Australian content quotas are designed to ensure that our TV screens aren't entirely filled with overseas imports and repeats. In the last year, the major commercial networks met their targets — but in some cases only because they're also allowed to utilise shows from New Zealand and Australian movies to make up the numbers.
The quota data was released today by the Australian Communications & Media Authority. Quotas only apply to the 'main' channel for each commercial provider (but not to secondary digital channels, and not to the government-funded ABC and SBS channels). Each must broadcast at least 55 per cent Australian content between 6am and midnight, must achieve a drama score of more than 250 for the year (a figure which is weighted to reflect the different production and purchase costs values of series, soaps and movies), and must broadcast a minimum of 20 hours of new Australian documentaries, 25 hours of new Australian children's drama, 130 hours of new Australian children's programming and 130 hours of preschool programming.
All the networks met those totals, with one exception: Channel Seven in Brisbane did not meet the preschool quotient. However, when you dig into the numbers, you can see a heavy dependence on New Zealand to meet the drama targets. While New Zealand content made up less than 1 per cent of total hours broadcast, it counts rather more heavily for some network's drama requirements. Here's how each of the three networks performed:
Seven: Almost half of Seven's quota came from Home & Away, with the rest spread across two major dramas (Packed To The Rafters, Winners & Losers) two mini-series (Wild Boys and the final run of City Homicide) and one movie. Seven used no New Zealand content.
Nine: Around 7 per cent of Nine's score came from New Zealand content (via the series Nothing Trivial. With no long-running series, Nine had a lot of telemovies and mini-series, most notably the Underbelly franchise. The oddest inclusion? The flop comedy series Ben Elton Live From Planet Earth was counted as a drama, presumably because of the scripted and pre-filmed content.
Ten: Ten was heavily reliant on New Zealand content, which accounted for almost a quarter of its points, but that's partially due to an odd quirk of the rules: only content which runs on the main channel counts. Ten runs Neighbours on Eleven, but gets no points for doing so. Hence Go Girls, Outrageous Fortune and The Almighty Johnsons.
This isn't a new trend; we saw a similar pattern last year. However, this year the (ACMA) actually commented on the growing reliance on our Kiwi neighbours. There's a distinct whiff of disapproval in the remarks from ACMA chairman Chris Chapman:
Australian content quotas have played an important role in maintaining the production of quality Australian stories and programs to screen on commercial free-to-air television. However, the ACMA notes that the amount of New Zealand drama programming claimed as first release Australian drama quota has been increasing. The Australia and New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement requires that New Zealand television programs are treated as Australian programs, and are treated accordingly by the ACMA.
Once the analogue TV network is switched off in late 2013, there's likely to be some tweaking of the content rules. Some channels are keen for content on their digital channels to count towards the quota. At the front of this queue is Ten, obviously. Conversely, networks aren't keen to see minimum standards required for digital channels, since that would force them to produce more local content and cut into quotas.
On a more positive note, networks are less reliant on series and investing increasingly in mini-series, as the following chart shows:
Again, the disappearance of Neighbours from the totals is a factor, but it's also good to see a sustained commitment to mini-series. I'd rather Paper Giants than Neighbours any day.
Lifehacker's weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.