Neoliberal TV nonsense

Given the extensive debate generated by my previous post about the ABC, it’s worth highlighting an opinion piece in this morning’s Oz by the egregious former Communications Minister Richard Alston’s former adviser Andre Stein.

Stein advocates a standard neoliberal, total deregulatory open-slather model for Australian electronic media (a model not followed anywhere in the world as far as I know). I actually agree with quite a lot of it. I reckon the doors ought to be thrown open to new entrants to both free-to-air and pay TV, that both should be allowed to multi-channel, and that pay operators shouldn’t be forced to offer any particular level of high definition digital content.

However, Stein advocates that Australian content rules should also be ditched, and that’s where I part company with him:

Multi-channelling fragments audiences which is why some, but not all, in the free-to-air industry oppose it. The profitability of a multi-channel regime is driven by niche programming, which in turn creates demand for supply of that niche content by film, TV and news studios.

Nonsense. Commonsense logic tells us that the “fragmentation” Stein mentions will create commercial imperatives militating severely against local production of expensive (or even low budget) local content. The much smaller audience size on each channel would effectively prevent local production as a commercially rational decision. Operators would fill the airtime gaps with the plethora of existing cheap American, Canadian, British and European content. The “luvvies” are correct in this respect at least. Complete deregulation would spell the end of local television production.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Print media. Bookmark the permalink.
20 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Rex
Rex
2022 years ago

It is astonishing how na

Yobbo
Yobbo
2022 years ago

You are still suffering from Free to air tunnel vision, Ken. Local content can and will be provided by subscription TV when they no longer have to compete against the free-to-air networks who are already offering it.

PayTV don’t have to worry about such things as eyeball numbers or ratings to attract advertisers like free-to-airs do. All they need is subscriptions, which allows for a much greater amount of experimentation. You don’t have to worry about a show “losing its slot” when you aren’t competing for the advertising sales in that slot.

Despite claiming to be a supporter of free markets, you seem to have very little confidence in them.

After all, why do people keep making BMWs and Porches when Hyundais and Daewoos are so much cheaper? It defies commonsense logic.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

When I am engaged by domestically produced programmes, it makes me feel happy. More happy than when engaged by foreign product, I think. I do not believe I am much different to other members of the greater Australian audience in this respect. Any cultural swamping that takes place will the The Wanker Lobby being swallowed in their own publicly funded hubris.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

But.. but…
aren’t those domestically produced programs actually made by the “wanker lobby”?

In drama, there is no distinction between commercial and ABC production sources any more. Hasn’t been for a generation.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

Yobbo speaks sense

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

jason

Yobbo might make sense if you think Australian TV content is like a BMW or Porsche i.e. should only be available to those wealthy enough to afford to subscribe to a premium pay TV service (cf World Movies and various other premium options on top of the basic Foxtel service). In fact Australian content is critical to maintenance of an Australian culture. Just about every other advanced western nation takes a similar view, so there’s every reason to doubt neoliberal orthodoxy in this regard.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I must admit, I’m confused. If an Australian TV show is popular and attracts ratings, Australian TV networks will want to screen it. If it isn’t popular, the network won’t want it. It’s called supply and demand. It’s that simple. This rule applies in basically every single industry in the country. If an Australian company has high costs or is inefficient or makes a product no-one wants, the product fails. Something better or more popular or more efficient takes its place. End of story. The market decides. Why should commercial TV be any different? I must be missing something…

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I must admit, I’m confused. If an Australian TV show is popular and attracts ratings, Australian TV networks will want to screen it. If it isn’t popular, the network won’t want it. It’s called supply and demand. It’s that simple. This rule applies in basically every single industry in the country. If an Australian company has high costs or is inefficient or makes a product no-one wants, the product fails. Something better or more popular or more efficient takes its place. End of story. The market decides. Why should commercial TV be any different? I must be missing something…

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Rob

I doubt that you’re missing something; you just don’t want to see it because the facts don’t fit your ideology/religion. Overseas programming is very cheap, because it’s already been produced primarily for a (usually much larger) home audience, and the marginal cost of selling it to overseas markets is effectively zero: it’s cream on the cake.

By comparison, for an Australian TV station to make new local drama is very expensive. Proprietors only make the bare minimum number of hours that current local content rules require. If the required hours were cut, so too would the number of hours produced. If the requirement was zero, that;s how much would be produced.

I’ll make it even easier to udnerstand. If you’re a TV station proprietor and it costs (say) $500,000 to make one hour of local first run drama that is likely to rate well (and it costs at least that much), and (say) $50,000 to buy an hour of first-run drama from the US, Canada or Britain, that has already proven to be a ratings winner in its country of origin, which option are you going to choose?? The same equation applies in whatever market segment, and the financial choice becomes starker and starker the more you fragment the market by allowing multi-channelling, deregulated entry etc etc. That’s why we need local content rules.

rob
rob
2022 years ago

I understand that perfectly, Ken. Foreign TV production is at an average total cost advantage because of a larger domestic market. That’s called economies of scale. But that comparative cost disadvantage is an issue faced by many industries in the country. All large foreign companies have big domestic markets against which they can reduce their average costs. Local companies need to export to get the same scale. Shows like Neighbours and Home and Away and others do exactly that. You haven’t answered my question. If this system of open competition is fine for every other industry in the country (without local quotas), why is it not good enough for television production?

PS: I am not religious

John
John
2022 years ago

Ken,
I’m with you. Rob appears to be on some sort of neocon dream world. We all know markets don’t function properly without enlightened experts (whether you or whoever) stepping in (or otherwise advocating) to regulate and constrain consumer sovereignty independently of their own interests. Similar arrangements in other industries (for example, US and EU agricultural industries) work very well. Rob, you make a good point in favour of general industry re-regulation, which I thank you for.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Rob

Cultural “goods” and consumer hardware goods have some very different qualities. A fridge or computer part doesn’t contribute (in any maningful way) to Australia’s culture or national identity, and is readily saleable anywhere in the world (subject only to broad general quality issues).

However, Australian drama, comedy etc DOES contribute to forming and maintaining culture and national identity, but doesn’t necessarily translate to being saleable internationally. It would certainly be possible to make homogenised dramas and comedies that would be saleable internationally, but almost by definition those sorts of products aren’t uniquely Australian. Soapies like Home and Away and Neighbours are saleable internationally because:

(a) they’re fairly cheap to make;
(b) they’re pitched at the mass market low common denominator end, and therefore can cover production costs locally, allowing international sales at a low enough price to attract sales (the same advantage that mass market US, UK and Canadian programs enjoy when being sold into the Australian market); and
(c) apart from Aussie accents and scenery, their plots are indistinguishable from soapies made anywhere in the world.

The fact that a tiny number of mass market programs like Neighbours and Home and Away manage to achieve international sales says nothing at all about whether a viable local industry would survive in the absence of local content rules.

Finally, your question assumes that most other countries don’t have local content rules or other barriers to entry of foreign program material, and that Australia is the odd man out. I don’t profess to have an encyclopedic knowledge of such matters, but my general understanding is that the opposite is the case: the great majority of western countries protect their local cultural content by one means or another.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

Aussie accents and scenery IS our culture.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

So it’s all about national identity and national culture (lowest common denominator -ie popular-shows excluded). OK, thank you for that clarification.

But if that is the basis for regulation, don’t you think that Australian farmers and Australian food and Australian sport and Australian music and Australian writers and Australian film and Australian wine and Australian websites and Australian beer and Australian technology and Australian inventions and Australian mining companies and Australian fishermen and Australian talkback radio and Australian drinks and Australian engineers and Australian architects and Australian cars and Australian clothes and Australian fashion designers and Australian racehorses all contribute to our national identity? All of these things and people compete fierecely against their lower-average-cost foreign competitors without the benefit of quota rules. If protection of national culture and identity is the aim, why should only the TV production industry be protected? Or would you extend such local content quotas to all of these other industries too?

Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

Indulge me for moment and explain why Rob’s proposal could not adequately be addressed by subsidising the cost of local production so that it is competitive with international equivalents.

Wouldn’t that enable the Australian TV watching population the luxury of choice?

Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

PS. I’m not proposing this is a permanent arrangement either. If it’s good enough, it should export enough to survive in the world marketplace. If it’s bad, is it necessary that we should watch it in order to preserve our culture?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Stan

Yes, I think subsidy would achieve much the same outcome i.e. making it viable to produce or purchase local programming in preference /as an alternative to overseas content.

Rob

Most of the examples you mention don’t in fact compete, either at all, or in the same way, with foreign competitors. The only examples that would be comparable are ones where the o\s competitor enjoys the advantage of zero marginal cost in selling a product already made for its local market. That certainly applies to Australian film or music, but they ARE subsidised or protected in various ways, and for exactly the reason we’ve been discussing. Your other examples simply aren’t relevant.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

Ken, as you know I’m part of the Liberal Hogwash Brigade; so I agree with the linked article.

I do recognise that the composition of Australian television would change upon relaxation or removal of content rules, but let’s face facts: American and British content tends in many cases to be better written with higher production values; Australian dramas more and more ape their foreign counterparts.

That said, Australians empirically love hearing Australian voices and seeing Australian voices: take a look at the Roy Morgan Top Ten or OzTam Top Ten ratings guides, and week in, week out they are dominated by Australian content.

For instance, the latest Roy Morgan list has two (count ’em, 2) shows which aren’t Australian in origin. These shows are CSI and ER, which are the kind of big-budget TV that Australia could never, no matter how much protectionism of the luvvies there is, produce. However Australians seem to appreciate Australian game shows, news, current affairs, reality TV, home improvement etc etc.

There’s nothing to fuss about. Australian content does just fine in a competitive market.

Paul
2022 years ago

So we’re to believe that the demise of “Home and Away”, “The Glass House” and the assorted other dross kept afloat by local content rules is a bad thing? Do me a favour; some local product is popular and pays its way, even if it is tripe- “Blue Heelers” for example; most of the rest exists purely because of regulation. Its extinction might even bump up the national IQ a few notches. (And put many talentless “thespians” back where they belong in the food chain- filling shelves at Safeways).

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

I watched Seachange and enjoyed it. I preferred Northern Exposure even though it did not have the Australian context that Seachange had. An interesting and refreshing thing about both shows was the strong sense I got that females had major creative input, I mean in the way the characters were painted and the storylines developed.

In the Australian version this seemed input seemed to be mixed with a more strident ideological approach and hence less subtle. I came to this conclusion when comparing the characters on Nth American version to thier Australian version counterparts. John Howard is a competant actor but he was shabbily written and I believe the actor lacked empathy with the character and tried to make an ideological point in a rather crass way.

My point is that a lot of Australian content is a rehashing of someone elses ideas and this is especially true of the more popular shows. Sometimes in the rehashing we get the Australian context we all crave but it comes with other baggage we don’t. Also it comes back yet again to my usual rant that the disconnection between the artistic community and the general community while being observable across the world has grown in Australia to bizarre levels of mutual contempt.

I saw the news and clips of the AFI awards and those protests about the FTA and local content. Ken is right in that here he is having a more objective and rational discussion about FTA, local content and Australian content. Me, I fuckin’ hate those people and would not give them the steam off my piss and this is informing my opinion on local content rules. My defence is that “they” started it. They did, you know.