How TV Networks Bend To The Local Content Rules

Australian-produced TV shows are consistently the highest-rating programs, but local networks still have to be coerced into producing some of them. Why the imbalance?

One of the conditions for operating a commercial TV network in Australia is producing a specified amount of local content. The cheapest way to run a network would be to purchase programming from overseas and run nothing but that, but regulations demand that 55 per cent of the content broadcast between 6am and midnight on a mainstream commercial channel must be produced in Australia. (The same rules don't as yet apply to secondary digital channels, something that quickly becomes apparent if you check the schedules for Go!, 7Two or ONE.)

That sounds like a fairly basic rule, but there are a myriad of additional sub-rules. Within that framework, networks must also produce specific amounts of first-run local drama, children's television and documentaries. Shows produced in New Zealand but purchased for rebroadcast in Australia can count towards the total. And funding sources aren't necessarily factored in: Neighbours and Home & Away count as local productions for Ten and Seven, but UK channel Five, which contributes a hefty part of their costs, counts them towards its own drama production quota in the UK.

Each year, the networks are measured by the Australian Communications & Media Authority (ACMA) to see if they have complied with those guidelines. In its most recent assessment, for programs broadcast in 2009, all three of the major metropolitan networks met their quota requirements. Overall, Seven had 65 per cent local content, Nine had 62 per cent and Ten had 57 per cent. However, a look at the numbers demonstrates just how diverse the approaches taken by local networks are.

For documentaries, a minimum of 20 hours a year must be produced. Seven easily led the field with 113 hours of documentaries (a figure than includes factual series such as Border Security, a major ratings drawcard). Nine offered 47 hours, but even third-placed Ten almost doubled the requirement with 38 hours.

In the area of children's programming, all the networks sailed much closer to the wind. Networks must show a total of 260 hours of children's programming, including 130 hours of newly commissioned material which must include 25 hours of drama. Nine offered up 265 hours, Ten 261.8 hours and Seven 261.6. Given those figures, it seems obvious that given the choice, commercial networks would quickly switch to importing overseas programming to cut their costs.

Drama production is more complicated and uses a points scheme, with different quota rules applying to mini-series, continuing dramas and soaps, and extra credit given for series purchased from outside producers rather than made by the networks themselves. An interesting quirk: Improvisational series Thank God You're Here qualifies as a drama, presumably since the framework for each sketch is actually scripted in advance.

Seven had the top drama score with 387 points and didn't use any New Zealand productions to do so. Nine had 300 points (with 6 per cent coming from New Zealand productions), while Ten had 265 points and 12 per cent New Zealand content. Nine can't rely on an ongoing serial, and its points total was heavily influenced by purchasing a number of Australian movies.

Relentless competition from the online world (and a lack of obvious commercial strategies to counter Channel BT) means TV is a less rampantly profitable business than it used to be. As such, it remains tempting to buy in content rather than produce it locally. However, the biggest ratings continue to be for Australian programming, and high ratings equal advertising dollars. This year's top-rated program is MasterChef on Ten; Nine's biggest success has been Underbelly, while Seven's strongest performer is My Kitchen Rules. Sporting events generally top the year for the most popular broadcast, though it seems likely the MasterChef finale will take that mantle this year.

Nonetheless, the way in which networks approach the content rules suggests that they'd be happy to disregard them for commercial gain, keeping only shows they believe will rate well. That would make Australian TV much less visibly Australian, as well as threatening the employment of actors, producers and technicians.

Do we still need Australian content rules or does the regime need changing to reflect the internet era? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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    Drop the requirements for local content and you'll make me happy.

    Youve gotta keep the local content. I'm sick of US TV. With the exceptions of Modern Family and 30 Rock, it's banal. I reckon the digital channels should have local content requirements

    put restrictions on reality shows that requires voting!

    We definitely need the rules. Including the childrens content. I don't want our children listening to foreign accents all the time, solely seeing foreign humour and what not.

    Keep the rules, or I'm out of a job...

    Keep the rules, we're drowning too much in US TV as it is. Also the ABC should be trying to make more drama and comedy.

    The best thing they could do is give their ‘celebrities/stars’ something to actually do. I am so sick of dancing with, cooking with etc. They’re neither celebrities nor stars, mostly they are out of work actors that are dancing or cooking

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