When a powerful foreign entity like Netflix reboots an Australian series, who can be said to really shape Australian culture?
Early one September morning in Melbourne, I awoke to find my Twitter feed abuzz with tweets about the new hit Netflix series Heartbreak High, itself a reboot of the much-loved 1994 Australian show that originally premiered on free to air television. Most of this early discourse centred on lauding the show for its accurate representation of the diversity of Australian high school experiences. Under this thick veneer of positive affirmations, however, laid a broader discussion about national autonomy, cultural self-determination and the ever-growing dominance of increasingly monopolised entertainment giants like Netflix.
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Whilst the streamer had nailed a certain balance between providing local and relatable content that was also hugely successful globally, it had also created an enormous loophole in the debate around whether streaming platforms should be regulated to produce content in the countries where their streaming services are available. Against the tide of criticism from people who desire greater regulation, Netflix’s logic was simple, and very neo-liberal minded: essentially, “look at the Australian content we already do offer without regulation and quotas!” Yet for many, the idea of content providers like Netflix adhering to quotas and regulation has long been important because it can maximise the reflection of Australian national identity and diversity to other parts of the world.
For every Heartbreak High — for every Australian story shot in Australia — Netflix indeed produces many more shows or films which use Australia as a backdrop for largely American stories. This process intensified somewhat during the COVID pandemic, when the country’s handling of the outbreak, with relatively fewer cases and therefore less intense restrictions in place, proved salutary to the local industry and turned the country into a refuge for American productions interrupted by lockdowns. The Australian government even invested AU$21.58 million in order to lure the Netflix series Pieces of Her and the film Spiderhead to Australia, thus creating hundreds of jobs locally at a time when they were scarce. But while Pieces of Her star Toni Collette is herself Australian, the show was initially scheduled to be shot in Canada, and takes place in the US.
A similar situation is in place in the UK, but in a much more severe form that helps to illustrate the stakes of the debate. The UK is currently the largest production territory outside of the U.S. because major studios and, among them, major streamers, are choosing to produce their film and TV content there. This is, in a sense, great news: the demand for talent and crew in the UK is enormous. But while these productions are indeed taking place in the UK, the large majority of them are only possible — at least on this large a scale — thanks to Netflix money. So what of actually homemade UK productions? A lot of UK talent and crew are either not available to work on independent UK productions, or unable to accept the wages that would come with these jobs, and which are of course lower than anything a streamer or a big Hollywood studio can offer: says producer Kevin Loader of Free Range Films, “the rates you can pay on that kind of budget aren’t matching what the streamers and big Hollywood productions are paying.” The British Film Institute released in 2022 a report entitled Economic Review of UK Independent Film which warned that if things stayed as they are, the local film industry may reach a “point of market failure.” To this day in the UK, streaming platforms are not yet under any particular quotas or regulations.
Could the situation reach a similar crisis point in Australia, if it hasn’t already?
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The impact of placing so much power in the hands of a single, profit-driven entity unbound by a country’s regulations and quotas can already be seen in the different ways Australia and the UK have dealt with the question of sports broadcast.
In Australia, the introduction of cable television in 1995 raised fears about a reduction of sports programming on free-to-air television. Due to the immense popularity of sports, particularly Australian Rules Football (AFL) and Rugby League, the encroachment of cable television seemed a threat to the accessibility of these programmes for Australians without access to cable.
This led the then Labor government, under Prime Minister Paul Keating, to introduce anti-siphoning legislation in order to prevent the migration of major sporting events to subscription television. Anti-siphoning laws effectively mean that, where applicable, free-to-air broadcasters can receive exclusive rights to the programming of a sporting program like the cricket or AFL. This has subsequently meant that all AFL finals are broadcast on free-to-air (as well as on pay-tv) while the Grand Final shows exclusively on free-to-air around the country. Sport fanaticism and passion in Australia is so strong that the legislation became a bipartisan issue when it was maintained by the conservative Liberal National Party under Malcolm Turnbull in 2017 during a round of major media reforms.
In stark contrast, England’s EPL (English Premier League) was established in February 1991 by Englishmen Rick Parry, David Dein and Greg Dyke and formed under one of the most ludicrous television rights deals, with the Rupert Murdoch-owned pay channel Sky TV. In its first television rights package, Sky ended up paying a £304 million deal for exclusive live coverage of the new FA Premier League. This then cascaded into a £1.024 billion deal for the three seasons from 2001 to 2002 to 2003–04. Parry believes that “the relationship with Sky is one of the key reasons for the success of the Premier League,” further commending Sky TV’s efforts “[at] growing the game and promoting it;” the alliance was labelled “the greatest corporate romance of all time” by former Sky chief executive Sam Chisholm. Fans without subscription-based services, however, may feel differently.
This example illustrates the impact that big players can have not just on what gets made in the country, but on who gets to actually watch it: although the English Premier League takes place in the UK, it is only accessible to those UK residents subscribed to Sky TV. Similarly, while the Heartbreak High reboot is shot in Australia, it is only accessible to Netflix subscribers, in contrast with the original show which played on free-to-air television. The reason government-legislated streaming quotas and production quotas are such a cause for debate is that they prevent, to some degree, the kind of exclusivity that can raise huge amounts of profits for private investors, but isn’t beneficial to the public at large.
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Australia features extensive legislation to promote local content and national storytelling on free to air television. These transmission quotas were first set out in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (BSA), which legislated that all commercial television licensees must broadcast 55% Australian content between 6 am and midnight on primary channels, and 1,460 hours of Australian content between 6 am and midnight on non-primary channels. These laws have given Australian television stations the responsibility to provide local content throughout the day. By contrast, Netflix and other streaming platforms, whilst possessing and profiting from a strong Australian user base, are not liable to provide the same commitment to local content or production. This results more often than not in Netflix’s promotion, conscious or unconscious, of American products and the furthering of American cultural hegemony.
This is a particularly sore point in Australia considering the country’s historical efforts to represent and promote Australian culture. The country indeed faces a unique position in having two state-funded broadcasters, namely the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). The ABC was established with the advent of television, and the SBS was created at a time when the White Australia policy was losing its grip on the country and multiculturalism was becoming more readily embraced. SBS aims to reflect the diversity of cultures and languages in Australia, often programming non-English speaking films and supporting independent documentary films on pressing topics from around the globe. However, with the recent addition of SBS Food and SBS World Movies to the free-to-air roster, it seems the demand for pressing documentaries has become less of a priority.
Each of the stations has a charter and this propels them to programme accordingly. For example, the ABC charter states that “the functions of the Corporation are: 1. broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community; and 2. broadcasting programs of an educational nature.” This regimented commitment to local content and quality demonstrates that when broadcasters are held accountable to provide local stories for the broader national public, it can enrich citizens’ understanding of their culture.
By contrast, access to local stories on platforms such as Netflix is less direct, if not actively difficult. For example, I recently tried to track down Don’s Party by Bruce Beresford, a classic film of the Australian Film Revival of the 1970s. Although I knew it was in the streaming service’s library at the time, I wanted to see how difficult it would be to find. It took an endless amount of scrolling to finally reach it, which led me to wonder how much the service really cared about Australian film and TV beyond more dubious canonised works like The Man from Snowy River and Ned Kelly.
The federal government in Australia published a discussion paper in 2022 in order to understand the successes and failings of Netflix and other streaming providers. It discovered that the majority of Netflix’s Australian content was more than five years old and estimated to devote only 3.3 per cent of its catalogue to Australian content. Another poll released by the Australia Institute indicates that a majority of respondents want video-on-demand services to put 20% of revenue toward Australian content. Furthermore, the report indicates that three in five (60%) Australians have some level of concern about children missing out on Australian history and culture due to the prevalence of American content on media platforms. These statistics demonstrate that Australians and the broader public want streaming providers to be held accountable to invest and produce local content as well as adhere to content quotas.
It’s evident that beyond its status as a rebooted 1990s Australian television show, Heartbreak High had a massive effect on many different parts of the globe. Since September 2022, the newly elected Labor government under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has already attempted to guarantee quotas for streaming giants like Netflix, Paramount+ and Stan. Federal Arts Minister Tony Burke told a crowd at the Australian Writers’ Guild awards that “while we haven’t made the decision in government with exactly how to define it, and that part of the consultation is still happening, I have met with the streaming companies only the other day.” However, there is still further work to be made and still a threat that Netflix, under the pressure of government regulation, could just terminate the whole service at the flick of a switch like Facebook’s absolution of news on its website in February last year. With a rich history of public broadcasters like the ABC and SBS as well as content quotas for free to air television and local film production, further regulation of streaming giants would allow the market in Australia to reflect our cultural diversity and what makes us unique.
The recent announcement, through a paper titled “Revive”, of the incumbent federal government’s decision to support the arts industry with $300 million is welcomed. However, this money will be dispersed around the time of the next election and some of the rhetoric behind it is disconcerting. For example, a debate has already emerged around the equivalence between art and elitism laid out in the paper. Reflecting on the policy, Michelle Grattan writes that the Labor government believes “[arts policy] has become too elitist, and should be tilted more towards mainstream and commercial culture.” What could be more alarming than an embrace of the antics of Netflix and imported Hollywood productions? If art is to survive and be self-reflexive, it must retain the ability to speak to both wide and small audiences. In the true sense of the word, art is there to challenge, not to bolster and uphold existing structures.