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Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts
04/12/2020
Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions

BUCKLAND, Ms Jenny, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Children's Television Foundation

HERD, Dr Nick, Head, Policy and Research, Ausfilm

MARKS, Ms Katie, Chief Executive Officer, Ausfilm

MASON, Mr Graeme, Chief Executive Officer, Screen Australia

Evidence was taken via teleconference

CHAIR: I welcome representatives from Screen Australia, the Australian Children's Television Foundation and Ausfilm to give evidence today. Although the committee doesn't require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as the proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Mr Mason : Good morning. Thank you for inviting us and for your interest in the Australian screen sector. This sector clearly brings together the three elements in your inquiry: it is creative, it informs and reflects culture and, tellingly, it is an industry. Screen Australia is the overarching federal government agency in the sector. We fund the development and production of Australian drama, documentaries and children's content. We support projects for cinema, television and online. We administer the Producer Offset program on behalf of the Australian government and are the government's competent authority for international official co-production. We support the development of our screen industry—its people, projects and businesses—to promote the growth of screen culture in Australia and internationally through festivals, markets, events and outreach. Of particular note, our Indigenous department has supported Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytellers for more than 25 years, creating award-winning and critically acclaimed titles, from Redfern Now and Mystery Road to Total Control.

The Australian screen sector helps us tell the stories of who we are as a nation and provides a significant cultural return to Australia. At the same time, it is a growing industry that leverages significant international finance and creates major employment. The sector broadly spends about $3½ billion a year on production in places throughout Australia, employing approximately 31,000 people while contributing a total value-add of $5.3 billion to the economy. Downstream from this production activity is a raft of distribution channels and businesses. Just one, theatrical exhibition and distribution, is estimated to employ approximately 11,000 additional people.

We are told that cinemas are a $2-billion-a-year business and that, in a normal year, the movies are the most popular cultural venue in the country. Screen is crucial for Australia's cultural diplomacy. Our content and our creators have global reach and impact, raising Australia's profile on the world stage like no other form of cultural expression, sport or industry can. Screen Australia funding works in tandem with other government levers, including our colleagues at Ausfilm and the Australian Children's Television Foundation here today, as well as the public broadcasters and the state and territory governments. We also provide research to government and industry on matters such as the economic and cultural impacts of screen content.

Of course, COVID-19 has drastically impacted the Australian screen sector. Our agency has provided a range of support measures during this time. We've worked with industry and government to create world-leading guidelines. We've contributed more than $2 million in funding to development. We contributed $1 million in emergency funding to productions forced to shut down and have since provided an additional $7.4 million to projects that could start again in a COVID-safe way. We've provided COVID-19 support to projects that have a combined budget of around $333 million. We're administering the Temporary Interruption Fund on behalf of the government, with 24 projects already approved for cover and 14 set to enter production in 2021.

The government has recently provided additional funding to Screen Australia, and we're working with our board on how best to use it. Amid very real hardship, this year of crisis has provided some unique opportunities and shown the incredible resilience of our industry. We'll continue to work with government and industry to assist in this pivotal part of our country's creative and cultural landscape.

Ms Buckland : I'd like to give a little example of the importance of culture. I met someone in the park the other day. He was in his 30s. He came to Australia as a six-year-old and he grew up watching Round the Twist. We got talking about this because we were talking about where I worked. He told me that, as a six-year-old coming to Australia from a non-English-speaking background, Round the Twist taught him everything about where he'd landed. It made it really obvious to him that he wasn't in the UK or the US. It made our open sense of humour, the slightly quirky way we are, obvious to him. Subconsciously, it also made him realise how much we value children in our country, compared to the part of the world he came from, that we would make something here that was so individual for children to enjoy. Obviously, many people have grown up with Round the Twist, but I think that's a really great example of the nation-building and cultural impact of Australian content generally, particularly children's content.

Just recently this year, we received some beautiful photos from Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait, of the children there asking for Little J & Big Cuz birthday cakes. Little J & Big Cuz is an animated series on NITV and ABC that we supported—I think many people in Australia supported it—and it's set in a recognisable Indigenous community where Little Jay grows up, with his grandma looking after him. It's all about getting ready for school and being happy about going to school. Up on Thursday Island, the kiosk is doing a roaring trade in Little J & Big Cuz birthday cakes.

As Graeme said, Australian content has a really huge economic impact. It does sell around the world. In fact, children's television in particular is a real soft-diplomacy weapon for Australia, because our shows go to 120 countries around the world and people get to see the kinds of values Australia has and the kind of place Australia is. For Australian children themselves, and for the people who grew up watching children's television, these programs really are a nation-building national asset. We've had 30 years or more of focusing on children's content, and I think it's an unsung but really appreciated asset.

I'd also refer to the recent consultation on the Screen Australia and ACMA option paper, Supporting Australian stories on our screens, in response to the ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry, and note how many submissions that came from outside the industry were talking about children's television. There were teachers and parents all over the country talking about how much they valued Bluey and all of the other Australian children's programs and how important they are. I just highlight that I think this is a really crucial and very important sector of the broader industry that Graeme has just introduced so well.

Ms Marks : Thank you very much for the opportunity to appear before you today. My comments relate specifically to the impact of international production in Australia. Over the last five years, international drama production has, on average, been worth $384 million per annum, which amounts to an average of 37 per cent of total drama production. International production is an important part of the local industry, bringing direct economic benefit, building vital infrastructure and attracting additional new investment. It provides continuity of employment for crews and skills development on advanced projects.

Australia really does have the winning combination of some of the best talent globally—both in front of and behind the camera—state-of-the-art studio facilities, incredibly talented and creative post-production and visual effects studios, and locations which can double for almost anywhere in the world. Since July of this year, with the boost of $400 million to the location incentive, Australia also has a competitive incentive. The international spotlight is firmly on Australia. On the back of our containment of the COVID-19 virus, and with the enhanced incentive, the world is now looking at us as a destination for producing high-quality international screen content. Ausfilm has received over $2.1 billion in production inquiries from 37 projects since the announcement in July. This is an increase of over 300 per cent, compared to the same time in 2019. Now, only five months down the line, we are starting to see the results, with seven international film and television productions already filming or set to film here in Australia. This is in addition to the 10 projects already secured through the previous $140 million fund.

Australian stories are and always will be the backbone of our industry, but the domestic and international industries are strongly interconnected. Of the 17 projects announced since 2018, four have had Australian directors and three have been developed by Australian producers, highlighting how the location incentive can benefit Australian creative talent. A consistent pipeline of both international and domestic productions is critical to our success and will ensure the sector can grow over time. A diversity of productions allows for greater opportunities for both emerging and experienced practitioners across the breadth of the industry and across Australia geographically. It has allowed Australian companies that invest in international production to invest in research and development, infrastructure and talent, and this in turn helps the domestic industry. An example of this is Animal Logic, which started in 1991, specialising in design and visual effects. It's now recognised as one of the world's leading independent creative digital studios, producing award-winning design, visual effects and animation, with 800 staff across Sydney, Vancouver and Los Angeles. The company is now creating its own IP, with a slate of family-friendly films in development.

Importantly, an increase in international activity is driving opportunities for training and development, with a commitment from applicants being integral to the government's location incentive grant application process. Ausfilm is working with the Office for the Arts and other agencies and organisations to help maximise the benefits these productions can provide. As an example, we're currently working with the Australian Film Television and Radio School in a series of masterclasses and panel discussions for two of the recent projects.

With the ongoing pipeline of activity over the coming years, the possibilities for workforce expansion are really, truly exciting. International film and television production executives have become our partners, and Australia is no longer just a place to film. These partners are committed to ensuring the growth and diversity of Australia's screen workforce so that the work they are undertaking on project, shooting here, will leave a legacy far beyond the production itself. In addition to production shooting, our visual effects sector is a significant contributor to the economy and the creative fabric of the country. Over the past 10 to 15 years, Australia has built its capacity in this area to become a global hub of visual effects work. This work is highly technical, highly skilled and highly creative, and our companies are being recognised for their achievements, winning a number of awards over the years.

Following what has been a devastating year for so many, and with the impact of COVID-19 still being felt, it's promising to look forward to the level of production taking place in Australia now and in the coming months and years. The industry has really made its mark on the international stage. It's talented, innovative, creative, passionate and hardworking. Ausfilm works very hard to help filmmakers and studios, internationally, find what they need to bring their projects to life in Australia.

CHAIR: Thanks very much, Kate. I might ask for a brief clarification on some of the exciting figures you mentioned there. Also, just to clarify, you're a collaborative organisation because you work with state and federal governments?

Ms Marks : Correct.

CHAIR: You receive funds from state governments and the Australian government to put into both domestic-origin movies and foreign movies produced in Australia. Is that how it works?

Ms Marks : Ausfilm is quite a unique organisation. We are, as you say, a partnership between government and industry. We receive a grant from the federal government, but we're a membership organisation. Screen Australia and all of the state screen agencies form part of our membership, as do the studio facilities, production service companies and visual effects companies across Australia that work on international productions. We are a marketing agency charged with promoting Australia as a production destination, to attract this inward-investment production.

CHAIR: So Screen Australia is in the same immediate area, but you do the international marketing—is that it?

Ms Marks : We promote Australia as a destination to international filmmakers. We're not involved in the financing of projects, neither international nor domestic, but we promote the federal incentives on behalf of the government and then we promote our talent and capabilities.

CHAIR: And you mentioned a 300 per cent increase in that overseas work coming to Australia?

Ms Marks : That's inquiries. Ausfilm's head office is here in Sydney, but we also have an office on the ground in Los Angeles, and they're dealing daily with inquiries coming in from studios—whether they are SVODs or independent producers—who are interested in filming in Australia. That $2.1 billion is the value of those inquiries. We won't get all of those productions, but it shows the interest at the moment. And, yes, it's a 300 per cent increase compared to the same period last year—July to November 2019.

CHAIR: Do you have figures on your conversion rate from nibbles on the line to fish on the hook?

Ms Marks : No, not on hand.

Dr Herd : No, we don't have those to hand, but we can take that on notice, if you like.

CHAIR: Yes, thanks very much.

Dr ALLEN: I'd love to ask you about children's television and your recommendation to increase local content. Being a paediatrician and mother of four, I know I've relied very, very heavily on the ABC, particularly for children's content that we knew was educational and had had a lot of thought put into making sure it was appropriate and relevant. Would you like to make a comment about what we should do in regard to that.

Ms Buckland : Yes. We are in a position of great transition at the moment. The minister has recently made the requirements for commercial broadcasters more flexible. The result is that we'll probably see a bit less children's content on commercial television. A lot of people would say that not a lot of children watch commercial television, and as you rightly point out many, many families prefer to see content in a commercial-free environment, on the ABC. But the next step is that the minister has also put out a green paper which looks at bringing the ABC and SBS into the policy framework, with specific Australian content obligations, as well as expenditure requirements for SVOD platforms. We think that both of those moves are really important. The ABC does do the heavy lifting with children's content, but it doesn't actually have any specific minimum requirements to do so and support for children's content on the ABC is historically a bit cyclical—some years there's been a lot of new Australian content and other years there's been less. Over in the UK, the BBC actually has an obligation to do a minimum of 70 per cent original British children's content. We think that looking at the level of children's content—new, original Australian children's content—that the public broadcasters commit to as well as expenditure requirements on the streaming services is really important. Because it is also the case that lots of children are watching Netflix, Disney, Amazon, Apple and all of those other services. So I guess our vision would be for there to be original Australian content on all of the platforms where children are watching and engaging.

Dr ALLEN: Would anyone on the panel like to provide some insights into what would be regarded as Australia's point of difference and where the clear commercial advantage is for Australian content in our television production.

Ms Buckland : In the children's case, I would just like to say that our clear point of difference is really high production values. When we're selling programs around the world, they're very competitive, and that's because of the really strong support structure we have, with investment through Screen Australia, with the existence of my organisation, the ACTF, and with a long history of creating really high-end children's drama, in particular, and also animated content. I think we produce very high-quality content that stands up in the children's space. It stands up against the best British, Canadian and American content, and that's its point of difference. That's why it also lasts in the marketplace a very long time and people watch it 10 years after it was made.

Dr ALLEN: What you're saying is that we're valued. Is there appetite for more of our programs than we can produce? Is there room for growth? Is it the case that there's a lot of appetite but we're just not getting it out there, or have we saturated the market with regard to our point of difference in children's programming?

Ms Buckland : I think there's room for growth. We are getting it out there, but we have such a strong reputation in that area that I think there's room for growth. I would also acknowledge that the Commonwealth has recently earmarked additional funding for children's content over the next two years, and hopefully that will lead to additional production. I think there is a strong international market for that content.

Mr Mason : I think it would be interesting to add to Jenny's comment an example that we are both involved in, which is Bluey. What's exciting about that is that Disney have taken that show, in America, and are actually playing it with an Australian voice track. That's the first time, to my knowledge—in my 30 years of working in global production and distribution—that an Australian kids' show has been played in America with an Australian voice, which is incredible. That's the point of difference for our content. Cate Blanchett has talked about how, when she goes to America, everyone says, 'What's in the water?' because we have such an incredible range of talent.

CHAIR: That's good. You mentioned that Americans usually voice over with American accents. Have we contemplated doing voice overs in French, Italian, Spanish, German and all of those others so that we increase the possible market?

Ms Buckland : When programs are produced, they're produced with something called a music and effects track, which is all of the sound except for the dialogue. They are dubbed; that's already happening. Certainly, in the children's space, you can't really use subtitles, particularly for very young children. So, yes, all of our shows go out around the world in all of those different languages.

CHAIR: Do you get much penetration into the Asian TV and screen markets with your children's product?

Ms Buckland : Yes. The European market has traditionally been the strongest, but recently Discovery Asia and a number of pan-Asian services—and individual broadcasters—have picked up Australian content. I can't really say anything, but I'm waiting on a package of programs that are hopefully about to be sold to NHK, the public broadcaster in Japan. I hope I haven't jinxed that! All of the markets around the world evolve, but recently there has been a lot more interest in Australian content from across the Asian market.

Mr Mason : I'd just throw in there that we had a show called Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, which many people might be aware of. Not only did that show get sold around the world but, in fact, in China it is also now being remade as a Chinese version. They've both taken the original and remade that show.

CHAIR: With Chinese actors?

Mr Mason : Correct.

CHAIR: Wow! That's really something, given the current state of geopolitics in the world! It's called film diplomacy. That's great.

Ms BELL: I would also like to point out the immediate impact that the location offset had here on the Gold Coast. I represent the central seat of Moncrieff, and immediately we had movie stars moving into the neighbourhood. The flow-on jobs for our local kids particularly was a really great benefit to our local economy. My question is about 'transnational' and how it's classified—its formal definition and the exact meaning of it—as opposed to domestic productions. I also want to ask how those transnational productions have been impacted by COVID and what recommendations you would put forward to incentivise more transnational production in Australia.

Dr Herd : I assume that you're referring to international production coming to Australia?

Ms BELL: The term 'transnational'—is that a term for a cooperative production between nations, or is it international production? How is it classified?

Dr Herd : If we're talking about international production, which is production that originates in, for example, the United States, that's one form of production. Graeme might like to talk more to that, because they administer the co-production program. Australia has a number of treaties which allow for cooperation between Australian producers and the countries with which we have agreements.

Ms BELL: Is that for transnational productions?

Dr Herd : They're called co-productions; they're not so much transnational productions. Perhaps Graeme Mason might like to comment on the treaty co-productions.

Mr Mason : Ms Bell, I'd just like to clarify that that is what you're interested in. Obviously, the federal government broadly supports production, and, as Kate and Nick said, they market us offshore as a great destination, encouraging inbound volume and generally shining a light on our industry and our personnel. At the moment, in your neck of the woods, we have inbound things that have been happening with NBCU, a huge American network, but what I think is really exciting for the Australian government is that it's being run by an Australian based company, Matchbox. We've got Baz Luhrmann working on the Village Roadshow Studios space on the Gold Coast, and we have Chris Hemsworth making shows for Netflix. So we've got lots of different Australians involved. Some of those shows are literally inbound shows, some are Australian productions and some are a hybrid.

As Nick was alluding to, we have treaties with many countries around the world, whereby we encourage what are called official co-productions. That can be for diplomatic reasons or for greater trade reasons [inaudible]. And, of course, it's a great cultural exchange. We're working on all of those things. To answer the last part of your question, I think all of the creative industries here would say that, because of the country's COVID success, we are very, very popular and front of mind at the moment. Really, Australia and New Zealand are the two countries which are closest [inaudible].

CHAIR: Emma McBride has a question.

Ms McBRIDE: My question is to the Australian Children's Television Foundation. Thank you, Jenny, for your submission and for presenting at the public hearing today. I was interested in the government's recent announcement of $20 million for funding of children's television production. Has the foundation consulted directly with the independent children's television production sector regarding the usage and allocation of this funding, or when do you intend to consult with the sector? Will the department assist the foundation with the administration of this funding? How is the foundation working with the independent production sector to promote a diversity of producers and creators? Of course, we'd like to see equitable funding spread across a diverse range of productions, including those that are targeting more commercially focused channels, such as streaming services.

Ms Buckland : Thanks very much for that question, which is a bit wideranging. First off I'd say that, since that funding was announced, approaches to the ACTF have increased by about 400 per cent. There's tremendous interest in the opportunities that now exist in the children's space as a result of that funding. We have a webinar for the industry next week, where we'll be talking broadly about our objectives for that funding, which are to support as many producers across as many different platforms as possible. It's important to understand that it doesn't actually duplicate Screen Australia funding. Screen Australia will still be able to—and will—invest in children's content, but the ACTF is able to operate in a very flexible way. We distribute content internationally. We have very good relationships with the streaming platforms, and indeed we've been talking to all of them about the funding and the resulting opportunities to invest in children's content.

One of the things that some of the independent producers have said to us is that they have a bit of trouble getting access to some of those streamers, who perhaps don't want to have their door knocked down by 300 different people. But we've successfully sold programs to the streamers, and they've been asking to look at the sorts of shows that we're putting development funding into. In the time since that funding was announced, we've also increased our investment in script development funding for new projects. This is in order to ensure that, by the time the funding flows, there are projects that are really well developed and ready to go into production, and we're introducing those projects to the broadcasters and the streamers, with a view to ensuring the production gets made.

There are a few production houses that had a business model that was all about providing content to the commercial broadcasters under their quota. Some of that content wasn't particularly Australian—Australia was often a very small party to it, and the commercial broadcaster had paid very little for it—and some of it was watched by very few people. This requires a different approach. Successful content in the future needs to meet the high-end, high-value content that we've typically been seeing here on the ABC and that streamers like Netflix have also been acquiring from Australia. So there's a bit of pivoting for some producers to do. We've had a number of applications in the last week where producers who might typically have been doing that kind of low-end animation for the commercial broadcasters have come in the door with proposals for high-end animated features specifically for an SVOD platform. So we are starting to see producers pivot, and I can assure you that the funding will be very widely dispersed across all sorts of people.

Ms McBRIDE: Will projects that haven't been developed by ACTF and won't be distributed by you also be eligible for the production fund that you're administering? Will there be a preference for Australian owned and controlled companies over foreign owned or controlled companies? And are we going to see funding for new opportunities and projects rather than for the progression of existing projects?

Ms Buckland : Probably all of the above—not in terms of prioritising foreign projects. The ACTF focuses on the Australian child audience. We aspire to, and achieve, international success, but Australian children are the reason that we invest in content. The priority will be content for Australian children, and those proposals will be coming to us from Australian production houses. Yes, we'll be seeing new content from new producers. It won't all be more of the same content. Whilst, at the moment, the ACTF might be offering producers two major distribution advances a year for production, in the future it will be more like five or six. But we don't only offer distribution advances. Anybody can apply to us for script development funding, and there will be other sorts of investment that we do. We'll look at gap financing when someone's got a gap. In the past we've cashflowed the PDV offset for a production. We've cashflowed production while people were waiting for contracts. There will be any number of flexible ways that we'll support content.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: I have a couple of questions. Firstly, to Screen Australia: congratulations on the joint paper that you put out earlier in the year about streaming-services content, which I thought was excellent. I want to ask about the commentary from people who say that, while we are doing very well now in attracting international films, this may be short-lived as other countries return to some type of normality. Do you think that's a risk, and what do we do to overcome that?

Mr Mason : I guess that's a thing for Ausfilm and us, equally, together, on behalf of the federal government. I think that we have an incredible advantage because of the level of talent we have—behind and in front of the camera—and the facilities that we have. I do think we have a unique selling point there, and, as Ms Marks pointed out, a lot of inbound that's coming in at the moment has Australians involved. I know I've been asked this before in Senate estimates. You have things like Shantaram, an Australian book developed by an Australian. You have Clickbait, which is done for Netflix but created by a Melbourne based Australian. You've got Mr Hemsworth bringing things here. You have Ms Kidman bringing shows down here, along with her producing partner in crime, Bruna Papandrea.

I think that, as our industry is developing, there's an enormous opportunity to work and leverage those creative talents so we're not just relying on our spectacular crew. The more we join up both sides of that equation—creative talent and production—the better it will be for the sector as a whole.

Dr Herd : Before COVID struck, we were seeing an exponential growth in demand for new content. That has not diminished since we have gone into the pandemic, and every prediction is that it is going to continue. Even before COVID struck, there was a worldwide shortage of production space. Thanks to the contribution of the federal government, we're not only in the COVID-free space; we also have a competitive incentive that will attract the growth and production that we're going to see over the next five to 10 years. To your point—whether there is a risk—yes, but I think the risk is low.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: The other concern that's occasionally raised is that if we're too successful in attracting international productions we'll effectively price out local producers. It's always [inaudible]. That's one end of the production business saying that they want to keep the other end poor, and I'm not sure that's fair. I'm wondering whether you perceive that as a real risk to local productions.

Mr Mason : I think that it's always a balancing act. We have to remember that the people who are working on the inbounds are Australians, on the whole—people who are literally on the [inaudible]. Whether they be the set dresser or the grip, or whatever they are, on the whole they're Australians, and this is providing incredible employment and skills for those people. They're sending their kids to school, and they're doing it on the back of that work.

Obviously, the federal government is very interested in Australian IP and cultural reflection, but it's a balancing act to ensure that there is that availability for facilities. I would also suggest that all that stuff coming in lifts the whole standard of the sector. It gives an opportunity for people to learn new skills, which they take into local production as well, and it enables the facility houses to increase. At this moment, we have huge pressure on crew because there's so much Australian stuff being filmed. That's a great problem to have. We love working with the Australian Film Television and Radio School and the other agencies to get more and more people involved. As Ausfilm mentioned, the one thing we probably need is more infrastructure.

Ms Marks : For the post-production and visual effects sectors—particularly post-production, which is integral to the health of the domestic sector—having the opportunities to work on the international productions means they're able to reinvest in their business and ensure they're maintaining world-standard facilities, which does help both. It is that balance that Graeme mentioned, but, hopefully, with the influx of international production, we will see that gradual capacity growth.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: Could you outline for the committee what the current restrictions are on productions bringing international actors to Australia and what you believe the impact of those restrictions is on our ability to attract foreign productions.

Ms Marks : For the most part—since the location incentive was announced in July and film and television were added to the critical skills list for border exemptions—we're hearing that the process is working for people that need to come into Australia to work on international productions, and of course some of the domestic productions are also reliant on people coming in.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: I wasn't actually talking about COVID restrictions. I wanted to know whether there were restrictions in place on the number of actors that a production could use.

Dr Herd : Perhaps I can answer that. The process of bringing foreign actors or foreign crew into the country requires them to have visas. The visa process involves consultation with the relevant union, which is usually the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. Our experience is that that consultation happens but very rarely do they put up any objections to the importation of foreign actors, particularly for work on international productions coming here.

Mr ZIMMERMAN: Okay, good. Ms Buckland, you alluded to this when you talked about the ABC and people wanting to view commercial-free children's television. Could you give us a snapshot of how Australian children's viewing habits have changed, in terms of where they're sourcing children's television from, particularly in relation to commercial TV. I know the commercial or free-to-air TV sector often argues that there's been a significant move away from watching children's TV on their channels, which makes the viability of children's TV more challenging.

Ms Buckland : There has been a shift, and it's really interesting to watch. Probably 10 or 15 years ago, a lot of the really stand-out children's content was actually commissioned by the professional broadcasters. Channel 9 in particular used to do a really broad range of children's content—shows like Lockie Leonard, for example. That was a Goalpost Pictures show set in Albany, which kickstarted the career of Sean Keenan and all sorts of people. Channel 9 did a wide variety, and so did Channel 10.

Back then on the ABC it was a bit of a sad story. Obviously they do Play School, and they also used to do Blue Water High. But it was Blue Water High, Blue Water High—13 hours of that every year—while the commercial broadcasters were really carrying the load. Then the ABC established its children's channels, for which it did get support from the Commonwealth. That was quite transformative; there were commercial-free destinations for children to go to, and, really quickly, the audience followed. The amount of Australian content that went to the ABC was quite transformative. That was about 2009.

Then, at the same time as that, the commercial broadcasters started paying lower and lower licence fees for children's content, which led to the sort of content that I was describing before. It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. I don't know whether it was because they started paying less for, and therefore having less of, the high-end content that was attracting audiences or whether it was because the audience went to the ABC—and that was also part of the digital transition and the fact that you had a choice of destinations. Now what we're seeing is that the ABC is under pressure from competition from the streaming platforms, with so many households picking up streaming platforms.

I happen to think competition for quality content is a really good thing. I think the ABC is doing a really tremendous job with the children's content that it's commissioning at the moment. It is winning major international awards, and that content is being exported around the world. I think that's really great. But I'm seeing the same thing all over the world—public broadcasters feeling the pressure from the streamers. Unlike the commercial broadcasters, who were doing it because they had to, not because they loved the content, Netflix, Disney, Amazon, Stan and Apple really care about what they put on their platform, because it is about generating audiences. Australian children are also watching that content now, and that is the really great opportunity that exists for Australian content. So, in the future, I think you'd want to see really strong children's content on the public broadcasters.

I should also mention that NITV is really expanding its children's reach at the moment, with beautiful content. If there's any way anyone can ever find more money for NITV, please do so, because they're doing an outstanding job. But the streamers are interested in Australian content. Netflix were recently quoted as saying that the reason they're interested in it is that Australia makes fantastic children's content. Definitely, families are going there. I would just finish by saying that, of the top 10 programs watched in Australia on Netflix last week, No. 1 was The Crown but No. 9 was The InBESTigators, an Australian children's drama by Gristmill in Melbourne.

Ms McBRIDE: These questions are to Graeme from Screen Australia. Thank you for your submission and for being part of the public hearing today. I'm really interested in hearing more about Screen Australia's support for the production of children's television programming in Australia. How much production money over the last, say, five years has been spent on children's content—for enterprise, development and production? Has the majority been allocated to kids' TV programs for the public broadcasters? How many children's productions have met Screen Australia's eligibility threshold on licence fees and been approved for funding, and who were the broadcasters whose commissioning fee met this criterion?

Mr Mason : I should probably take those questions on notice to give you accurate details, because that's a very long list of things. As you're probably aware, we invest in an enormous number of things every year. I would say, on average, we are putting between $8 million and $10 million a year directly into children's production funding. We do developments a lot, but then we do enterprise separately. A case in point would be Ludo, who are now best known for Bluey. With the ACTF and the ABC, we invested in and helped them with development. We gave them enterprise funding to help build their company. We also occasionally give support to them to travel. Of course, we also invest in feature films, and we work with all of the commercial broadcasters. So we do kids' films, like Paper Planes and Oddball, and we aim to do at least one of those a year. We have another one coming from Rob Connolly, who did Paper Planes, which he will start filming in Western Australia next year.

We work with all broadcasters. I can say to the committee that we currently have three children and family shows from commercial networks in for funding going forward. With the ACTF, we are working on several things with major streamers. I think we are unusual in that we also work with YouTube a lot—not on children's content, although we are obviously looking at that, but on other scripted and factual shows. We do things with Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok. Again, that can be controversial. We're looking to work into that space to ensure that, wherever children—and Australians more broadly—are watching content, we work with them.

We don't currently work with people who don't fit the licence requirements—the minimum licence fee. We do that to protect the producers, primarily, and the productions. As you're probably alluding to, there are some productions at the moment that are asking us to reconsider that, for networks that are not wanting to hit that minimum spend per half-hour of kids shows or per hour of grown-up shows. We are looking at that carefully, going forward, because, obviously, if we were to relax it on one it would be relaxed permanently. We're looking at what is best, on the whole, for the sector.

Ms McBRIDE: Broadly, how does Screen Australia funding support the independent kids'-TV production sector? What initiatives and reviews of policy guidelines are Screen Australia going to look at to ensure that the children's sector has a fair shot at employing people through the creative finance plans, given there appears to have been a real lack of transition planning for the sector by the government?

Mr Mason : I don't know that I'd necessarily agree with that statement. Obviously the funding that we have at the moment for the children's sector hasn't moved, nor has the ABC's, SBS's or NITV's. The ACTF's has gone up some tenfold. The other thing I would point out is that the government is putting up the offset on small screen from 20 to 30 per cent. So there's commitment to that content. But, in large, we are recognising, obviously, that some people, as Ms Buckland has pointed out, had a business model of providing content for a commercial [inaudible] maybe now don't have to fill up a quota there. That could change. So I do recognise there is a change in place.

We and the ACTF are working very closely. Of course, we'll continue to work with the sector to ensure that we help them find all the other places who are looking to commission content. Specifically, we're working on kids programs with the ACTF. We work with Ausfilm and the state agencies on other drama or features as well to ensure that we have a vibrant, independent sector. We only work with the independents; we do not fund networks.

CHAIR: I think our time for this session has come to an end. Ladies and gentlemen, it's been absolutely fascinating. Suffice it to say, it appears that, through your efforts, Australian screen production is entering into a golden age, and the cost-benefit ratio from your work is excellent. Thanks very much for being part of this inquiry. It's a really exciting part of Australian industry. If you have been asked to provide additional information, would you please forward it to the secretary by 18 December 2020. You will be send a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. Thanks very much, everyone.