Fee regime threatens TV’s vibrant local character | Opinion

STRONG EXPORT: House Husbands, one of the many Australian shows that have been sold overseas. Home and Away and MKR are also popular internationally.
STRONG EXPORT: House Husbands, one of the many Australian shows that have been sold overseas. Home and Away and MKR are also popular internationally.

IN the past two weeks free-to-air broadcasters have been presenting their ‘Upfronts’. These events are a ‘sneak peek’ of all the new shows coming up in 2017 allowing the industry to plan ahead.

It was interesting to see how each broadcaster revealed its unique character in the process: Seven discussed its approach to the forthcoming Commonwealth Games; Nine talked about its regional news investment and strength in female viewers; and Ten promoted its younger demographic. However, what these Upfronts really underlined was the vibrant, local television market and how lucky we are to have three competing broadcasters in regional and urban Australia.

The creative arts ecosystem that supports actors, directors, writers and the technicians who create and make these shows is fragile. If it does not thrive, Australia will be less attractive and we shall all be poorer. Both financially and culturally.

It may surprise people to learn that the bedrock of the creative arts ecosystem is free-to-air television. The commercial broadcasters invest around $1.5billion in local content every year. We are, in fact, by far the biggest underwriters of the production industry. We employ 15,000 people directly and indirectly to produce local programs. This is not new; Neighbours has employed 25,000 cast members, production crew and writers since its inception in 1985. Many of Australia’s best-known shows are filmed in regional locations. Doctor Doctor, for example, is filmed in Mudgee, Ben’s Menu in north west Tasmania, and MasterChef films in several regional areas.

The filming of TV shows provides local employment and also a positive economic impact on local communities, not to mention the benefit to tourism from being seen on TV screens across the country and, for some, around the world. In addition, the commercial broadcasters provide viewers with valuable local news services – all made possible through the employment of local production and on-air professionals. 

Our local television production industry, however, is under threat. Australian broadcasters still pay the highest licence fees in the world, which are 115 times higher than the US.

Free-to-air’s contribution to Australia is compelling. We pump $2.8billion back into the economy, generating an economic surplus of $3.2billion a year across viewers, advertisers and broadcasters (The Value Of Free TV: The Contribution Of Commercial Free-To-Air Television To The Australian Economy prepared by Venture Consulting). This is despite operating in an environment where multinational online giants are competing for eyeballs without any obligation to invest locally. Free-to-air is free because of advertising, yet companies are reluctant to spend on advertising in the current uncertain market.

Australia produces some of the best television programs in the world, evidenced by the successful export of shows including My Kitchen Rules, Home and Away and recent dramas such as House Husbands. At home, all of the top 40 most watched Australian programs were proudly Australian made.

The existing licence fee regime is unsustainable and needs to be addressed urgently by government.

Our creative industries are world class and we have trained and developed extraordinary talent. Imagine what we could produce with more to invest. Without change, the risk is that there will be fewer jobs and less local content, leaving the Australian public and economy poorer in every way.

Brett Savill is the CEO of Free TV