A pandemic relief package for Australian media

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 15 April 2020

The federal government announced a COVID-19 pandemic relief package for Australian media, suspending local content quotas for television and waiving spectrum tax for broadcasters.

These include:

  • Tax Relief – A 12-month waiver of spectrum tax for commercial television and radio broadcasters
  • Investing in regional Journalism – A $50 million public Interest news gathering program
  • Red tape – Emergency suspension of content quotas in 2020
  • Harmonising regulation to support Australian content – Release of an options paper developed by Screen Australia and the Australian Communications and Media Authority, starting a fast-tracked consultation process on how best to support Australian stories on our screens

Communications minister Paul Fletcher says many are doing it tough right now and the media sector is sharing that pain, especially in regional areas.

Broadcasters and newspapers face significant financial pressure and COVID-19 has led to a sharp downturn in advertising revenue across the whole sector, he says.

“We are acting to offer urgent short-term support to the media sector," he says.

The industry welcomed the announcement. 

Hugh Marks, CEO of Nine: “We thank the minister for his efforts and the measures announced today which provide some short term relief to Australia’s media businesses. However, the current COVID- 19 crisis only serves to further highlight the need for urgent long term solutions to the regulatory imbalance between highly regulated domestic media players and unregulated international technology companies.” 

Seven West Media CEO James Warburton: “The impacts of COVID-19 on our industry further highlights the urgent need for regulatory reform to ensure media businesses in Australia are sustainable in the long term. This includes ensuring that foreign digital platforms are paying fairly for our content as well as reform of Australian content obligations, so we welcome the government announcing its fast-tracked consultation process to deliver content reform.”

Peak industry body Commercial Radio Australia says more action is needed to address the severity of the impact on radio broadcasters.

CRA chief executive officer Joan Warner welcomed the waiver of spectrum taxes for 12 months and the announcement of the new $50 million Public Interest News Gathering program.

“However, we are disappointed that commercial radio, as the most hyper local of the mediums, has been largely overlooked in spite of its continued delivery of service to the Australian community during the pandemic, and before that, during the bushfires and the drought," she says. 

The package includes $41 million in spectrum tax rebates, offering immediate financial relief to commercial television and radio broadcasters.

The new $50 million public interest news gathering (PING) program will support public interest journalism delivered by commercial television, newspaper and radio businesses in regional Australia.

PING is funded with $13.4 million in new money as well as repurposing unallocated funds from the Government’s Regional and Small Publishers Jobs and Innovation Package (RSPJIP). This responds to the ACCC’s recommendation, in its Digital Platforms Inquiry, to enhance the RSPJIP to better support high quality news, particularly in regional and remote Australia.

“The Government recognises that public interest journalism is essential in informing and strengthening local communities,” says Fletcher.

COVID-19 has effectively halted production of Australian screen content, making it impossible for free-to-air and subscription television businesses to meet Australian content obligations.

“As an emergency red tape reduction measure, I have suspended Australian drama, children’s and documentary content obligations on free-to-air and subscription television for 2020," he says.

"A decision will be taken before the end of this year as to whether this suspension should continue in 2021.

“It remains critically important that we have Australian voices on Australian TV, so there will be no change to the requirement for broadcasters to meet an overall 55 per cent Australian content obligation."

The government is accelerating work to determine the future extent of Australian content obligations on free-to-air television broadcasters, and whether these should apply to streaming services. 

“Regulated free-to-air broadcasters are competing with unregulated digital platforms and video streaming services," he says.

"It has been evident for some time - and the COVID-19 crisis has made it even more obvious - that this is not sustainable.

“These arrangements threaten the sustainability of television broadcasters - and in turn the sustainability of the film and television content production sector.

“That is why I want to seek industry feedback on the options put forward by ACMA and Screen Australia, and work with industry on a plan for the future, including how to best secure the market opportunity created by the explosion of streaming services.

“We need to re-emerge from COVID-19 with a regulatory framework suited to the twenty-first century that recognises today’s competitive landscape - where television broadcasters compete with streaming services and a myriad of other internet-based businesses – and which positions both the television sector and the content production sector for a sustainable future."

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