Australia’s Federal Government has announced a package of measures to help sustain Australian media businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. The measures include:
- Tax Relief – A 12-month waiver of spectrum tax for commercial television and radio broadcasters
- Investing in Regional Journalism – A $50 million Public Interest News Gathering program
- Short-Term Red Tape Relief – Emergency suspension of content quotas in 2020
- Harmonising Regulation to Support Australian Content – Release of an Options Paper developed by Screen Australia and the Australian Communications and Media Authority, commencing a fast-tracked consultation process on how best to support Australian stories on “our screens”.
Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, the Hon Paul Fletcher MP said, “Many Australians are doing it tough right now and the media sector is sharing that pain, especially in regional areas. Broadcasters and newspapers face significant financial pressure and COVID-19 has led to a sharp downturn in advertising revenue across the whole sector.
“We are acting to offer urgent short-term support to the media sector. At the same time we are progressing our December 2019 commitment to consult on the future framework to support Australian stories on our screens.”
The Morrison Government will provide $41 million in spectrum tax rebates, offering immediate financial relief to commercial television and radio broadcasters across Australia.
The new $50 million Public Interest News Gathering (PING) program will support public interest journalism delivered by commercial television, newspaper and radio businesses in regional Australia. PING is funded with $13.4 million in new money as well as repurposing unallocated funds from the Government’s Regional and Small Publishers Jobs and Innovation Package (RSPJIP). This responds to the ACCC’s recommendation, in its Digital Platforms Inquiry, to enhance the RSPJIP to better support high quality news, particularly in regional and remote Australia.
“The Government recognises that public interest journalism is essential in informing and strengthening local communities,” Minister Fletcher said.COVID-19 has effectively halted production of Australian screen content, making it impossible for free-to-air and subscription television businesses to meet Australian content obligations.“As an emergency red tape reduction measure, I have suspended Australian drama, children’s and documentary content obligations on free-to-air and subscription television for 2020. A decision will be taken before the end of this year as to whether this suspension should continue in 2021.
“It remains critically important that we have Australian voices on Australian TV, so there will be no change to the requirement for broadcasters to meet an overall 55 per cent Australian content obligation,” Minister Fletcher said.
The Government is accelerating its work to determine the future extent of Australian content obligations on free-to-air television broadcasters, and whether these should apply to streaming services. This work is critical to the future of the culturally and economically important Australian film and television production sector.
To guide this work, the Government has released an Options Paper, developed by Screen Australia and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). Consultation with key stakeholders, including ministerial roundtables, will occur over the next eight weeks.
“I want to thank ACMA and Screen Australia for their detailed, evidence-based study of the state of the Australian film and television sector, which carefully considers the cultural and economic importance of screen stories, the regulatory framework, and the support the Government provides to the screen sector through a range of mechanisms and policy settings,” Minister Fletcher said. “Regulated free-to-air broadcasters are competing with unregulated digital platforms and video streaming services. It has been evident for some time – and the COVID-19 crisis has made it even more obvious – that this is not sustainable.
“These arrangements threaten the sustainability of television broadcasters – and in turn the sustainability of the film and television content production sector.“That is why I want to seek industry feedback on the options put forward by ACMA and Screen Australia, and work with industry on a plan for the future, including how to best secure the market opportunity created by the explosion of streaming services.“We need to re-emerge from COVID-19 with a regulatory framework suited to the twenty-first century that recognises today’s competitive landscape – where television broadcasters compete with streaming services and a myriad of other internet-based businesses – and which positions both the television sector and the content production sector for a sustainable future,” Mr Fletcher said.
Industry body Free TV has welcomed the relief package with Free TV CEO Bridget Fair saying, “While we are still working through the details of the package, the suspension of content quotas for 2020, waiver of spectrum fees and support for regional journalism are very positive for the immediate pressures being experienced by the industry. However, the ongoing requirement to meet the overall 55% Australian content quota remains a concern for the industry in an environment where there is less sport, drama and entertainment programming available due to the suspension or cancellation of many productions.
“The COVID-19 crisis is having significant financial and operational impacts on our sector and these will take years to play out. It is therefore pleasing to note that the Minister has flagged that further consideration of content quotas for 2021 will occur later this year as we expect that further relief will be required in future years.
“We also welcome the immediate release of the Options Paper and expedited consultation period for long term Australian Content quota settings. We are still working through the detail of the Options Paper and look forward to responding as part of the consultation process in coming weeks.
“Free TV would also urge the Government to expedite the process for the ACCC Digital Platforms Code of Conduct. It is clear that negotiations between the parties to date have been deeply unsatisfactory. These platforms derive value from the news and Premium Australian Content generated by commercial broadcasters, but their market power means they do not pay a fair price for it. The Government must step into this process and drive a speedy resolution to the bargaining imbalance between the parties.
“As the world cranks into post-isolation reality, commercial television will need an operating environment that provides certainty for the future. We need a new regulatory framework suitable for a world where broadcasters compete with unregulated online content providers and digital platforms that don’t have any of the same rules that apply to Free TV broadcasters.
“We look forward to working with Minister Fletcher and the Morrison Government to achieve regulatory settings that are suitable for the post COVID world. Free TV broadcasters still account for the lion’s share of spending on film and television production in this country. A sustainable commercial television sector is crucial to the health of the broader production sector.”
Hugh Marks, CEO of Nine, added, “We thank the Minister for his efforts and the measures announced which provide some short term relief to Australia’s media businesses. However, the current COVID- 19 crisis only serves to further highlight the need for urgent long term solutions to the regulatory imbalance between highly regulated domestic media players and unregulated international technology companies.”
Commercial Radio Australia also welcomed the Federal Government’s relief package for Australian media, but said much more action was needed to address the severity of the impact of COVID-19 on radio broadcasters.
CRA chief executive officer Joan Warner welcomed the Minister’s announcement of a waiver of spectrum taxes for 12 months and the announcement of the new $50 million Public Interest News Gathering program.
“We welcome the move to waive spectrum fees but the measures announced today do not go far enough in addressing the pressures facing the radio industry.
“We are grateful for the one-year waiver of spectrum taxes which amounts to about $1.2 million for radio, spread across the large number of networks and stations.
“However, we are disappointed that commercial radio, as the most hyper local of the mediums, has been largely overlooked in spite of its continued delivery of service to the Australian community during the pandemic, and before that, during the bushfires and the drought.
“Radio is an essential service and it’s vital that we are able to continue to meet local content and emergency broadcasting obligations.
“We have now opened discussions directly with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to discuss urgent action to reduce red tape and create a fairer playing field for Australian radio broadcasters so we can keep meeting our obligations to listeners and the communities we serve.
“We would also like to see not just video content harmonised across local services and global giants but the delivery of Australian music requirements also harmonised across radio and global music streaming services such as Spotify.”
More information about the measures, as well as a copy of the Options Paper, can be found at www.communications.gov.au/media_package