Our screen industry needs more than ‘quota quickies’

Consultation is forthcoming on content quotas for international streaming services in Australia – that must be meaningful.

Broadcasting content quotas are a form of television industry regulation which mandates the production of local, Australian and children’s content. They have been enforced, in one form or another, on commercial television networks since the 1960s.

Although the arrival of international streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime have changed the television mediascape in Australia, governments have not enforced content quotas on these platforms – until now.

By Associate Professor Jane Mills, screen studies researcher from UNSW Sydney’s School of Arts and Media

As an academic and filmmaker committed to Australia’s national cinema and television, I am a strong defender of local quotas. They are necessary to remedy market failure, protect Australian stories, enrich audience experience, and provide jobs for Australian screen professionals

As part of Revive, the new National Cultural Policy, the Federal Government announced it will move forward with content quotas for the international streamers, and will be negotiating the details in a consultation process. This is a terrific step forward but the upcoming consultation must consider not just the percentage of Australian programs on streaming platforms, but also the hours.

What’s happened in the past is that, to meet the minimum quota, broadcasters could screen several short programs that were cheaply and poorly produced – ‘quota quickies’ as they’re known. Content quotas must include protections for length and quality as well.

This government recognises that certain genres like First Nations programs, drama, documentary and programs for young people are expensive to produce and need special protections within the proposed content quotas. This is right and proper. Contemporary Australia is diverse, often transnational and transcultural in its outlook, and the stories we choose to tell should reflect that. This means recognising that Australians’ cultural borders extend far beyond the English language.

Australian drama programs, in terms of the actual number of productions and the number of hours, have declined significantly in the last two decades. Similarly, documentary and local children’s content can be costly to produce for what producers perceive to be a small audience – reflecting market failure.

Being an English-speaking country puts Australia’s local production industry at a disadvantage. It’s much cheaper for broadcasters to purchase drama and documentary content from the UK and US than to produce it locally.

I am particularly concerned about the decline in documentary filmmaking in Australia. Documentary is an at-risk genre because the definition of ‘documentary’ is very loose. For instance, commercial broadcasters can include reality TV in their documentary quota obligations, which is problematic – the documentary form is very different from being ‘non-fiction’.

Clearer definitions

I’d like to see more discussion and clearer definitions and protections of local content Australian documentaries as part of the discussion around quotas for streaming services.

After years of stagnation, we finally have a supportive and receptive government willing to work with the Australian screen industry. With the proposed consultation process, we have an opportunity to review and discuss all options for creating a thriving and vibrant screen industry in Australia.

There’s been a lot of attention on streaming services, but commercial and public free-to-air broadcasters shouldn’t be ignored in the forthcoming discussions.

The ABC and SBS operate under special charters which set out their goals and purpose as public service broadcasters, but these do not explicitly mandate the production of local content. Those charters have worked well so far, but we now have an opportunity to review content quotas across free-to-air and subscription television, as well as streaming services.

Not far enough

The new National Cultural Policy promises funding certainty for our public service broadcasters, but this doesn’t go far enough. Funding needs to be restored to levels from before the successive slashes from previous governments, and ongoing funding should keep in track with inflation and rising costs.

If the government is stuck for ideas as to how to raise revenue, they can consider properly taxing large global streaming platforms appropriately. Netflix, for example, reportedly earned $1.6 billion in Australia in the first quarter of 2022, and yet paid only $868k in tax the previous year.

If there’s a loophole in our taxation system, then this needs attending to. It certainly needs investigating and more transparency.

Currently, commercial free-to-air broadcasters must meet a 55% Australian program quota, and yet the figure floating around now for streaming providers is 20%, which is concerningly low. The European Union has 30% quotas and some of its members impose a higher percentage, Indonesia insists on 40% and Canada imposes 45%. By comparison Australia’s goal is low.


Federal and state governments also need to reconsider their financial incentives for international production companies to work in Australia.

While these incentives give good opportunities for local film professionals to gain employment and experience without leaving the country, they do not guarantee that the stories these production companies make are Australian ones. We need to find a policy middle-ground.

Another important area that needs discussion is what counts as Australian content. Given the diversity that exists in multicultural Australia, this is not easy. We need to review what is meant by ‘local’. Screen Australia has a definition, but it is complex.

Ultimately, Australian stories are important to our national identity and nation building.  

But if a documentary filmmaker wants to investigate conditions in a foreign mine or corruption in a foreign government but can only work with a foreign crew, is their production any the less Australian than another filmmaker whose film is about a NSW oyster farmer, for example? After all, we’re all global citizens, too.

A clear but not too restrictive definition will boost multicultural content production and allow our screen industry to find a voice within the transnational screen community around the world.

Towards arts literacy

Investment in screen education and increased arts literacy is a must and we need to put greater emphasis on arts subjects in the Australian national curriculum. Furthermore, we need to think of film, television and video as an art form.

This is something that the current government does recognise, but the states can play their part by recognising a wider range of art forms in their school curriculums.

To support screen education and literacy, I would love to see a discussion about how we can enhance screen culture in Australia in the upcoming review. Screen culture isn’t limited to production, distribution, exhibition and education. It’s about knowledge, understanding and, above all, pleasure – it’s something that is greater than the sum of its parts.  

For instance, Sydney is Australia’s only major capital city that doesn’t have a dedicated cinematheque. So, we also need to discuss how audiences might be encouraged to want to see and enjoy not just more Australian content but also the sort of productions that don’t get shown at all on television and streaming platforms.

The Australian screen industry and its audiences can only benefit from such an approach.

Do you have an opinion on the screen sector and quotas for streaming companies? Contact ScreenHub.