Small screen drama: industry's quota fears

Underbelly star Roy Billing was in Canberra yesterday to lobby the government.
Underbelly star Roy Billing was in Canberra yesterday to lobby the government.

Australian acting, directing and producing heavyweights have sounded the alarm over the future of local content on free-to-air and subscription television because the federal government has not committed to implementing the recommendations of the Convergence Review.

In spite of its release in March, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said through a spokesman yesterday that the government was still considering the report and would ''respond in due course''.

Australian directors guild general manager Kingston Anderson said yesterday he was worried that when analogue television signals were turned off next year, free-to-air stations would no longer be bound by local content quotas because their digital channels were not currently subject to those rules.

''There was meant to be a cabinet decision on Monday and it didn't happen,'' he said. ''We're worried about getting a straight answer.''

Mr Anderson, along with Underbelly actor Roy Billing, Paper Giants actor Matt Day and senior industry representatives from the Screen Producers' Association of Australia and the Australian Writers' Guild met in the Senate courtyard yesterday ahead of a Canberra dinner where they expected to see Mr Conroy and Arts Minister Simon Crean.

Mr Anderson said that since digital channels began three years ago, the Australian content on free-to-air television had fallen from 55 per cent to 35 per cent.

''Australian shows are very popular, there is a huge audience for them,'' he said.

The group said that out of the top 20 highest rating shows aired on television last week, 19 had been Australian programs. Chief executive officer of Free TV Australia Julie Flynn said the Australian networks invested heavily in local productions but were at a disadvantage because subscription television and internet platforms were not subject to the same rules.

''We spent $1.23 billion on Australian content in 2010-11 and that's more than the entire ABC budget,'' she said. ''We employ - directly and indirectly - about 15,000 conservatively; $1.23 billion is a bucketload of dough and that's our spend on news, sport, drama, lifestyle entertainment and children's categories - that's all Australian and it's 72 per cent of the total programming spend.''

However, director Gillian Armstrong said the industry was fragile and needed content quotas.

''I think people forget how precarious our little industry is,'' she said.

''When I was 18 years old I had never before seen Australian film on the big screen. It's something we need to remember - how important it is for our cultural identity.'' Screen producers president Brian Rosen said the uncertainty in the industry was undermining confidence.

''The review panel made the logical and necessary recommendation that the current Australian Content Standard be extended to the new digital multi-channel environment and the Pay TV platform,'' he said.

''We were told that the government supported this move but, six months later, the lack of progress has us worried.''

This story Small screen drama: industry's quota fears first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.