Project Timeline 2005–2010

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In the first decade of the 2000’s, when the US lost the confidence of the world as security, military and economic leader…everything changed. This was the end of almost ninety years of certainty: four or five generations of humankind had grown up believing in the US as a kind of global backstop. Around the world, nations were compelled to start looking locally or inwards for meaning and for a sense of security. From a media perspective that was a rich opportunity.”

Peta looked up from her speech. The Conference Hall was packed to the rafters for the 2018 Australian Digital Media Association’ annual awards. So was the 3D animated virtual Hall which had become the popular global access to one of Australian Media’s most loved events.  It was astonishing, she thought,  to remember what a frightening time the economic crash had been and for how long it endured.

In 2008 she herself had been an up-and-coming TV Producer given the task of analysing and documenting for TV what a global financial meltdown would mean. After months of interviews and research, one conclusion she had made was that decades of largely unregulated “globalism” had come to an end. The reality of globalism would expand but it would be balanced by a far greater attention by national Governments to securing, protecting and regulating their nation’s economic and social stability. And so it had proved.

The possibility in 2008 that we might within ten years have laid enduring foundations for Australia to hold a far greater place in world media, was by no means evident. What drove the change was  a fascinating mix of Free-to-Air networks continuing to struggle with the realities of the digital world….and a Government concerned to boost productivity across the whole national economy.”

Peta was giving the keynote speech at the Awards which were pioneered, but not run, by ADMA. ADMA itself had taken a long time to establish as the overarching body for all those “independent” people and entities involved in the creation, production or distribution of digital audio-visual media. She’d not been the initial Executive Director, but she had been one of its proponents and had witnessed years of destructive internecine battles between a variety of industry representative groups all clinging to the past, all trying to protect what was already lost, all sadly ensuring that Government would not hear any concerted voice for Australian creatives. Predictably,  they continued to be outplayed by the more powerful groups representing the big end of electronic media: broadcasting, telecommunications and exhibition.

It had taken the shock announcement in 2012 of a major Government Review of the entire so-called Film, Television and New Media sector to persuade the different parties to bury their ancient hatchets.

The Review had been called for two reasons. First to cover yet another stall on the digital switchover, second to provide a kick-start to Australian creativity in the A/V field.

We took a pretty unpopular line at the time. We persuaded the Review that to focus the demand for Australian content onto Commercial Free-to-Air Television was bad policy. The primary reason was that the networks were closed to all but a few creative independents and that inherently this was holding back the potential of digital media.

The second reason was that we believed that the emphasis on production finance came at the expense of development finance. Yet the development stage is the absolute key to successful multiplatform content.

The third reason was, of course that fewer people were watching network television.

But, more importantly, we took an even riskier position by persuading them that content regulation itself was bad policy with a few specific exceptions.”

Those two headland issues had been the hardest fought and they had to be won together.. The first was won on the basis that apart from News, Current Affairs and Sport the real beneficiaries of Content regulations were Adult Drama, Documentary and Children’s Drama.

These three formats were essentially export industries:  their funding structures relied on a chain of distribution outside Australia. Yet their capacity to attract overseas funds was constrained by the need to comply with Australian content definitions. ADMA’s view was that they should be allowed to operate unrestrained without being tangled in the complexities of content definition and rules about who is kosher and who not. Let them find partners where they may and go produce! If Australians were engaged so much the better but for the time the reality in Australia, as for ITV in the UK, was that the restrictions meant low budgets and therefore content of a quality well below that of imported content..

The proposal to move content regulation away from the FTAs won the day because the realities of media exhibition by the early teens ( and well before) was that you can compel networks to produce but you cannot compel audiences to watch….and the truth was Australian content per se had no particular viewer premium:  it needed to be content that they WANTED to see and for which they would forego other media opportunities.

Answering the question “what is Australian content for?” always included the necessary presence of viewers. Ergo, provide content of the quality consumers want (by letting the networks find the best partners) and where the consumers most want it….and that is everywhere. The idea of network television being at the centre of one’s life was long gone. Television’s content was available on many platforms. Ironically one result of this was that Network Television could no longer insist on primary access to so much of what had made it great, from Sport to History, from Drama to kid’s animation.

Initially the proposals caused consternation but the people who did understand them knew exactly what was happening. Instead of regulations, incentives were to be used to encourage start-ups (and the ongoing development of established companies) to develop for every platform.  And the key word was develop because consumers had to WANT this content.

Incentives included a proper R and D  fund for digital content, tax breaks on hard and software, direct investment, export and virtual trade assistance plus specific financial benefits for success.

The Telcos and ISPs jumped onto this as did a whole mass of creative Australians who hitherto had only  small opportunities to show their skills in everything from games and feature films to minidramas and microdocs. FTA could be part of the mix but could not insist on primacy of place. Social sites had become one of the key driving forces in content conception and development.

But why did Government actually make this change? Three reasons:  the first two tactical, the third strategic.

First, Government did not want to lose the presence of the FTA multichannel networks, despite their dwindling value. The digital switchover had caused enough electoral problems, as had the rolling changes of network ownership and there were no wins in seeing the volume of content drop. So, they let them off  the content hook.  But with one exception. The price was the insistence by Government that the FTA group should establish an Independent News and Current Affairs group, like the British ITN, shared between them, with a truly independent Board. This was to provide diversity in the electronic journalism marketplace vis-a-vis the ABC

Second, Government was looking to beef up the Public Broadcasting system without setting a direct challenge to the Commercial FTAs. They wanted to do this because to maintain national economic and social security meant having a national centre for a national “conversation”. This they could now do by insisting that the ABC (including its ABC World streams which were actually the now-absorbed SBS)  deliver a minimum of 75% Australian content. Extra funds were provided and the ABC was also mandated to deliver a number of special content “feeds”.

As part of its evolution the ABC had grasped the reality that its editorial processes were not always relevant in a digital world. Tight editorial control over all content simply did not work. So, alone of all the old networks, they opened up parts of their spectrum to free access by approved communities, both geographical and interest-based. At last the ABC was on its way to becoming a truly public broadcaster and this move put it at the heart of the national conversation. People flocked to it.”

So Australian content was ensured for the Network Television system, Public Broadcasting was expanded and made truly accessible, Independent Journalism was boosted, the Commercial FTAs were allowed to operate purely commercially, and the Funding Agencies re-focussed their funds on building entities capable of creating directly for multiplatform. Finally, the consumers were seeing real value, meaning and relevance in domestically originated content.

But it must be stressed that the strategic and most compelling reason for all this policy shift was to deliver a productivity boost to the economy as a whole after some years of grindingly slow recovery from the great crash. It was all very well to have the technological capacity: what the country needed was up-skilling as many citizens as possible so that the benefits of high quality a/v communications could spread quickly and easily throughout working Australia. Encouraging people to engage actively with entertainment and information was a sure way of delivering this without adding to the education bill.  On the way through, Australia was in a good position to radically improve its global position as a supplier of popular a/v content.

And it made for very good politics.

One of the key incentives that Governments offered was to lead the development of IP protocols for easy and safe exchange of content.  The key to the protocols was that they be comprehensible to the average citizen so that they were easier to use than not. It broke the back of piracy (but didn’t get rid of it) and massively increased the capacity of creative people to work in dispersed communities of interest  This changed the face of complex information production by overcoming the development and  production costs of time, travel and expertise. Documentaries for example could now be built as dispersed productions with multiple contributors or even as global multiplayer games. Dramas could be virtualised with realtime input from around the globe. Sixty years or so after the start of TV, a great chunk of a/v content was once again live. But this time it was global.

By 2018 the focus was on building world markets for concepts initiated in Australia. A combination of Telco, ISP and Search technologies had unlocked new ways of funding budgets, however large and complex. The key had been to conceive those markets from the perspective of the consumer and consumer demographics, not from the perspective of the Producers and creators. Thinking not only tribally but individually, where traditionally creators had thought of audience as bulk.  That meant developing an application which melded seamlessly into the major social sites and formed communities of content interest. It sat beautifully within social sites because it provided meaning, relevance and opportunity to those millions who wanted to achieve much more than finding friends. And the idea of lending/borrowing funds on the web was already commonplace.  A start-up company (supported by but not owned by ADMA) had developed just such application which, with partners in place, had cracked the means of monetising the whole chain from concept onwards. After only a couple of years,  it was beginning to show great powerful and popular results.

And that’s why we are here tonight. This complete change from the old Network Television system has  been driven by the burgeoning capacity of digital technology to deliver new and better distribution systems and the manifest importance of freeing up the enormous potential of creative citizens:  a potential which previously had been in the possession of only a privileged few.

Ten years ago almost none of you would have been eligible for an audio-visual media award of any kind. Today many of you are global creators large and small. Ten years ago the real voice of Australia was a mere whisper on the audio-visual media system, today it’s pervasive. Ten years ago almost no a/v production houses had a genuinely robust sustainable business, today many of you do.  Ten years ago the definition of Australian content was a choker, today the definition is quite simply…YOU.”