'Australia. You're Watching It!': only connect, at least conceptually

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After pulling the children's television material out as a separate article, Tina Kaufman examines the other hot button agendas for the future of television, as seen by some key policy players.

After pulling the children's television material out as a separate article, Tina Kaufman examines the other hot button agendas for the future of television, as seen by some key policy players. In a tightly controlled but wide-ranging agenda over a day and a half last week the ABC partnered with MEAA (and others) and filled studio 22 with a good-sized audience of industry players, commentators and analysts to discuss Screen Content in the 21st Century, and the challenges it poses. With new technologies, new platforms, audience fragmentation, and local content regulation all seen as issues that should concern us, the debate was particularly interesting for the ways in which some topics were embraced, some almost avoided, and some backed away from. There particularly seemed to be a sense of ambivalence about the digital possibilities – they’re seen as offering exciting opportunities, but are also approached with some trepidation. While TV veteran Andy Lloyd-James, currently working on the Outside the Box project, gave a very enthusiastic and almost starry-eyed vision of the digital future, others seemed more fearful about, worried by, or dutifully accepting, the digital challenges ahead. At one stage a questioner asked if we were just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, while another talked about sandbagging against the inevitable flood – and sandbagging then was mentioned several more times. Andy Lloyd James recognised this ambivalence, saying that while people looked at the future with considerable fear, he saw digital technology bringing about the greatest societal change since the industrial revolution, one that enables us to make a great leap forward. While Australian content regulations work because analogue television delivers captive audiences, he says, 'digital technology will not only deliver non-captive audiences, but change their very nature, delivering communities that slip and change,’ adding that 'people do far more than they ever could – and they love it!’ Consumers are not only consumers, but producers, making all kinds of things. They are avatars, living in social sites, and they recommend things to each other. 'Participation really changes the game,’ he argues, 'delivering content that can no longer be defined as Australian content. Facebook and MySpace are commissioning drama, but that’s not Australian content. Australians are very good at creating games, but that’s not Australian content.’ He doesn’t believe Australia has developed a sustainable production industry, with the current business model only working with government intervention. In the future, he believes, 'the audience will have to want our content; we can’t force them to watch any more.’ But he believes that the real digital dividend is that it massively drives the productivity of nation as a whole. 'Don’t only focus on television,’ he advises. 'Companies are going to be looking for higher value digital content; there will be multiple opportunities – games, web design, mobile content.’ Moderator Rhys Muldoon charmingly but firmly ran the proceedings, hoping for an 'inspiring and thought-provoking couple of days of heady debate,’ The ABC’s Mark Scott talked about the significant changes in the big picture: the creation of Screen Australia, the fundamental change in the ownership structure of the commercial channels, the global economic challenges, an explosion of multi-channelling, FreeView, and the inexorable move towards digital television. He stated that we’ll see more changes in television in the next five years than in the last fifty. After talking about the ABC’s successes, its current problems and its need for more fuding, he argued that investment in television repays for generations, and that 'we must provide real and viable policy solutions.’ MEAA’s Simon Whipp ran through some recent and encouraging research before raising some serious concerns. Australians do like to watch good Australian drama when it is entertaining and rings true with their lives, their families and their social networks, he said, outlining Newspoll research (conducted nationally for the MEAA) which revealed the strong public support for Australian content. 'Overall,’ he said, '64 percent of Australians think the Federal Government should regulate the minimum amount of Australian programs shown on TV. 72 percent of Australians supported regulation for minimum amounts of Australian children’s programs and 61percent for minimum amounts of Australian drama and documentaries on free to air television. '69 percent of Australians believe that the Federal Government should regulate the minimum amount of Australian content shown on the ABC,’ he said, adding that. 'surprisingly, no minimum Australian content requirements are currently placed on the ABC. It can only be presumed that those drafting the ABC Charter thought such an obligation unnecessary. After all, for what other purpose would the national broadcaster be created other than to broadcast distinctly Australian programs. It was ALP policy to introduce such an obligation on the ABC going into the 2007 election and we eagerly await the Government’s fulfilment of this promise. 'In addition, and importantly for the purposes of this conference, 64 percent of Australians think it is important for Australians to be able to access Australian programs through new media platforms into the future, including 31 percent thinking that this was very important. Interestingly, the 18 to 34 age group, presumably the highest users of new media platforms, were more likely to support the notion that Australian content should be available and accessible on new media platforms, with 76 percent believing this to be important and 37 percent believing it to be very important.’ After outlining the well-known imbalance between the cost of local production and purchase price of imported programs, he reminded the audience of the Productivity Commission Inquiry Report of 2000, which said, 'Without Government intervention, broadcasters in the current broadcasting environment would be likely to provide fewer Australian drama, documentary and children’s programs’. As he said, there is every reason to believe that these financing realities will be the same or substantially similar on all new media platforms whether such platforms rely on an advertising or user pays revenue model. 'These new media platforms are currently either wholly or substantially unregulated for minimum levels of Australian content. Many of the players providing content on these platforms to the Australian population may be based offshore. The likelihood is that such services will carry overwhelming quantities of overseas content. Would or could regulation ensure the Australian audience has access to similar levels of high quality Australian content as they currently enjoy? Certainly the Productivity Commission in its Inquiry did not rule this option out, saying: “Some policy options for pursuing the social and cultural objectives in the context of the future broadcasting environment could involve extending and adjusting the existing quotas to new forms of broadcasting as they emerge.”’ He argued for the ABC to be appropriately funded to allow it to affect the way in which other players in the market behave, to play a central role in the changing media landscape where commercial providers of content fear loss of audience share to an ABC providing high levels of high quality Australian content across all its media platforms, something it cannot do at the moment. 'A very substantial injection of funds on an ongoing basis would be required to enable the ABC to play this market impacting role.’ He reported that' the Macquarie Bank, in its 2002 report “An Analysis of the ABC’s Funding Relative to International Public Broadcasters and Domestic Peers” concluded that to bring ABC funding to an average of public broadcasters around the world the ABC would require between an additional $200 million and $700 million per annum. The report also concluded that on a per capita basis funding to the ABC was less than half of the funding made available to the BBC in the UK.’ 'The challenge of telling Australian stories will be harder than ever in this evolving media world,’ said Janet Holmes A Court (chair of the ACTF), 'where audiences are being presented with new, mostly unregulated media options. There is no doubt that unless we adapt to changing times and develop policy for the multi-channel/multi-platform age, the delivery of Australian content is going to be seriously compromised.’ As she said, it’s an issue that should be of vital importance to the Australian community, who all should all get involved in the debate. 'As taxpayers, we are all stakeholders in our ABC and SBS. We subsidise all of the Australian production that is supported by Screen Australia, the ACTF and the state film and television bodies. Much of that content ends up on commercial free-to-air and pay television. We also own the spectrum that is licensed to the commercial networks to use for their businesses. 'We, the community, are the audience. And what’s more, we are paying for it. We don’t pay for it to advance the vested interests of any network, producer or union member. We don’t pay for it for any other reason than to provide good content, local content, for Australian audiences to watch. The audience is king.’ Nadine Garner talked about working for the 7 Network on City Homicide (a local production she is very proud of), 'we do feel the pressure of ratings daily. Indeed the cast have the ratings texted to our mobiles the following morning. Simultaneously we hear our message banks go off around the green room, all of us dive for our phones in the hope that the figures are good and that we will live to see another day. This creates a certain level of anxiety about living up to our sponsors’ expectations and is not the most ideal environment for actors, writers and directors, to freely create within. This however is not about to change and is a given in the commercial sector which many of us work within, enjoy and rely upon for our livelihoods.’ She went on to question 'this notion of Australian content. How important is our collective sense of nationalism in defining and delivering Australian content through our television networks, public broadcasters and the up and coming multidigital platforms? Is it possible that our notion of what is important to hold onto as “Australian” is actually at the discretion of each generation, and that we here today, being largely white, middle class and middle aged, do not represent an Australia of tomorrow? 'As a nation having been drenched with American content for decades, we have to acknowledge their part in shaping our own and our children’s growing values, how we define what’s desirable, what’s humorous, and how we evaluate our own quality of life. I think the evaluations young people are making today about their own lives is perhaps beyond the remit of understanding of most people in this room, myself included. The market refers to them as Tweens or the Y generation — the demographic that is teen and pre-teen have a less strict idea of what it means to have their culture reflected back at them. Their Australian identity is formed in playgrounds among their peers who are talking about Paris Hilton, X Box, Cahoots 3, Hillary Duff, U Tube, Face Book and Wii. And if they’re young, indigenous Australians they’re often identifying exclusively with Black American Rap artists. 'Our kids have grown up with the World Wide Web, and globalisation. They don’t see the world carved up into autonomous territories .My point is our notion of Australian content needs to find more flexibility in an open ended, ever expanding global culture where information and data are not only flying back and forth across cultures through legitimate, subsidised means, but also through blogs, web cams and chat rooms where cultures are smashing into, informing and changing each other faster than we can track them, cash in on them or slap a copyright on them. 'We need to tread carefully when locking down this idea of Australian content. What it means to me is not what it means to a second generation Lebanese boy in Maroubra, or a 15 year old Vietnamese girl in Springvale. Our future is multicultural, our future is global, and our future is not Baz Lurhmann’s Australia. It’s more complex, more layered, more elusive, and changing faster than we can possibly imagine.’ Producer Penny Chapman talked about the digital possibilities as well. 'Unless you can monetise an interactive platform through something like mobile voting, interactive online is not going to make much sense to a commercial outfit. When the ABC and then SBS made a decision to embrace that risky but exciting proposition called online, they set an agenda that the rest of the industry will be forever grateful for. Eye View and ABC Radio’s podcasts have made an massive difference to the way people experience the media these days. 'In this time of extraordinary change in the way we use media, I contend that the ABC and SBS (and I want to add NITV) will earn their keep if they continue to exercise the creative, intellectual and emotional muscle that stimulates us to new ways of looking at and celebrating ourselves – ways that if the fiscal bottom line were driving the agenda, would probably never happen. It’s the kind of stimulus that embraces new platforms, and original, risky, bold, innovative stories. Whenever the public broadcasters are tempted into the world of the safe and sound, when they settle for copying what comes from overseas, what is tried and true and comfortable, then their place in our midst becomes tenuous. 'This role should ordinarily mean that the demands on the public broadcasters to commission work that is of this place, out of Australian dreams and experiences, is much, much greater than it is for the commercial sector. It is completely extraordinary to me that it is not. How can the ABC expect to commission bold, original, agenda setting drama when it has the funds to do about fourteen hours?’ One of the most positive speakers was Malcolm Alder, from KPMG, who talked about how digital developments like PVRs and Tivo were putting power into the hands of the consumer; there will be more and more time-shifting and people will become much more efficient in their use of time. 'I was a major cynic about content on a mobile screen until I got an Iphone,’ he said, adding that people are creating short film content in ever-increasing amounts, and that there has to be a corresponding increase in funding for content creation. 'Different revenue streams can now be attached, although there are very few sustainable models so far.’ But mobile content is being funded by big advertisers and is 'incredibly interactive and incredibly immediate’ and there are a multiplicity of ways for people to enter the industry. For him the big question is how you get sustainable funding into the industry. Dr Suzanne Rickard, head of CEDA, an economic think tank, was very upbeat about public broadcasting, seeing it as a vital part of the Australian infrastructure, guaranteeing equality of access, and delivering accurate, diverse, and balanced information, including its outreach to Asia. She recognised the constraints of lack of funding, but argued that this encourages more innovation. However, she added, funding public broadcasting adequately would provide an enormous pot from which we can all draw; it would be investing in the long term, in the technology that comes out of public broadcasting. 'There’s a cultural capital in public broadcasting, technical capital in public broadcasting, and there’s a latent value in public broadcasting,’ she said. 'There are plenty of ways we can ensure the continuation of Australian content,’ she emphasised. 'Make the government aware of how much we value it. And there’s room to modify the charters to reflect the 21st century, to reflect 21st century needs.’ Penny Chapman said, 'there are certain things that public broadcasters do which are of little or no interest or concern to commercial outfits (and for the most part I continue to include Pay TV here) but which add enormous cultural capital to the nation and which from time to time provide inspiration that changes the way we think about the possibilities of television and interactive platforms, and the ways we think about ourselves.’ As Ray Argall has written (about the seminar) on the ADG e-news, 'one thing became clear, there are great concerns over how we legislate to protect and nurture a reasonable level of Australian content on our screens - a growing challenge as we move to more and more screen content on platforms that are not covered by any legislation to ensure the screen content we are watching is produced for and by those of us who make and create the sounds and images we see on screens of all shapes and sizes.’ Andy Lloyd James believes that a proper research and development basis should be established for the production industry, that we need to change Australian content definitions, fund the ABC properly and see the ABC acting as a collaborator not a competitor with independent producers. 'Digital content and digital technology will boost industry world wide,’ he said, finishing with the words of EM Forster: 'only connect.’

Tina Kaufman

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