new people?” he asked

“Frankly we could probably write the usual submissions already. So don’t just repeat them. Please try and think about the complexity of the whole system… If you want change, have a think about what you’d do instead.”

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