Stephen Conroy — The Power Index‘s number one media maestro — makes some sensible observations about Australian content to Paul Barry. Effectively classifying or imposing content standards on new media outlets like YouTube are — whatever the Convergence Review might conclude — extraordinarily difficult to achieve. And yet, as the communications minister correctly notes, we must think hard about the issue of Australian content. As a small Anglophone market, Australia has always faced the problem of preventing its audio-visual markets from being overwhelmed by American content, and resorted to a mix of protectionism, regulation and government funding to do so.

Those methods are incresingly out of date as media consumption switches — not necessarily away from the TV screen, but to consuming a variety of different media within the home, with the family TV increasingly being used for gaming, internet, DVD and video-on-demand services rather than traditional broadcast television.

Free marketeers take the view that if Australians want to watch Australian content (invariably pitched as “our stories, told well”), they’ll do so without government regulation. Governments have never shared this view, preferring to try to maintain levels of Australian content via the traditional media. But there is certainly merit in the free market idea that if the protectionist impulse for Australian content cannot be denied, then it should be implemented efficiently.

The best way to achieve this would be to abandon regulatory mechanisms and attempts to compel content providers to show Australian content and for taxpayers to fully accept the cost of producing Australian content. There is already considerable government support for various forms of local production. Consideration should be given to shifting to a fully market-based mechanism for producing Australian content in which all types of content producers could bid for production funding. If the regulatory impulse can’t be resisted, tradeable quotas across the broadcast media should be considered to enable the most efficient producers to benefit most from taxpayer funding. This would be significantly more efficient than imposing new forms of regulation on new media, as the Convergence Review interim report proposes.

This would make transparent the full costs of supporting Australian content, rather than hiding it in a maze of regulation as it currently is. And then the community might consider whether it is worth paying such a price for “our stories, told well”.

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