Thu, 10 Feb 2022 - 15:03

Regulating for the new media landscape

In a democracy it is vital to have a vibrant and diverse media sector. And in Australia, we are lucky to have just that. 

But our media sector is changing at an extraordinary rate, driven by the explosive growth of internet-based media and content players, from Facebook to Netflix to Spotify to YouTube, and many others besides.

More choice is a good thing, and Australian consumers have responded enthusiastically. 

But it is unlikely that such global technology businesses have the same commitment to Australian content and to quality Australian journalism as long-established media outlets like Nine Entertainment Limited, Seven West Media, News Corp, Foxtel, Australian Community Media and many others around the country—as well as the ABC and SBS.

This is a key reason why the Morrison Government has been working to update our media and content policy settings throughout this term of government.

We have made long overdue changes to the Australian content requirements for free to air television; increased taxpayer support for Australian television programming, with the tax offset rising from 20 per cent to 30 per cent; and supported the media sector through COVID with temporary tax relief and our public interest news gathering (PING) program.

A year ago we legislated the News Media Bargaining Code, designed to support Australian new media businesses to be properly remunerated when content produced and paid for by them is used by digital platforms Google and Facebook.  This has secured tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue—and, in turn, created many new jobs for journalists.

The Code came soon after we issued a Green Paper on media reform, with a particular focus on how to sustain the free to air television sector. Australians are watching more on their home screens (and tablets and smartphones and laptops) than ever. But increasingly, what they watch comes from players like Binge, Disney+, Netflix, Paramount Plus and Stan. 

The trend is clear in my Department’s latest annual Media Consumption Survey. Subscription video on demand (SVOD) services are now the most popular way for adults to watch screen content at 62 per cent, ahead of traditional free to air television at 58 per cent. And 2021 saw a drop in the amount of free to air television viewing compared to 2020. 

In turn that means free to air revenue is challenged, making it harder to fund high quality news journalism and a range of Australian content. 

This week I have announced several actions to help respond to these challenges, following the Green Paper consultation process.

The Morrison Government will spend $7.3 million for a research and policy development program to provide the Government and industry with the information needed to make choices about the future of free-to-air television services in Australia. This will look at issues like the most efficient use of radio spectrum and the accessibility of free-to-air offerings on smart TVs.

We will extend for a further two years the commercial broadcasting tax rebate presently received by relevant regional television broadcasters. This will give support to those regional broadcasters while we consider broader reforms to Commercial Broadcasting Tax arrangements, and while the industry considers potential future technology pathways. 

There will be a new legislated Australian content reporting requirement for large SVOD services, so the government can track their spending on Australian content as a proportion of revenue.  If this falls below 5 per cent, the Communications Minister will have the power to impose a formal Australian content spending requirement.  

There will also be a new Australian content reporting requirement imposed on the ABC and SBS—which, strangely enough, face no such requirement today.

By contrast commercial television networks face legal requirements to show certain amounts of Australian content, and to report on their Australian content.  It makes little sense that the ABC and SBS, and the SVOD services, which compete with commercial television broadcasters for eyeballs, face no such requirements.

The key principle is that media regulation should, as far as possible, be platform neutral.  This is what the ACCC recommended in its Digital Platforms inquiry: that the government should move towards the harmonisation of media regulation

Journalism is important everywhere, but regional media outlets are under particular pressure. The broadcasting tax relief for regional broadcasters is one way to help address this pressure.  Another is that we will invest $10 million dollars to support more journalism cadetships in smaller regional media businesses, and more training for regional journalists.

Australia’s media sector is changing fast. Many of these changes are very positive and bring much greater choice for Australians; but it is critical that existing media businesses can compete effectively.  That is why we need to change our regulatory settings—and these initiatives are part of that change process.