TELEVISION producers and the actors' union have united in condemning the government's decision to hand a permanent licence fee reduction to Australia's free-to-air commercial broadcasters, saying the move could lead to less local content on air rather than more.
The Screen Producers Association of Australia said it was ''outraged that the government has not demanded a meaningful commitment to Australian content'' in return for a permanent 50 per cent reduction in the fees paid by the networks for access to broadcast spectrum.
On Friday afternoon, the office of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announced a series of changes, including the licence fee reduction and a new broadcast quota for the networks' digital multi-channels (Gem, 7mate, One, etc), which have thus far been exempt from having to screen any Australian content at all.
''Seeing Australian stories told on TV is vital in reflecting and maintaining our Australian identity, character and diversity,'' Senator Conroy said.
But the producers' association argues that at stake is the viability of Australian content in the face of an onslaught of cheap foreign material, which can be bought for about a quarter, and sometimes as little as one-tenth, of the cost of locally produced content.
''There is little incentive to encourage new Australian content on the multi-channels under the new rules,'' the association's executive director, Matthew Deaner, said. ''If the government is not currently prepared to regulate for more Australian content, it must move immediately to provide alternative support measures to ensure that more quality Australian content is made.''
Within minutes of Senator Conroy's announcement, Seven, Nine and the industry lobby group, Free TV Australia, had put out press releases hailing the changes as a victory for local content. ''Australian viewers are the major winners,'' Free TV said, predicting that ''all channels will have a strong Australian flavour''.
However, Sue McCreadie, director of the actors union Equity, said the Australian content provisions were ''smoke and mirrors''.
''They are not going to achieve the stated aim that Australian content continues to be seen or that networks continue to invest in it,'' she said. ''The transmission quota will be very easily filled up with cheap programming like sport and news - programming that would happen anyway.''
The association and Equity have lobbied the government to mandate an additional 40 hours of Australian drama per year. That would represent a roughly 50 per cent increase in production, and would cost the networks about $14 million each. The licence fee reduction is collectively worth more than $100 million a year.
The convergence review, which was handed down in March and to which the government has yet to fully respond, went further, recommending an increase of 50 per cent in the sub-quotas for first-release drama, children's and documentary production by the networks.
Instead, what the government has announced is an increase in hours of Australian content to be broadcast without any stipulation on what type of content it should be, or even that it should be new. That means the networks can fill the required hours on their multi-channels with repeats of Blue Heelers, Prisoner or The Sullivans if they so choose.
The only incentive to commission new programming is that any such content will count double towards meeting the quota.The primary channels will continue to be subject to a 55 per cent Australian content quota between 6am and midnight. Over a full year, that means they must carry at least 3613 hours each of Australian content.
The new quotas will require the networks to carry an additional 1460 hours of Australian content on their multi-channels by 2015 – effectively, 11.1 per cent of the hours between 6am and midnight, and on some estimates less than they carry now.
The impact of the multi-channels on Australian content has been dramatic. Screen Australia reported in August 2011 that locally produced content on commercial channels had fallen from 59 per cent of the total in 2008 to 35 per cent in 2011.
Ms McCready claimed the opportunities for Australian content to make it to screen were only likely to become more restricted in the future. "The NBN, internet television and other forms of digital delivery mean we'll soon be swamped by foreign content," she said. "Beyond free-to-air television we don't have anything that is controlled.
"This should have been an easy one, not that much of a drain on the networks, but the government has squibbed it."