Senator Stephen Conroy’s announcement late last year that Australian content rules are to be extended to the digital siblings of the legacy free-to-air channels has made bedfellows of four major players in the Australian film and TV production scene.

These organisations are sometimes wary of one another’s company. The “Australian Screens, Australian Stories” campaign is led by the Australian Directors Guild, Australian Writers’ Guild, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance and the Screen Producers Association of Australia.

Since the move to digital TV, the vast increase in available programming space has drastically cut the percentage of airtime occupied by Australian programs, either new or repeats. The campaign organisers are urging citizens to sign and mail postcards to their local members of parliament to enlist their support to protect viewers’ and voters’ access to quality Australian programs.

In his media release late last year the minister undertook to:

  • Introduce a multi-channel Australian content requirement for each commercial television broadcaster of 730 hours in 2013, increasing to 1095 hours in 2014 and to 1460 hours in 2015. This includes an incentive for first-release drama by allowing an hour of first release drama premiered on a digital multichannel to count for two hours under the transmission hours requirement for multichannels.
  • Retain the current 55% transmission quota for the commercial television broadcasters’ primary channels, but introduce greater flexibility into the current arrangements for sub-quotas.

He also guaranteed the 50% licence rebate of 2012 would be extended to the end of 2013 and be made permanent at 4.5% of revenue without conditions.

The government is preparing legislation for presentation to the March parliamentary sittings. The legislation will require the commercial networks to screen at least 12% (2015 hours) Australian content between 6am and midnight across their digital channels by 2015.

According to Australian Directors Guild executive director Kingston Anderson: “This is approximately half the amount of Australian content they currently show on their multi-channels. Critically, there is no requirement to screen any first-run content so the quota can be filled by repeats of programs from the main channel.”

The Senator’s announcement is light on detail and no draft legislation is available. Australian Writers’ Guild executive director Jacqueline Elaine has concern that “the proposed changes will not result in any increase in the vulnerable program genres that tell original Australian stories — locally made drama, narrative comedy, children’s programs and documentaries”.

And Actors Equity director Sue McCreadie insists that the campaign won’t cost the taxpayer a cent. “These quotas were actually recommended by the government’s own convergence review, which revealed a huge increase in foreign TV programs since the introduction of the multi-channels,” she said. “The cost should be borne by the commercial networks — which is not a lot to ask given the government is handing them a permanent cut in licence fees and a commitment not to allow a fourth free-to-air network.”

The postcards in the campaign feature a cartoon by 2012 Walkley Award-winning Crikey cartoonist First Dog on the Moon, where the ghost of Skippy the bush kangaroo grills Conroy about the changes and his purpose. And there’s online petition. It could be a long fight.

*Dr Vincent O’Donnell is a media commentator associated with RMIT University and media policy editor at Screen Hub where this article first appeared