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Cultural protectionists win in Australia

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.

21 comments to Cultural protectionists win in Australia

  • I can see your point from a free market perspective but resisting the river of effulent that flows out of Hollywood is not a bad thing. One of the things that defines a culture is the entertainment enjoyed by that culture. Importing vast quantities of foreign made (American or British) programming could substantially dilute that culture. Besides do you really want to watch reruns of Saturday Night Live with washed up comics who are still making wisecracks about Regan and Quayle?

    I think such a rule will force the people making the decisions of what to import to choose carefully lest they pay money for something that nobody down under wants to watch.

  • The point is though, that there is actually no evidence that Australian television networks have any desire to drown Australian audiences in Hollywood dross. There would be no faster way of making viewers switch to something else, which would not please advertisers one little bit.

  • GCooper

    I have absolutely no bloody sympathy whatsoever for the Australians over this.

    It is their staggeringly bad soap operas that have resulted in almost all Brits under the age of thirty ending every damned sentence they utter with a question mark and whiney, rising inflection.

    Sorry, chaps. You deserve all you get?

    I mean, it really is irritating?

    When it’s every sentence ?

  • Any Samizdata comment on the restrictive IP rules imposed on Oz as part of the deal?

  • mike

    Yes, but to change the subject slightly, where do you get your news/politics from in australia? A free market might be fine for entertainment etc, but could it really deliver sufficiently truthful accounts of political events, wouldn’t you just get the equivalent of Fox and CNN? I don’t just mean truthfulness about ordinary facts (of the sort “the prime minister arrived yesterday”) but truthfulness with the overall account they are framed in (so which facts are included and which are not, or which facts are emphasised more than others etc). Mind, our BBC famously has something of a left-wing bias (e.g. the Today program) – which irritates bloggers on this site of course, so that’s no solution. I suppose the problem is how to preserve truthfulness without alienating the different political perspectives. Can this be done through free markets? Can it even be done through state regulation? Or are voluntary professional associations closer to a better answer?

  • toolkien

    All this is is the State programming individuals (and their private associations) behaviorally. Modifying behaviors isn’t just active propaganda, it is preventing information as well (commonly known as censorship). Granted this is an oblique statement that so much has to be of a certain type, but it is a form of censorship. What is the State protecting people from? If they consume it, regardless of where it is produced, and the broadcasters make money providing a service, then what is the problem? That the State wants the population to be conditioned differently and uses Force or the threat of Force to carry it out.

    It’s interesting that in the US the ‘alternative’ to the dreck of reality programming, sitcoms, and WWE wrestling is PBS (pretty much our BBC with all the left leaning that goes with it) which is taxpayer subsidized and they show and endless lineup of BRITISH programming. Talk about the complete opposite. To be honest some are OK but I’ve never been a huge fan of most of them. I certainly don’t feel that I am being Britainized at my own expense (though, of course, I resent that non-market Forces are used to take my property).

  • Wonder if they will be as anal as the Canadians have been over “local content”. For a while Bryan Adams was considered “too American” to be viewed as local content. I could think of at least one group that could be considered “too British” for Oz.

  • Larry Blue

    Andrew reminds me of the genius SCTV show and their reaction to the Canadian content nannys. The content nannys at Canandian Broadcasting deemed the show “un-canandian” and demanded more explicitly “canandian” content. Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas came up with the Mckenzie Brothers – a couple of beer swilling, thick accented, back-bacon chewin’, hockey-lovin’ Canucks who would become the world’s steriotype for Canadians – eh.

    I look forward to the creation of the beer-swilling, thick accented, koala bacon chewin’, fotty-lovin’ Aussie mite.

  • llamas

    djl4570 wrote:

    ‘I can see your point from a free market perspective but resisting the river of effulent that flows out of Hollywood is not a bad thing. One of the things that defines a culture is the entertainment enjoyed by that culture. Importing vast quantities of foreign made (American or British) programming could substantially dilute that culture. Besides do you really want to watch reruns of Saturday Night Live with washed up comics who are still making wisecracks about Regan and Quayle?

    I think such a rule will force the people making the decisions of what to import to choose carefully lest they pay money for something that nobody down under wants to watch.’

    In other words, the Ministry of Kultur will decide what is ‘good’ for Australian culture and what is ‘bad’ for Australian culture.

    Who gets to decide what’s good for Australians to watch, and what isn’t? You?

    Don’t you think that Australians should be able to decide for themselves what they’d like to watch?

    Your dire predictions about vast amounts of second-hand US programming deluging Oz only applies if the government controls broadcasting, and people can only watch what the government offers. If the market is free, no-one will broadcast something if not enough people want to watch it.

    ‘Resisting the river of effluent’, indeed. Hollywood makes what people want to see, and always will. If you don’t like their product, that’s tough, but noone has any business trying to restrict others from accessing it just because they don’t like it.



  • I think it would better for Australains to decide what they want to watch than it would be for Hollywood to decide. Hollywood can decide what viewers watch in much the way Microsoft decided what browser everyone should use. Using a near monopoly position in the marketplace to bury competition is not a free marketplace.

    I made no suggestion that a government bureaucracy (e.g. your “ministry of kulture”) should be making these decisions. My suggestion that they choose carefully lest they pay for something that nobody wants to watch should have been a clue that I favor the broadcasters selecting the programming based on market forces.

    Hollywood makes whatever generates the most advertising revenue. People don’t “want” to see this material. They watch it because it’s on TV; they’ve been trained to watch TV since they were old enough to giggle like a Teletubby or sing the tune from Barney. Sure they could turn off the TV but they’ve been conditioned to “stay tuned for more”. I weaned myself from the boob tube when I lived without a TV for about seven years in the 1980’s. Today I cannot stand to watch a half hour sitcom. It has become Murrow’s vast wasteland with a few hamlets of quality programming.

    A lot of my opinion on the current state of television programming could have been derived from some books I read a number of years ago. You’ll have to dig up used copies since they’ve been out of print for years. Look for “The Glass Teat” and “The Other Glass Teat” written by Harlan Ellison back around 1970. These were a newspaper column he wrote for the Detroit Free Press at the time.

  • What kind of elitist bullshit is that? What’s so bad about American TV shows? I can think of about 50 American TV shows right now that are way better than anything that’s ever been produced in Australia.

    DJL is just the latest in a long line of anti-american bigots. If you’re going to dump buckets of shit on them, you should at least back it up with some explanation. I’m over the “assumed knowledge” that what Hollywood and the US TV industry produces is crap. The opposite is true.

  • Ahem: Born in California, lived here all my life. See my URL for a clue to one of my preferred recreational (and typically American) activities. 🙂

    I’ve been exposed to American television for over 40 years. Could not sit thorugh an episode of Friends or Seinfield and didn’t give a hoot who shot JR. After a long enough exposure to this tripe I begin to wonder why anyone would watch it. I do not have a good answer other than the one I’ve already provided: The people who watch this stuff have been conditioned to watch TV and to stay tuned for more.

    I do watch some TV, probably less than 10 hours a week and prefer the “edutainment” channels on cable.

  • Shawn

    I can think of a good number of high quality (imo) US tv shows that I like. Same for Hollywood. Some crap, but some quality too. I’m a fairly conservative person, but I’m wary of the kind of elitist snobbery that claims it is an objective fact that everything Hollywood produces is crap.

    djl4570’s opinions on TV are purely subjective, as all opinions concerning art and entertainment are. He’s entitled to his opinions, as we all are, but not entitled to expect the state, Australian or otherwise, to force his opinions on others.

    “Hollywood can decide what viewers watch in much the way Microsoft decided what browser everyone should use. Using a near monopoly position in the marketplace to bury competition is not a free marketplace.”

    This is utter nonsense. Hollywood decide? You mean all those people who CHOOSE to leave their home, get in their car, go to the multiplex, and see a Hollywood film, were being forced to? Puhleeease.

    Same with Microsoft. Was it hard in some way to download Netscape or Mozilla? I mean, they are both free. Perhaps a Microsoft employee was holding a gun to djl4570’s head?

    Come on. This is the kind of “corporations are all powerful gods” argument I expect from leftists or cargo cultists.

  • vf1000ride

    And as an example of the latest load of crap to come out of Hollywierd. They are gonna have a new “reality” show where foriegn contestants get to compete in challenges against each other. And what may you ask is the prize, Two lawyers to fight for them so they can have their imigration green cards issued. What kind of crap tv marketing is that. Why do I want to watch a 3 month long tv show based on people that can’t get into the USA by any other legal means compete to have a team of lawyers get them in for free.

  • Shawn

    “Why do I want to watch a 3 month long tv show”

    Change the channel, takes some personal responsibility and find something else you want to watch.

    “Hollywood” is only giving the market what it wants.

  • drscroogemcduck

    Local producers in Australia have created their fair share of reality tv and probably more since local content laws make cheap reality tv attractive.

  • Squawkbox

    Agree with yobbo and drscroogemcduck. It is almost impossible to describe how bad most homeproduced Australian TV shows are. And the thought of making our undertalented, oversubsidised and unbelievably self-important “actors” either emigrate overseas or get real jobs is strangely attractive.

  • Anointiata Delenda Est

    Guys, guys, guys,

    You must see this in terms of elections. Nobody in Oz gives a stuff about ‘Local Content’. Potential pollies will get votes if the pretend they do, ie that they care about ‘Kultur”, ‘Oz Kultur’ especially.

    What is Oz Kultur? Can’t say.

    What is it not? Why, IT’S NOT AMERICAN!!! Oh No!!!

    Why is it not American? Because the leftist soft socialists don’t like America.

    Why don’t they like America? Because American Kultur believes that “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. And where would we be if this idea catches on? Why the inteligensia (leftist soft socialists, and your betters, don’t you know), would be out of a job.

    Can’t have that, so let’s pretend that this is all about preservation of Aussie culture.

    Even better, if I row in with the lefties, that’ll get me elected, no worries mate.

  • I do not pretend to be objective in my opinions about Hollywood but I do not think I being elitist in my disdain of Hollywood either. Having been exposed to American TV programming for many years I offer a perspective and an opinion may be rare but is not unique. When I refer to “Hollywood” I mean the predominate producers of both TV and theatrical entertainment media based in Southern California. Hollywood is the source for nearly all of the movies in the theaters and programming on TV. To me a trip to the movies isn’t much different from turning on the TV except that admission is US$8.00 and a coke and a popcorn costs US$5.00.

    I failed to articulate a point in my original posts. Does a free market really exist when the production of television and theatrical entertainment is dominated by a hegemony of studios, production and distribution companies? I think not: the abscence of government regulation does not guarentee a free market.

    Over the years I Have watched friends and families of friends zone out in front of the TV. I began to wonder why do so many people find watching TV preferable to conversation or reading a book. My hypothesis is that many of us have been conditioned beginning at a very young age to watch TV and as I put it earlier to “Stay tuned for more”. Turning off the TV is not something that occurs to a vast number of Americans. Using this conditioning Hollywood can create its own market while giving viewers the illusion of choice. To borrow a phrase (from Hollywood of all places ) “It is a prison for your mind.”. The analogy I used that “Hollywood decides what people watch in much the same way that Microsoft decided which browser prople should use” was lost here. People watch what’s on TV because it’s on TV. People use the Microsoft browser because it came with the PC and is the default browser. They can make a choice if they knew there was a choice to make, just as viewers can turn off the TV but don’t consider this choice. Does anyone here remember “Max Headroom”? It was a short lived series about a society where televisions were everywhere and did not have an on/off switch.

    Free markets are a good thing and I am all for removing government regulations and reducing the size of government. However a market that is not regulated by the government is not necessarly a free market.

    BTW: I choose this for web browsing and started using it back when it was still called Phoenix after using Netscape v4 and Mozilla before that.
    Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.0; en-US; rv:1.7) Gecko/20040804 Firefox/0.9.3 (mmoy-Branch-093-20040804-Pentium-4P)

    It amazes me when I talk to people who have never heard of security problems in the Microsoft browser, didn’t know about alternative browsers. Even after you’ve cleaned worms off their system and told them about the choices they will continue to use what they’ve been using.

    There isn’t much more I can say about this topic. The grass really isn’t greener on this side of the fence and be careful what you ask for because you might get it.

  • I should like to just take this opportunity to thank readers for their comments.

    First off, I suppose I should have declared my interest (or lack of) in my post- I do not actually watch television, except for news and sports (admittedly, I watch a lot of sport!). I simply do not find television programs, whether Australian or American, entertaining.

    I did have a look at the TV ratings for last week when they were published in the dead-tree version of The Australian and on a quick count, only 4 of the top 20 programs were from overseas.

    So my own strong suspicion that local content would continue to thrive without ‘local content’ rules remains- and my suspicion of the local content lobby is also strong.

    Of course, the real problem is that there is a shortage of airwaves, an artificial problem inflicted on us by government refusal to issue new television licences. This is done at the behest of the existing networks who like their cozy oligopoly and do not want it disturbed.

    And off topic, may I add my weight to DJL’s endorsement of the Firefox browser. I’ve been using it for a few months now and I’m very happy with it.

  • I don’t know much about Oz TV — how many channels are available via cable, for instance — but I can’t see this as a problem.

    The fact about American TV is that regardless of the number of channels, the ratio of complete crap to “watchable” TV remains constant, regardless of the number of channels.

    Note that I make no distinction as to what constitutes “crap” and “watchable”, because that’s up to the individual.

    What I do know is that there’s always something to watch — hell, through BBC-America we even get the excellent Prime Suspect shows (although we have to put up with the horrible Graham Norton in so doing), but the more choice you have, the better.

    People who want to watch “Oz” shows will continue to watch them — but if the Oz productions want to compete with the big-budget, slick Hollywood shows, they’ll have to increase the quality.

    Because while a ton (tonne) of crap comes out of Hollywood, occasionally there are a few pounds (kgs) of true excellence too (think: Hill Street Blues from a while ago) — and if you’re going to compete with those shows, you need to get your act together.

    Competition, need we remind anyone, builds strength.

    The “local content” restriction in Canada has resulted in the most appalling TV service in the Western world. It’s absolutely unwatchable about 99% of the time (and having to do it in French as well as English cripples the CBC).

    Let’s hope the Aussies don’t fall into the same trap.

    God, I miss cricket on TV, though. I’d pay a king’s ransom to watch Test matches again…