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Is Netflix shrinking Australia’s film and television industry?

If you spent the Friday nights of your childhood roaming the aisles of Video Ezy you’ll know that online streaming services like Netflix have been a game changer: thousands of TV shows and movies at your fingertips at any time of day or night for a comparatively small subscription fee. But what is the cost to the Australian film and television production industries? And why should we care?

According to Dr Toija Cinque, Senior Lecturer in Communication at Deakin, local screen industries are being disrupted by a phenomena termed ‘time-shifting’. ‘The key factors here are the use of high-speed broadband and internet-enabled media for movies, music, news, documentaries, and television programs.’

Dr Cinque points out that the coming together of legacy media (such as traditional free-to-air TV), telecommunications and IT has presented opportunities but also challenges. ‘Audiences are engaging with a variety of increasingly interconnected technological devices,’ she says. ‘As a result, Australia’s contemporary broadcasting, film production and music industries are increasingly competitive and continue to fragment.’

Public versus private interests

As a consumer it’s easy to feel like it’s a simple case of more is more when it comes to content; choice is everything when you’re looking for your next series to binge watch. But it’s important to think critically about the downsides of our viewing options being determined by privately owned streaming companies.

Historically, the Australian broadcasting system has been made up of a combination of privately owned, commercial broadcasters and public service broadcasting elements. While Australian free-to-air TV networks and Foxtel are required to run a percentage of Australian content, companies such as Netflix and Stan currently have no such quotas to adhere to.

Dr Cinque explains that the emphasis of broadcasting as a service to the public has always been a key factor. ‘Local content can give direction and identity to Australian society and promote national cohesion in the process.’

Make it Australian

Recently hundreds of Australian actors, directors, producers, screenwriters and production crew combined forces as signatories on an open letter to government urging politicians to take steps to protect the local industry. Meanwhile, the government is yet to announce an outcome of its review into supporting the production and distribution of Australian content.

The ‘Make it Australian’ campaign argues that the introduction of content rules for new media (such as Netflix), tax incentives, and support for public broadcasters and screen agencies are essential to keep the industry alive so stories can be passed on to future generations.

Dr Cinque agrees that we need new media guidelines to ensure a percentage of content is locally produced and culturally diverse across all televised genres including news, advertising and entertainment. ‘Ubiquitous media such as Netflix, YouTube and streaming services necessitate support for locally produced content, for children and adults, in the public interest and for local and national cultural identity.’

Streaming companies, of course, are keen to avoid quotas. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings argues that quotas lead to the creation of low-quality shows. Dr Cinque counters: ‘Advocates of private enterprise focus on market-driven choice. Certainly, in Western democratic countries considerable value is placed on an independent broadcasting system allowing access to the free flow of information whereby the public can draw their own conclusions from material presented to them. The key here is access to a range of views including those that tell Australian stories.’

'Local content can give direction and identity to Australian society and promote national cohesion in the process.'

Dr Toija Cinque,
Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

Keeping our screen industry alive

Dr Cinque believes quotas won’t necessarily push money into the industry going forward. ‘The trouble is that even with a quota, new and original content being created is not guaranteed (at this stage) should Netflix choose to meet its imposed demands by buying old Australian content.’

Another possibility, Dr Cinque says, is to include a minimum number of minutes for local content programming to be produced by people familiar with local areas with investment in providing quality and specialised information for small towns in rural, regional and urban areas. ‘Arguably there is considerable community benefit that comes from local people being able to tell stories for and about local people and is also a valuable resource for local economies.’

Netflix have two Australian shows in production and claim they are helping Australian content to find an international audience. But Dr Cinque is sceptical. ‘Netflix affords possibilities for international distribution but is not presently a reliable source for producing and investing in original local content and would only become so if obliged to under legislation.’

For students hoping to find a career in this fast-changing environment, Dr Cinque says it’s a worth understanding how the television programming and film production industries are changing with the rise of global TV formats. ‘Students need to remain curious and be critical thinkers about the key drivers influencing film and television industries in contemporary times, and their respective roles in the media landscape.’

Interested in learning about how technology is disrupting industries? Check out this article about the digital disruption of universities.

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Dr Toija Cinque
Dr Toija Cinque

Senior Lecturer in Communication, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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