What happened to content?


Anyone following the 2006 Australian media-ownership debates could be forgiven for believing that the transformation of our media space would have no effect on what Australians actually see on their screens. While commentary raged about important issues such as diversity, competition and new services, the issue of content and in particular Australian content was almost completely absent.

This is not to say that the Government has been ignoring content. The current review of film-funding measures, for example, promises to introduce much-needed reform of film tax concessions that will stimulate private investment in the sector. This is important, and most welcome. But how are we to ensure that Australian audiences 20 years from now will still be able to access a diverse range of original, quality Australian content on their screens?

The film business as we know it today is decidedly odd. Glamorous as it may appear, film production is widely recognised as absolutely the wrong end of the audio-visual business to be in. At best, it’s highly speculative and, at worst, it’s a mug’s game.

Under the conventional model, filmmakers’ access to screens, and hence to audiences, is restricted by a series of gatekeepers who have the resources to fund the expensive business of production. So filmmakers spend their time trying to patch together deals. The effect is that these few gatekeeping media players constitute the filmmakers’ primary marketplace and this profoundly affects the sorts of films and programs that are ultimately shown to audiences.

So how did we end up in this situation? Isn’t content supposed to be king?

The simplest answer comes down to technology. The communications technologies of the analogue era with all their costs and physical limitations have fostered the increasing concentration of the world’s distribution and exhibition sectors. Be it the scarce and regulated electromagnetic spectrum of the broadcasting world, the pipes and satellites of pay TV, or the expensive prints and projectors of theatrical exhibition, new competitors and services have faced significant barriers to entry.

This concentration has seriously disadvantaged independent content creators because the big media organisations can insist on high levels of intervention in the creative process. They are almost always intimately involved in the selection, development and production of films and programs. Independent filmmakers have little option but to buy into this system if they want to make films and have them seen.

The result is a media system that is too focused around mass markets. But audiences have little effective control because, to a very large extent, their films are chosen for them by the handful of people who control the cinema screens.

The existing media map, therefore, not only has heavy market concentration, it also requires a high level of government intervention to address the resulting market distortions. While this combination results in something akin to a ‘perfect storm’ of anti-creative tendencies, the trade-offs have been widely accepted as inevitable by the Australian film production industry.

Ultimately, the issue is one of scale. Concentration in a small market like Australia’s has allowed sufficient aggregation of mass audiences to underpin a critical mass of production. Fragmentation of that critical mass would pose a challenge not only to sustainability, but also, arguably, to diversity. Without a small media sector with deep pockets, the options for financing production would appear uncertain at best. If nothing else, what the concentrated Australian media structure has so far offered has been a degree of certainty.

It has also fostered the development of a professional production sector. Australian creative talent is now widely acknowledged and our film crews are recognised as some of the most skilled workforces in the world. This, together with the rise of local companies at the cutting edge of post-production, effects and animation, has succeeded in attracting large-budget productions from overseas. The value of film production work brought to Australia by directors alone is not easily calculated, but it must be hundreds of millions of dollars no bad return on government investment in the creative sector.

Over the years, these filmmakers have learned to work within the current production landscape. Professional industry standards have been created, protocols established, and relationships developed. On the whole, the system has been successful in what it has delivered to Australian audiences. Prior to 1970, hearing an Australian voice on the screen was no everyday occurrence. Now we have come to expect it.

But this is not a wholly successful story. We have adopted an international paradigm that focuses on production but has no real incentives or rewards for success. It is a structure in which, for all its pitfalls, too many filmmakers and producers now have a stake.

The question now is whether the development of new digital technologies, particularly the internet, offers a means of breaking open these distribution bottlenecks in such a way as not to pull down the Australian industry.

In Australia, the move to terrestrial free-to-air digital television is perhaps the biggest and most politically charged shift, with 2012 currently scheduled as the year in which all analogue television signals will be shut down. At the same time, other services such as pay-TV have also been migrating subscribers to a new digital platform, allowing greater interactivity and greater capacity to order programs on demand, while the video rental and retail markets are now almost entirely DVD-based. And there are even plans to move cinemas to digital a transition more advanced in other Western countries and it is likely that a high percentage of all movie screens in Australia will be digital in 10 years’ time.

The shift to digital for these services may allow new players to enter the market as spectrum is opened up; it may create opportunities for more channels; it may also give consumers greater opportunities for interactivity and time-shifting, which will certainly change the relationship of the viewer to the advertiser, and interrupt the business models of the current media sector. In short, the shift to the digital technologies of the internet threatens not simply to interrupt these business models, but to turn them over altogether.

A more fundamental change is taking place in the relationship between the current generation of creators/users and filmed content in general. A new generation of ‘digerati’ has grown up with the internet and relates to content in a completely new way. The clear distinction between the creator and the audience is being broken down. The general internet public are now becoming involved in the development of films they can read filmmakers’ blogs during production, and dissect films or programs after release on fan-chat sites or via SMS.

So how do we ensure that the Australian film industry is best placed to survive and prosper in this new cross-platform environment? What interventions by government will guarantee Australian audiences access to the quality and diversity of original Australian content they have come to expect?

The Federal Government’s content strategies will face many challenges content regulation, in particular, coming under extreme pressure. The Government has signalled its intention to change the broadcasting rules in 2012 and Communications Minister Helen Coonan has made it clear that, after this date, all bets are off.

While it is too early to predict that 2012 will finally be ‘the year,’ speculation about the end of the existing commercial broadcasting oligopoly has undoubtedly moved from ‘if’ to ‘when.’ And, as spectrum is freed up, the pressure will be on to make existing regulations more ‘flexibl
e’ or be dropped altogether. As Channel Nine’s owner James Packer recently made clear, Australian content will be the first casualty of any change to broadcasting’s status quo.

The changing media landscape will also provide greater challenges to policy-makers, as the accepted rationales for regulation come into question. I believe that government and industry need to stand back and take a long hard look at where the industry is likely to go. For too long we have focused solely on production, hoping that if we just make better stuff then audiences won’t be able to resist us. It is my firm view that the place of film needs to be considered in light of the entire value chain of production, from development through to exhibition and strategic interventions made at every point.

Now is the perfect opportunity to look more broadly at the future of the sector and for the industry and government to chart a path ahead for growth.

This is an edited extract from Film in the Age of Digital Distribution: The Challenge for Australian Content, by Richard Harris. Platform Papers 12, (Currency House), RRP: $13.95. www.currencyhouse.org.au

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.