The full extent of the inquiry into reality TV generated by complaints about the Ten Network’s Big Brother programs has now become apparent, and the highest-rating and most profitable part of the Australian TV industry is under threat from the Australian Media and Communications Authority’s examination.

ACMA was directed to hold the inquiry by the Federal Media Minister, Senator Helen Coonan, who was reacting to complaints about the now-infamous “turkey slapping” incident in the Big Brother house this year.

ACMA said in a statement that as it is required to report to the Minister by “1 April 2007, strict timing constraints have meant that the deadline for submissions is 1 February 2007. ACMA acknowledges that this timing is not ideal for stakeholders, and expresses its appreciation of the efforts of parties making submissions by this date.”

So it could very well be a quickie interview to satisfy the minister and her political mates which is what the TV industry, especially the Ten Network, would want to occur.

The Minister will no doubt take a little time to consider the report: it will go to her department for consideration. With any luck the federal election will intervene and any decision or further discussion won’t emerge until 2008. Any change would then impact the 2009 reality programs (if there are changes recommended).

ACMA said: “As part of its investigation into whether the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice provides appropriate community safeguards with respect to reality television programming, the Australian Communications and Media Authority has published a discussion paper outlining issues on which it seeks public comment.

“Submissions are invited from interested parties on the questions presented in the discussion paper. These include:

  • does reality television programming raise issues of community concern?
  • does the code reflect community standards with respect to reality television?
  • are the existing code mechanisms operating effectively to provide appropriate community safeguards with respect to reality television programming, including with respect to classification distinctions and consumer advice requirements?
  • does the code provide appropriate community safeguards with respect to the broadcast of reality television program excerpts in news and current affairs programs?
  • is the complaints mechanism in the code operating effectively and in a timely manner in relation to reality television?”

ACMA expanded on each of these questions in the discussion paper. The most dangerous part (from the industry’s point of view) is the suggestion that a proper standard might be needed to address any problems not handled by the present co-operative approach.

Moving to a standard would break much of the flexibility available to producers and programmers from the current “reality TV” genre and its use on Australian TV:

If ACMA determines that the Code is not operating effectively with respect to reality television programming, it will provide the Minister with recommendations as to what action should be taken and by whom. These recommendations may include, for example, whether a Code revision is advisable or whether ACMA should move to determine a program standard (Section 3).

ACMA may determine a standard only where there is convincing evidence that the Code is not operating to provide appropriate community safeguards.

While this review focuses on the effectiveness of regulation of reality television programming by the Code, a wholesale review of the Code is not within the scope of this investigation. The current version of the Code, which was registered in June 2004 by ACMA, is due for review again commencing in 2007.

And there’s the out for the industry. If the argument or discussion generated by submissions starts looking dangerous, the industry will try very hard to push the whole lot into the review of the current code from next year onwards.

This inquiry should not be underestimated. Some of the complaints are from nutters but others are genuine and were concerned about programs like Big Brother and whether there’s too much reality TV on our screens each night: there is an awful lot, probably more than many viewers really appreciate.

In fact it dominates our screens every week. It’s the most popular form of programming and generates lots of ratings points and profits for the commercial networks. If not handled properly the commercial TV industry could find itself with a new set of controls over its most popular and profitable form of programming.