Op-Ed: It's time to update Australia's outdated film and TV rules for the streaming era

Australia's film and TV sector is changing very fast. The traditional free to air television networks are facing declining audiences; while subscription video on demand (SVOD) services like Netflix, Stan and Disney+ are growing strongly.

Four years ago less than two per cent of Australian homes had SVOD services while now it is nearly 60 per cent.

As the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission identified in its recent Digital Platforms report, the free to air television networks face extensive regulatory requirements, including obligations to broadcast designated amounts of Australian drama, children's and pre-school programs and documentaries - while the SVOD services have no such requirement.

This is one of many anomalies in our current media rules - which were mostly made at a time when the internet did not exist.

That is why one of the ACCC's 23 recommendations was that the Australian Government should work to establish a harmonised media regulatory framework.

The ACCC argues that if businesses using different technologies - the broadcasting spectrum on the one hand, and the internet and broadband networks on the other - are competing to serve the same audiences, then as much as possible they should face similar regulatory obligations.

In response, the Morrison Government has committed to start work on these issues in 2020.

We want to look at the extent of Australian content obligations on free to air television broadcasters (including drama and children's content) and carefully consider whether there should be Australian content obligations on SVODs services; and we want to look at other aspects of the policy framework to support Australian film and television content and our local production sector.

The review will also consider the content obligations on Australian subscription television services.

The first step will be to ask the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and Screen Australia to work together to prepare an Options Paper, to be issued early next year.

That paper will form the basis for extensive industry consultation, before these agencies provide final recommendations to government later in the year.

The consultation process will give stakeholders the opportunity to discuss and consider realistic options for how, in a rapidly evolving sector, we can best support Australian stories and Australian producers so that our stories are on our screens locally and can be exported to the world.

As subject matter experts, Screen Australia and ACMA will be jointly responsible for preparing the Options Paper for input into policy advice to Government.

These two agencies are responsible for assessing and considering compliance with existing content quotas, production funding, revenue and expenditure requirements and have deep connections with, expertise and understanding of the Australian screen industry.

As the ACCC noted, to harmonise Australia's media regulatory framework is a big and complex job; the work will need to be done in stages.

Our examination of film and TV content policy is only part of the work we will do in the first stage. The other major piece of work will be to develop a uniform classification framework across all media platforms.

We have a veritable hodgepodge of arrangements in classification that dates back decades. It's time to bring this framework into the twenty-first century.

In developing a contemporary framework, we need to implement a structure that meets the needs of industry and provides information and protections for consumers to choose suitable content for themselves and their children.

With increasing volumes of content to classify, good management of this process is vital.

The review will examine opportunities for updating classification guidelines - and consider self-classification models. Television broadcasters already self-classify their content; Netflix has its own classification tool; and we have different requirements for films shown in the cinemas, to those distributed on DVDs and those shown on television.

I have asked Neville Stevens AO, a former Secretary of the Department of the Department of Communications and the Arts and current Chair of the Press Council to lead the review of the classification framework. His job will be to identify opportunities to develop a uniform classification framework across all media and he will release a discussion paper in early 2020.

The internet has brought massive technological and market change to industry after industry, and film and television is no different.

We have a policy framework to encourage Australian screen content that leans heavily on traditional media businesses - but where the fast growing new businesses have little involvement.

So it is timely to ask whether there are ways to move to lower regulation across the sector - while taking a more consistent approach in the way we deal with different kinds of businesses serving the same consumers.

It is also timely to ask whether there are new opportunities for the Australian film and television production sector as a result of the extraordinary global growth of the streaming sector - and how our screen policy framework can best support those opportunities.

And in asking all these questions, we need to keep a clear focus on the importance of Australians being able to see Australian stories on our screens - as an important element of our national identity.

They are complicated and important questions - and we now have a chance to tackle them in a considered and thorough way.