Screen Producers Australia slams ‘weak’ streaming service reporting scheme

Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner.

Screen Producers Australia has again taken the Federal Government to task for its proposed Streaming Services Reporting and Investment Scheme, labelling the next steps in the media reform agenda as “weak” and “lacking in a vision or plan”.

As part of new measures announced in February, Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts Paul Fletcher outlined a strategy for services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ to report annually to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) on their Australian content spend. If a service’s investment is below 5 per cent, then the government would be able to impose a formal investment requirement.

The government has since sought industry submissions via a discussion paper outlining the key points of the scheme.

At the time, SPA CEO Matthew Deaner said the regulatory model was an “opportunity missed” that could see Australia miss out in global investment strategies.

Concerns were also raised among the guilds at March’s Screen Forever conference, where Australian Directors Guild (ADG) executive director Alaric McAusland the industry was currently “way too polite” to government on the issue.

In introducing the SPA’s submission to the paper, Deaner doubled down on his criticism, declaring the proposal would likely lead to less Australian content on streaming services.

“Overall, we find the current government’s scheme to be weak and lacking in a vision or plan to grow the Australian screen sector,” he said

“At a time when Australian audiences are wanting to see more of their homegrown stories on screen, it is inexplicable that the current government has not only overseen a loss of Australian content on free-to-air platforms but is also proposing to let highly profitable global streaming businesses like Netflix and Disney+ off the hook for any meaningful and consistent ongoing contribution to Australian screen culture.”

SPA’s submission puts in a renewed call for a 20 per cent Australian commissioned content expenditure requirement to be applied to global streaming businesses, a proposal it advocated for, along with other sections of the industry, throughout the green paper submission process.

The organisation also pushes for terms of trade safeguards between producers and platforms, having released research last year in which independent producers reported bargaining challenges in doing business with commissioning platforms.

Of chief concern for SPA is the “untenable” level of government discretion within the various stages of the two-tiered scheme.

Under the framework, the Minister for Communications would have the power to designate large SVOD services, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, as Tier 1 services that would be required to report annually to ACMA on their Australian content expenditure.

If a Tier 1 service failed to report within 60 days of the designated timeframe or did not demonstrate the required investment in Australian content, the Minister could reassign it as a Tier 2 service, meaning it would become subject to formal investment obligation of an amount “to be determined in the designation instrument”, in addition to reporting requirements.

SPA identifies the “alarming degree” of ministerial discretion as “perhaps the defining feature” of the scheme.

“Under this framework, Australian content becomes a matter for the uncertain preferences of future Ministers, who are subject to intense lobbying efforts of large commercial corporations,” the submission states.

“Our industry has seen the negative effects of this during the pandemic, without a strong regulatory framework to bind them to important public interest principles.”

While noting a number of critical issues, SPA welcomed some components of the plan in its submission, such as only new Australian commissions being included in the assessment of local expenditure, as opposed to acquisitions and re-licensing.

It was also encouraged that discoverability was recognised as an issue of importance within the discussion paper, with reporting framework set to include a requirement that services demonstrate how they are making Australian content discoverable to local audiences.

However, Deaner noted there were still plenty of areas for improvement.

“SPA believes there are compelling reasons for a better regulatory framework for streaming services and in our submission, we are calling for regulatory certainty and a plan for industry growth – not treading water or even worse – going backwards,” he said.

Find the full submission here.