Minister Paul Fletcher addresses the Screen Forever conference. 

While Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Paul Fletcher is keeping mum as to whether the government plans to adjust the screen industry’s regulatory framework, in his address to the Screen Forever conference on Tuesday he emphasised government has a role to play in supporting the industry to capture global opportunities.

“Your sector is undergoing profound change – but it is a change which brings exciting new opportunities to supply content into a voracious global market,” the Minister told delegates.

“It important that our regulatory and funding arrangements work to support your sector to capture these opportunities.”

The Screen Forever keynote marked Fletcher’s most significant public address to the screen production sector since starting in the industry portfolio in May.

The minister noted in his speech the immense industry upheaval brought on by new digital players like Netflix and Amazon, and that the government is considering if the support it provides industry needs to change. While is he yet to be drawn on answers, he did want to raise some questions.

Those questions stemmed from the recommendations of the ACCC’s Digital Platforms Inquiry Final Report, handed down in July.

That report, which looked at the media industry more broadly, including news and journalistic content, found most media regulation is outdated and reflects industry structures as they stood in the 1990s – i.e. the pre-internet era.

As the screen industry well knows, that means different rules now apply to content whether it is distributed on free-to-air TV, via subscription television providers like Foxtel or SVOD platforms. Commercial networks have obligations to screen and produce Australian content, including children’s content. New market entrants such as streamers like Netflix, Stan and Amazon face virtually none, despite reaching approximately 10 million Australians.

Among the report’s 23 recommendations was that the government should harmonise media regulation, so that businesses that compete to serve the same audiences face similar regulatory requirements. That particular recommendation raises significant questions for the screen industry, Fletcher said.

“Should there be content obligations imposed on SVOD businesses? Do the content obligations in their current form fit with the way that consumers are consuming content today? Do our funding arrangements work as well as they could to support Australian productions getting onto global SVOD platforms?

“When Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and I released the ACCC’s report, we said we would consult on its recommendations and the government would release our response to them before the end of this year.

“As I have said before, I expect our response to set out a pathway the government will take to engage with these and other issues and to reach decisions on them.

“I have appreciated the engagement with your sector to date to better understand these issues – and I certainly want to maintain that close engagement,” he said.

Having previously worked in corporate and regulatory affairs at Optus, as well as serving as parliamentary secretary and chief of staff to previous Communications Ministers, many in the industry have welcomed Fletcher’s appointment. There is hope he will move to end ongoing policy paralysis on a range of issues, most notably lack of local content regulation on SVOD services, though also harmonisation of the Producer Offset across film and television, and a new regulatory regime for children’s content, among others.

This is particularly after three inquiries into the sector –  one by the House of Reps, one by the Senate and the Australian and Children’s Screen Content Review run by Screen Australia, the Department of Communications and the Arts and ACMA – failed to garner government response under the helm of previous Communications and Arts Minister Mitch Fifield.

Introducing Minister Fletcher to the conference, Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner cited Fletcher’s resume and said there is “no one better from our government to be in this job at this moment for our industry. I absolutely mean that.”

Encouragingly for producers and other content creators, Deaner has observed Fletcher to be invested in both the “pipes” and the “poets” of the industry.

“That connection is absolutely critical. You can have pipes and no poets, and they’re just pipes. And you have poets that don’t have pipes, and they’re just poets that don’t get any audience,” Deaner said.

Elsewhere in his address to producers, Fletcher underscored that the government sees both cultural and economic imperative in supporting Australian stories. To that end he was pleased to see a record $768 million spend on local content in 2018-19, as reported in the recent Screen Australia Drama Report.

“Of course it is important that Australians see the best the world has to offer. But it is also important that Australians are not left in a position where the only stories they see on their screens are set in other countries.

“The cultural value of screen content is profound. It contributes to our sense of identity and national pride; it helps create social cohesion and provides us with ways to connect with one another,” he said.

“It is important for Australian adults – and equally important for Australian children. Sesame Street and Peppa Pig are great – but we also want Australian children to hear presenters and see stories which resonate with their own daily lives.”

While new platforms like Netflix, Youtube and Amazon offer unprecedented opportunity for Australian work to reach global stage, increased competition has put pressures on traditional TV broadcasters to a point where current models may now be unsustainable, Fletcher said.

“Executives tell me that shows which a few years ago would have been watched by 2 million people around the country are now only getting a few hundred thousand.  On the flip side, our broadcast television networks are increasingly working out how to take their linear content and use it to draw larger audiences after it first appears in the schedule, using their broadcast video on demand (BVOD) platforms.  They are even succeeding in generating ad revenue – although they are at pains to say that what they get from BVOD does not make up for what they lose from lower numbers when first shown,” he said.

“This is an important point to remember when considering the Screen Australia numbers I mentioned before. It is good that there is a lot of Australian drama being produced; but if it seen by smaller numbers than before, and if it is much harder to monetise for the broadcasters, we need to ask how sustainable these arrangements are.”

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