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Environment and Communications References Committee
01/08/2018
Australian content on broadcast, radio and streaming services

DALLIMORE, Ms Helen, National Performers Committee Member, Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance

DAY, Mr Matt, Actor, Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance

DONOVAN, Ms Fiona, Member, Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance

WOOD, Ms Kelly, Organiser, Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance

[13:48]

CHAIR: I now welcome representatives from the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of evidence and witnesses has been given to you. We have a submission from you, which is great. Thank you so much for participating in this inquiry. Would you like to start with an opening statement? After that we can go to questions.

Ms Wood : Firstly, thank you for the opportunity to give evidence in this inquiry into Australian content, obviously a subject that's very near and dear to the hearts of MEAA members. We're here to represent the members of the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, which is the union for creative professionals and workers in Australia's media and entertainment industries. MEAA members are the performers, artists, craftspeople, technicians and workers who bring Australian stories to life on screen.

What our submission goes to and what we'll probably talk about today is obviously the content quotas, given that it's an Australian content inquiry, but also the surrounding ecology of what it takes to make Australian content. We recognise that the media industry is undergoing a lot of change and that some traditional sectors are facing big challenges, but there are also the new sectors that present great opportunities for Australian storytellers and for Australian audiences to access Australian stories.

We recommend action on three key areas to give Australian content and Australian stories the support they need to really thrive in this new environment. The first is that Australian content quotas, including subquotas for drama and children's content, need to be maintained. They've worked incredibly effectively. But they also need to be extended into the digital realm. Subscription video on demand has become a major player, and increasingly so, and should be a reliable source of Australian stories and content for Australian and international audiences.

Secondly, tax incentives, including the producer offset, the PDV offset and the location offset, all work to support the production of Australian content by attracting private investment, facilitating skill development and sustaining employment in the industry. These incentives really need to be updated to take into account the changes in the media market so that they can continue to do the job that they're designed to do.

Finally, direct public funding through Screen Australia, ABC and SBS provides opportunities to develop Australia's creative voices and provides a path to production for less obviously commercial content. Budget cuts mean fewer opportunities and less diversity in the content Australia produces, so increases to funding for the creation of drama and children's content are a simple and obvious fix. We recommend that funding should be restored to 2013-14 levels.

We reject the proposals contained in the Free TV submission to the recent Australian and children's content review. Free TV obviously represents commercial broadcasters. It was the poor performance of these broadcasters that necessitated the quotas being introduced in the first place. That's why we have them, and they've been incredibly effective. If those proposals on content were implemented, we would see them walking away from the creation of specific content for Australian kids altogether. We would also see Australian TV drama reduced dramatically, we believe, based on their proposals, to potentially either a small number of high-end specials or, at the other end of the scale, cheap-as-possible production that's put out online. That would be a real concern. If that were to happen, we are concerned that we would lose our ability to tell our stories about Australian characters and Australian communities that we can relate to and develop relationships with over time. The broadcasters' content proposals, from our point of view, amount to nothing less than a desire to give up on Australian kids and to give up on Australian drama. MEAA urges the committee to reject those proposals entirely.

Our submission outlines our specific regulatory proposals and the basis for them in some detail, but today we wanted to give you the opportunity to hear personally from some of those MEAA members who have decades of experience in telling Australian stories, particularly in the screen sector.

Just by way of introduction, Helen Dallimore is an actor and writer who has worked extensively across television, film and theatre. Her most recent work in screen includes Here Come the Habibs on Nine and Sando with the ABC. She's currently shooting an ABC children's series, Hardball. Matt Day is an actor whose work in film and TV is well known to many Australians and includes the ABC's Rake, Wolf Creek on Stan, Love Child on Channel Nine and the feature film Sweet Country, just in recent years. Fiona Donovan is an AACTA-award-winning production designer and art director whose career covers television drama, factual and children's programs as well as international feature films, most recently Pacific Rim Uprising. She's just wrapped the final series of A Place to Call Home as the production designer.

That's our opening. Helen, do you want to kick off?

Ms Dallimore : Hi. Thanks for having us. As Kelly just said, I'm currently employed as an actress on the new ABC TV children's program Hardball. It's a funny and heartwarming show with a young, diverse cast, set in the western suburbs of Sydney, in which I play the terrifying principal-elect Ms Crapper. I'm very grateful to have this opportunity and extremely glad that my seven-year-old son is going to finally be able to watch Mummy in something age-appropriate but, even more than that, something in his own accent which reflects his own community rather than the usual American fodder he scrolls through on SVOD platforms—which he loves, but I would like to see some Australian stories being told to him.

However, as a mother and an actress I am gravely concerned about the future of children's content from both our public broadcasters and free-to-air channels. Our public broadcasters play a vital cultural role and need to be properly funded. However, since 2014 I'm aware that some $350 million has been cut from the ABC. As a result, their commissioning budgets for adult drama and children's content have dropped by 20 per cent each. It's time to set minimum Australian content levels and make sure there is sufficient funding to support those requirements.

Even more alarmingly to me, the commercial broadcasters now want to walk away from any commitment to create children's content, which will decimate the sector. It goes without saying that we want our children to see their own culture reflected on screen through Australian stories. The last thing we want is for our kids in their developmental years to be exposed to a uniform diet of British and American accents. Additionally, I'm constantly thanked by Lebanese Australians who are so excited to see their community reflected on commercial television in Here Come the Habibs. That program would never have been made without the drama subquota. Until we had quotas, only one per cent of content was Australian. We cannot return to that situation. Our economy, our culture and our identity depend on it.

CHAIR: Thank you. Mr Day, do you have anything to add?

Mr Day : I suppose I'd just like to echo what Helen said. Yes, I think that there's a special place for Australian culture on Australian screens. I would hate to see our culture become a niche product pushed into the backwaters. I think it needs to be up front and centre. I think quotas have worked extremely well in ensuring that Australian stories are told and will continue to be told. I think it's vitally important for our nation and for our culture.

I'd also like to see the opportunities for actors and filmmakers that I've been given. I started off on children's TV when I was 14 years old, 30-something years ago. I'd hate to see people denied those same opportunities to learn, really—which is what I did on the job; I wasn't trained professionally—to have a career and to be able to do so in Australia without leaving the country, which so many people seem to have to do these days just to get by.

CHAIR: Thank you. Ms Donovan, do you have anything to add?

Ms Donovan : I do. Thanks. I work in the art department. Our department is not the actors and what they're wearing but everything else. We're responsible for what you see. Most people don't see who we are or what we physically do, but they see the results of that. A Place to Call Home is a great example—a period production where we had to source everything from the period. Everything was set in 1959 when we finished. We shot down in Camden. The Camden local community benefited so much from us going down there. We would stay down there. We would use local labour. We went to Bunnings all the time, and we used Camden High. So, when a production comes to town, there are a lot of benefits to the local community. I talked about hiring people. We had a couple of people who've ended up working in art departments now; we found them in Camden. I'm just talking about the art department.

I was very lucky to start in children's television as well. I started on Spellbinder for Channel 9, a very long time ago, and I also had the wonderful opportunity of working at the ABC on Wildside and Play School, so I was lucky to be trained at our national broadcaster. I've worked for pretty much everybody. I've done pretty much every format you can. The big American films are amazing because I learn skills which I then take back to local Australian productions, and I will do better Australian productions. When you've done a big film, you're then—financially, and also with the skills that you have—able to support local drama and local content.

It's really important to tell Australian stories. It's very important, for the crew to have the skills, that we are internationally sustained, so we're very appreciative of the top-up to the location offset, but we really need to do the same thing for local productions. A Place to Call Home was made by Channel 7. It sold to 130 countries around the world. So that production made money for Channel 7. So, if those networks make a show, they actually make money out of it, so then that feeds back into the network and they're able to make more. Good quality drama is going to not only relate to Australians but can be sold to the rest of the world.

Senator URQUHART: Would you outline what the proposed Nine-Fairfax merger means for content and jobs in the media in Australia. How do you see that looking?

Ms Wood : We've made public statements about that proposed merger. We support the ACCC investigation into whether it should go ahead. We don't want to see it go ahead. That's our position. Obviously, we would be concerned, given the relationship between Nine, Fairfax and Stan. From a content point of view, we wouldn't want to see Nine and Stan become one and, basically, share content. Obviously our position is that Stan and every SVOD service should have an Australian content obligation. We wouldn't want to see that disappearing into the pool of what Nine already produces. So, in relation to this area, that would be our major concern—from a drama content point of view. Obviously, there are many other concerns!

Senator URQUHART: You talked about content. What about jobs? What do you think it means for jobs in Australia for Australians? I think we've heard very strongly from the witnesses that are sitting with you today how important it is for Australian jobs and to get that start.

Ms Wood : Australian content in general—what that means for jobs?

Senator URQUHART: No, no—Australian jobs. We're talking about jobs.

Ms Wood : No, no—what Australian content means for jobs?

Senator URQUHART: Yes, absolutely.

Ms Wood : It's incredibly important. I mean TV drama is one of the bread-and-butter areas that sustains this industry. Our concern would be that, if the level of production were to drop, you would have to see a lot of people leaving the industry, and our capacity as an industry would fall. At the moment, like I said, it is sustaining a lot of people to stay in this industry. It's a very hard industry to stay in, because it is freelance. When people are not working on a drama, or whatever work they happen to have picked up, they're unemployed. We need there to be enough work in the industry to sustain people to actually stay in it; otherwise, we lose a tremendous amount of skill.

Senator URQUHART: As to the content review, does the creation of a large, new, commercial media company mean that they should be able to produce children's content as a social good, given the scale that they will have?

Ms Wood : You're talking about Fairfax-Nine—if that were to go ahead?

Senator URQUHART: Yes.

Ms Wood : Certainly we believe that all players in the media market should have the same obligation to provide kids' content. I think that we understand the argument that it's not the most profitable thing that these companies will ever do. That is why the children's content quota is there in the first place and it's the same reason the drama content quota is there in the first place. We know that it's not going to be the area where they make the most money, but it's something that we need to do as a culture: tell our stories. Really, what kind of culture doesn't want to tell stories to children?

Senator URQUHART: I'll leave it there for the moment.

Senator CHISHOLM: This may be a question to Ms Dallimore and Mr Day. You're both relatively experienced in the industry. There are so many more screens and access and people watching different shows on digital catch-up et cetera. You would think that all of those opportunities are such a boon for a young actor. Why do you think that it is missing the mark? What are the key reasons for someone who has started in the industry to not be optimistic, given that there is so much more content available?

Mr Day : Firstly, it's always been a difficult game and it always will be. The odds are always stacked against you if you want to be an actor and you want to work in this industry, or if you want to be a film maker and you want to work in the entertainment industry. But, in terms of the future of streaming and digital content, there's much greater hunger now for what we call content. I also think it's culture. I just feel that it would be a grave mistake to leave Australian culture in the hands of the free market without some kind of intervention. For historical reasons, if you look at how quotas have worked in the past, they've been very effective. I think that they need to extend to the brave new worlds of digital streaming as well. It's also a lot cheaper to import product at the moment from overseas than it is to produce it. We understand that as well. Again, this goes back to the argument about how much you value Australian culture.

Ms Dallimore : The majority of the SVOD stuff that's consumed by our kids at the moment is not Australian and it's not current. There are no quotas in place for it. So, yes, there's a need for more content, but there are no regulations around that to ensure that the content is being made by Australians for Australians.

Senator CHISHOLM: I've been in the Senate for only two years and I'm on this committee. My experience with media communications legislation tells me that, basically, everyone is looking for a level playing field, no matter the legislation that we're dealing with. Is that effectively the substance of what the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance is saying—basically trying to look for a level playing field around content requirements that apply to those newer measures?

Ms Dallimore : Yes, that's exactly it. The overall thrust of what the networks are saying is that there are all these changes for the industry; therefore, let's deregulate. What the rest of the industry is saying is that the industry is changing; therefore, we need to catch up.

Senator CHISHOLM: Yes. So it's a sort of philosophical difference with free-to-air, for instance, by saying, 'It's unfair on us.' They're saying that no-one should have to do it, whereas the group representing the actors and industry participants are saying, 'This is too important. We actually need this to apply to the new entrants so that everyone is actually doing their bit for Australian content.'

Ms Wood : Absolutely. To your previous question, it is actually a time to be excited. There is increased demand for content. There are so many new ways to access it. The exciting thing in this industry is that we have proven that this kind of regulation works, with the original content quotas in the first place. We've seen examples overseas of what happens when we get rid of quotas. We really don't need to go down that path because it's been tested in other places. The impact that updating regulation can have in this sector means that there will be a lot of exciting opportunities for storytellers and for audiences to access Australian stories, and hopefully new and more diverse Australian stories.

Senator CHISHOLM: The entertainment industry is global. Are there any international discussions, given that I presume that there are other countries where this is a significant issue as well?

Ms Wood : Are there any global discussions—

Senator CHISHOLM: Are any countries doing innovative things that are relevant to Australia that we could be looking at?

Ms Wood : I believe that in the EU territories content quotas have been introduced for streaming services to make sure that there's local content. There was a recent announcement that YouTube is now going to be commissioning original content in some major international markets—like specifically local-language content in places like Germany and, I believe, Japan. I can't remember the list of regions where they're doing that, but obviously there is a demand for local content. The YouTube example is about attracting an audience into their subscription service, so they're going into the SVOD space as well.

I think the other key thing that we would be looking at is the tax incentives that have proven very effective. We know this, again from our own experience—Australia was one of the first countries to introduce a tax incentive to attract work. Unfortunately, the incentive has only moved very slightly from where it was originally set. The rest of the world has overtaken us. In order to be competitive and tap into those opportunities, there are examples that we should look at around the world in terms of incentives. We've seen New Zealand has introduced a 20 to 25 per cent incentive that's been very good at not only attracting work but also attracting long-term investment that is then available for infrastructure, for example, that's available for their local industry to tap into as well. We've seen what's happened in the UK with their 25 per cent investment. They're now one of the biggest production centres in the world—Canada and parts of America—so there are a lot of examples that we can draw on to look at what we can be doing to build our industry into a major player. We do have enormous capacity within our industry. It's just a question of fulfilling that and taking those opportunities that are presented by the new international market—the media content market.

CHAIR: I want to go back to this core issue about the importance of investing, preserving and celebrating Australian culture. I say that because, if it was all just about good-quality educational programs—whether we're talking kids or high-quality adult drama—of course there are plenty of places from around the world where we could access that. What I'm hearing from you, though, and from other voices in the industry is that there is something specifically unique about investing in Australian stories made by Australians who understand and live and breathe in those communities. And, for the professionals working either on the set or as actors, there's an authenticity about investing in those kinds of projects. Why wouldn't that have a premium to an Australian audience? If you've got all of those right ingredients, surely that creates the best-quality television that people would actually want to pay for and want to watch?

Mr Day : Yes, I think you need to be able to be in a position where you can create programs and dramas that are on par with the international dramas of the same quality, and you need investment to do that. Last year I was privileged enough to go to the Venice Film Festival with Sweet Country, which is a film that got a lot of its funding through Screen Australia. This is a film by two Indigenous writers, David Tranter and Steve McGregor; by an Indigenous director, Warwick Thornton; and shot by his son, Dylan River. We were on the world stage presenting a uniquely Australian story to a world audience. Why wouldn't we want that for our country? Why wouldn't we want to stake our claim in the international cultural Olympics? It was a unique moment to see a filmmaker like Warwick, born and raised in Alice Springs, standing on the world stage. This is understood by most countries, and I think we intrinsically understand it here too. We need to make sure that we don't lose that sense of the importance to our identity of Australian culture.

CHAIR: What you're saying is that you can't create amazing films like Sweet Country in isolation from the rest of the screen industry ecosystem.

Mr Day : No, you can't. Films like that benefit greatly from the much wider ecosystem. When you have your tax breaks that allow big, American, Hollywood films to come in and do their thing, they're training up Australian artists and Australian technicians so that they can bring the skills that they've learned on a $200 million Hollywood film to a film that's made for $2 million in the desert about our history. It all feeds into itself. It's the same with Australian television. The vast majority of my training has been done on Australian TV sets, and I think the same could be said for most actors. We would lose that without maintaining these quotas and incentives that we have in place.

CHAIR: I think you were all here when I was asking the question about kids television to the Free TV representatives. The argument that's been put forward to us as legislators is that no-one's watching it, so what's the point? If they want to watch kids TV, just move over to ABC. Ms Dallimore, what you're saying is we can't even trust that the ABC's going to keep making good-quality, Australian, kids television.

Ms Dallimore : It's entirely dependent on whether they have enough money to make it. As we know, that funding goes up and down. We need to make sure that it's absolutely set at a strong minimum to ensure that that happens, because we don't want the commercial networks to walk away from their quotas. If they did, all we'd have left are the national broadcasters. It's a real shame that there's not enough value put on Australian stories being told on those commercial networks above and beyond reality stuff, which is not script driven. They're not telling stories. It's magazine television, in a way. I'm not trying to put down that side of the industry, but that's not what I want my children to watch. Also, as an actor and as a member of this union, those sorts of reality shows don't employ any of us. They employ technicians, but they don't employ actors. They don't employ scriptwriters, allegedly. You want to have a broad spectrum of types of stories being told. SBS is going to tell a different kids story to ABC. Nine's going to tell a different kids story to Seven or whatever. Everything makes up the ecosystem and the culture. Surely our children deserve to have that kind of ability to choose.

Mr Day : I can understand the economic arguments and I can see where that comes from. It comes back to the question of whether or not you think culture should be left to those factors or whether it's worth intervening.

CHAIR: It is whether it has an intrinsic value itself.

Mr Day : Yes. I think it is valuable enough that we do need to make sure that we nurture it. There needs to be a level of intervention to make sure that our kids have exposure to Australian culture, learn to appreciate Australian culture and go on to maybe contribute to that culture.

Ms Dallimore : It's much cheaper to feed your children junk food, too, isn't it?

Ms Donovan : Children's television isn't just for kids who can watch MasterChef. What about a two year old or a four year old? MasterChef isn't an appropriate television show for them. How do you speak to teenage girls? Are shows like The Bachelor appropriate for teenage girls? Is that modelling good behaviour? When people make a children's show or a young adults show they think about what's appropriate and what message they are trying to tell. I don't know that The Bachelor, MasterChef or Ninja Warrior are modelling good behaviour for children. It's good to see what adults do, but is it right for children? I don't think it's for us—it's for parents to decide what's appropriate, but it's giving them a selection of things to choose from.

Ms Wood : When Screen Producers Australia appeared earlier today they may have spoken a bit more about this as well, but I don't see to many sides of the broadcasters trying to reach that audience or cultivate that audience. As you have referred to, they've got a lot of bandwidth, a lot of space to be putting programming on. I'm not aware that any of them—like Seven Kids or anything—have tried to reach or cultivate those audiences. It seems to be an audience that's not valued by the broadcasters. Perhaps if they were in a situation where they did have an environment of a long-term commitment rather than what it seems like at the moment, which is that they're trying essentially to get rid of those obligations, maybe they would take a different approach.

CHAIR: What's the feeling in the industry about all of this? Obviously, this inquiry has generated quite a bit of interest, but there's been the government's own commissioned content review, which we still haven't seen anything of. We know that the free-to-air broadcasters are out there advocating an abolishment of kids quotas and a cut to adult drama. What's the sense from an employment perspective and the level of anxiety within the industry? Are people worried about what could happen?

Ms Donovan : They're very worried about work. I can see Netflix is positioning themselves. They've already started making local content. They did Pine Gap in South Australia and they did another show up in Queensland, so they're ready to have local content. But if we lose local content we're going to lose—I was part of lobbying for the location producers offset, because there goes all that industry. The special effects people have gone to England because there had been no work since Maelstrom, and up until Dora started there'd been no work in Australia. If we didn't have local content in television, pretty much I wouldn't have worked and most of the people I know wouldn't work. So from the crew perspective we're very concerned about losing local content, because we won't have work.

CHAIR: That's job losses?

Ms Donovan : Yes, job losses. On a job I might employ 20 people, but I will also employ people in the community and I go to—

CHAIR: Are you registered as a small business—is that how it works?—or as a contractor?

Ms Donovan : No. I'm PAYG. Someone who's bigger might be a contract but I'm PAYG.

Ms Wood : What Fiona's referring to is that as a production designer she's a head of department. The art department is one of the biggest departments on any production.

CHAIR: You would have a team of people that you bring in for that.

Ms Donovan : Yes, and I have a budget that's run. We have a high percentage of the budget that we'll spend, yes.

CHAIR: If you're going from job to job there's high insecurity.

Ms Donovan : Yes. I'm currently unemployed. I've got no job prospect. I'm waiting to hear if I have a job. I might not have a job till November. I live in Sydney. I have a mortgage to pay. My husband works, thankfully, but if I was single it would be—it's a very tough industry, and I've been doing this for 24 years. I've gone job to job.

CHAIR: And yet, as Senator Chisholm pointed out, people aren't not watching content.

Ms Donovan : No. There are so many opportunities for great content. There are web series that are being developed. There are so many opportunities, but we need encouragement and help as an industry, because we want to tell Australian stories. If we just left it to commercial—let it go to the market—it wouldn't happen. They'd just put shopping channels on. They'd put on what would make money. I don't want to watch about what to buy. I want to see my culture that I live in reflected when I watch television. When I watch free to air and when I watch on demand I went to see my culture reflected back to me. My culture is so diverse. Where I live there are so many different people.

CHAIR: Can I just clarify, Ms Wood: is it MEAA's position that you would like current quotas for free to air kept as is and simply extended to the on-demand and streaming services or do you want some type of quota—a quota for spend or a quota for a library, I guess is what I'm asking, in terms of the streaming services.

Ms Wood : If you had a quota for spend I think you could assume that it would roll over into library. I think it's important that it's the same as the commercial broadcasters—

CHAIR: It's investing in new—

Ms Wood : Exactly. It's new original content and is directed towards the kind of content that we want to produce as a society, the same way that the broadcasters' content quotas are structured with an overall quota and then the subquotas. We would imagine that you would design something to suit whatever mechanism you wanted to use, with that being the desired outcome. So in terms of how it gets done, the revenue model I think makes an obvious direction to investigate. We don't have strong views on that other than we want the outcome, which is that Australians are getting original drama and Australian kids are getting original content made for them.

CHAIR: We have no other questions. Do any of you have anything that you'd like to add before we wrap? No? All right, thank you all very much for coming and participating in the inquiry today. We really appreciate it. That concludes today's hearing. I thank all the witnesses that we've heard today for their informative presentations and I declare the hearing closed.

Committee adjourned at 14 : 27