Although Australia and the US have signed a free trade agreement, it is an imperfect document, with many exemptions on both sides. In Australia, there has been a loud campaign to have existing ‘local content’ rules for Australian television excluded, and this campaign has been successful.
The ‘local content’ rules mean that a certain proportion of television programmes that are broadcast on Australian television must be locally made. The scrapping of this rule was an American objective in the free trade negotiations, as it meant that US television companies were restricted in their access to the Australian television market by what in effect is a quota.
Australia resisted this; we should not have.
Australian television has had local content rules for a long time, they provide that at least 55% of the programming on Australian television between 6am and midnight must be locally produced. This creates a local internal market for television, which is actually quite a cut-throat industry. The economies of scale mean that Australian television products are not cost-competitive, but they do rate well. That is the rub- many of the people involved in the industry here do not wish to concern themselves with anything so grubby as ‘ratings'; but would rather follow their artisitic vision. A noble thing, to be sure, but television is a business. Local variants of the ‘reality tv’ genre have been ratings winners and have made a lot of money for their networks through advertising sales.
The local lobby present a ‘nightmare’ scenario where Australian television is totally dominated by US television product. This seems curious since Australian television networks are more worried by market share rather then raw cost. But then the local content lobby are more about emotion then cool business sense. In point of fact, the ratings show that many of the best rating programs are local productions.
But there is a strange sense of values in the local content lobby. Their catchphrase seems to be ‘telling Australian stories with Australian voices’. But this is a remarkable way to be going about it. It is almost like forcing a ‘book quota’ on Australian readers, making Australian readers read a set proportion of Australian written books.
What is screened on Australian television screens should be decided by the television networks, who make (more or less) rational decisions based on the ratings of what people want, rather then by a government directive decreeing what is best for them. It is most unfortunate that this principle has been lost again.