Laura Carmichael and Jessica De Gouw star in Ten drama The Secrets She Keeps. (Image: Supplied)

The media package announced yesterday made clear the government’s priorities: it’s far more concerned about bailing out the media corporations (including foreign-owned News Corp) than the industry and the people who work in it.

Worse, the help for these corporations comes at least in part at the expense of the creative industries. And for all the short-term cash it will gift (or save) the large corporations, it’s fundamentally backward looking to an Australian media that is in the midst of vanishing.

It’s the third blow in the past month to the arts and entertainment sector, reeling from the shuttering of live performances and frozen out from the $750 a week JobKeeper allowance. 

Most damaging of the three-part package is the suspension of the Australian content rules that surround the obligation to broadcast Australian programming for 55% of broadcast time. It costs the free-to-air broadcasters about $1.6 billion a year, according to a separate options paper on TV regulation released yesterday.

To prevent the broadcasters gaming the rule with, for example, low-cost programs or re-runs outside prime time, the obligation has long been fleshed out with quotas for particular genres: first release prime time Australia drama, first release Australian documentaries and children’s and pre-school programming. 

These rules have been offensively packaged as “an emergency red tape reduction” and suspended for 2020 — with a ministerial wink that it could be longer. Getting out from under these regulations has been a long-term goal of the TV networks. 

They have been particularly lobbying to abolish the children’s quota (they are restrained from ads targeting children), particularly since the ABC launched its ABC Kids multi-channel (with about one-third Australian content). The options paper seems to lean towards this outcome.

Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner has called the suspension “a blunt tool” which will effectively knock out demand which would have kept people employed in the production industry.

The second gift to the broadcasters is the suspension of the so-called spectrum tax — the fee the broadcasters pay to use publicly-owned airwaves. With remarkable foresight, Nine had already advised the ASX in its March 30 operational initiatives that it would not be paying its $10 million fee this year.

The third part of the package is to repurpose the small and regional publishers grant program. Originally launched in 2018 (as a trade off to SA Senator Nick Xenophon for supporting media consolidation laws), it was aimed to help small and independent publishers better compete with the large corporations as they adjusted to industry disruption. (Crikey received a grant in 2019.)

Now, most of its funds have been transferred to a Public Interest News Gathering Fund. Topped up to $50 million, this will be redirected from small and independent publishers to all regional publishers and broadcasters — read News Corp, Seven West Media and Nine’s former regional newspaper offshoot Australian Community Media (sold off last year). 

For a reeling journalism, it’s a help. But it’s targeted at old business models

This bailout pretends the COVID-19 shock is a caesura; that, with a bit of help and a bit of luck, Australia’s media will bounce over to the other side, much as it was before. But, the shock is turbo-charging all the pre-COVID-19 trends. There’s no going back.

For the media, that means the shift in the audience’s attention from traditional media and linear TV to social media and over-the-top streaming — with advertising following on. Here’s a sign of how that’s being hurried: according to an industry study quoted in yesterday’s options paper, free-to-air revenues were expected to fall about 2.8% a year over the next five years. Now, industry sources expect them to fall from 20 to 30% just this month.

The good news in yesterday’s package was not the three give-aways to the big corporations. It was the release of the options paper. Prepared by Screen Australia and the Australian Communications and Media Authority, it’s a deeply researched landscape of where the industry in Australia was just two months ago.

By applying the speeded up lens of COVID-19, it gives the grounding for some future package that will genuinely help the arts, media and entertainment industry — not just the lumbering 20th century corporations that once dominated it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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