Local drama on life support as TV networks threaten to pull the plug

Commercial networks want local content quotas dropped, but producers and advocates say Australian stories are vital

Kids TV and Australian drama will be devastated if commercial networks follow through with threats to abandon local content quotas, producers and children’s media advocates have warned.

After posting a $67m loss for the first half of the 2020 financial year, Seven West Media chief executive James Warburton threatened to stop producing new children’s programs and local drama because the cost of doing so was unsustainable and the audience was dwindling.

Nine Entertainment chief executive Hugh Marks, who reported a 9% slump in profits this week and announced $100m in cuts to broadcast TV, immediately joined the call to abandon quotas.

The minister for communications, Paul Fletcher, confirmed Warburton had written to him to push for the ongoing review of quotas to be sped up but said no discussions with Seven had been held yet.

The Australian screen content review, which examined the adequacy of quotas for Australian content and tax incentives for local production, was completed in 2017 but has yet to be released, which has frustrated the commercial networks.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority told Guardian Australia a failure by any network to meet its obligations under the TV licence would result in a series of “formal enforcement options”, escalating to civil penalties.

Under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, the Australian Content Standard 2016 and Children’s Television Standards 2009, networks Seven, Nine and Ten are obliged to provide a minimum of 260 hours of children’s (C) programs annually, of which half must be first release, and a minimum of 130 hours of Australian preschool (P) programs annually.

Elizabeth Handsley, president of the Australian Council on Children and the Media, said the amount of money the broadcasters put into making these programs was relatively small.

Acma has reported that the commercial networks spend up to 1.6% of their programming budgets on children’s content – including foreign programming – and that new Australian production amounts to 0.5%.

“If they abandoned their obligations we’d be at the mercy of the ABC and hoping that streaming services started making local children’s content,” Handlsey told Guardian Australia.

“It would all be a wish and a prayer. We know that children aren’t a strong market, but we’d like to see the platforms and the licensees attend to children’s needs – which is for good quality content. We all have an obligation to ensure children have a healthy development and it’s not all about money.”

The networks have been lobbying the government to change the rules for at least a decade, arguing streaming services have an unfair advantage because they don’t have to meet any quotas and that children’s viewing habits have changed and they’d rather watch videos on YouTube.

The screen industry has argued that left to their own devices, networks would abandon children’s content and the younger generation would be robbed of the opportunity to be educated and entertained by local artists and to see Australian stories on the screen.

The content that is profitable for the networks in the age of Netflix and streaming video-on-demand is marquee reality TV shows like Married at First Sight, news and current affairs and live sport.

The chief executive of Screen Producers Australia, Matthew Deaner, said it is nonsense that well-made and properly marketed children’s television can’t find an audience.

“What the broadcasters are doing to children’s content is equivalent to wrapping it up in a brown paper bag and putting it on the bottom of the shelf at the back of the store, moving it every other week to another hidden spot and then acting surprised when it doesn’t sell,” Deaner said.

“Australian parents have a right to freely access quality Australian content specifically designed for the needs of their children across trusted brands such as Seven, Nine and Ten.

“A thoughtless removal of quotas would act as a reward to what has been a steady decline in investments, promotion and marketing of quality Australian children’s content, and destroy so much of the ecology of the sector.”

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said it was disappointing to see the networks try to escape their obligations to make high-quality children’s programs.

“If children’s TV is going to survive in the modern, competitive media landscape then there needs to be reform,” Hanson-Young said. “New players like Netflix, Stan and Disney have changed the way we consume media and children’s TV cannot be left behind.

“Locally made kids TV is a vital part of telling our Australian stories. Putting big commercial interest ahead of Aussie kids and their ability to see their own world and help make sense of it is important.

“As a mum, the idea that our kids are bombarded with crap shows from America is nauseating. Australian kids deserve quality TV on whatever platform they use.”

An options paper being prepared by the Acma and Screen Australia is expected to be released within days.


Amanda Meade

The GuardianTramp

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