Looking at the Australian television line-up in 2021 it’s evident that we’re a nation of creatives. But writer and actor Hunter Page-Lochard made a pretty salient point when he tweeted in April.
The creativity and talent of Aussie writers, directors, producers, actors, and everyone else who has a part in making a television series great will only go so far—without the support of Australian audiences and media outlets, they falter. So why does this happen? Well, we have to go back to WWII (it’s always bloody WWII).
The arrival of Americans in Australia marked a massive turning point in the culture and media we consumed. Until then, most of our entertainment (usually in the form of radio shows, records and books) were from the United Kingdom. Our accents were clipped and constrained into something that resembled the middle-to-upper class English accent. But the Americans introduced an exciting, new culture of media and entertainment to us, and by the end of the war we were head over heels for them. By the time television arrived in Australia in 1956, America’s television industry was booming—and their success following the war left them in the perfect position to share that idyllic, white-picket fence all-American dream with the rest of the world. Between 1956 and 1963, almost all of Australia’s media was imported—and an estimated 83% of it was from America.
Why does any of this matter?
We have more Australian entertainment than before, so what’s the problem? Of course, the Australian Government sets targets for all Free-to-Air channels on how much Australian content must be made and shown. But that doesn’t change the habits of viewers. One term seeks to explain the dissonance between Aussie’s viewing habits and the available roster of Australian entertainment; coined in Meanjin by A.A. Phillips, ‘cultural cringe’ has come to encompass the entire lack of faith Aussies have in their own culture. As Rollo Hesketh explains in Meanjin once more (63 years after Phillips defined the phrase), what Phillips originally intended was to create a culture that “conceded no inferiority to Britain”—something unashamedly Australian. Phillips saw in Australian writers the departure of writing from “the cage of the middle-class attitude”—it was writing for the people.
And for a while, Aussie entertainment was on the rebound.
The 1980s saw a boom in Australian film and television: from Crocodile Hunter and Mad Max, to shows like Prisoner and Neighbours, Australian media made a global name for itself. This creativity has never left us—shows like Glitch, Stateless, Mystery Road, Wentworth, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and more are all huge successes, garnering critical acclaim at home and abroad.
But streaming services like Netflix and its Australian counterpart Stan are disrupting this forward momentum. A recent article by Deakin University highlights how traditional Australian broadcasting, which was required to meet a quota of Australian content, is being disrupted by streaming (which adheres to no such demand). Stan, Australia’s premiere streaming site, has the highest proportion of Australian content amongst any streaming site: 9%. International king of streaming Netflix has only 1.7%. And whilst these streaming companies make promises to increase their volume of Australian content by working with local industry to make and publish original content, it is understandably frustrating for the creators and runners of existing content.
Are quotas the answer?
Aussie creators are keen to introduce quotas to streaming services like Netflix and Stan, and Dr Cinque of Deakin University echoes this push towards Australian inclusion. “Ubiquitous media such as Netflix, YouTube and streaming services necessitate support for locally produced content, for children and adults, in the public interest and for local and national cultural identity.” ‘Make it Australian’, a campaign by writers, directors, crew members, actors and producers across the country are calling on state and federal governments to demand support and funding for original Australian content.
But they’ve been met with resistance: Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings pushes back, saying that quotas lead to low quality shows. And of course, with such high-brow content like Riverdale and The Kissing Booth, it makes sense that Netflix is so concerned with maintaining an irrefutably high standard of programming (that was obvious sarcasm, by the way). Dr Cinque rebuffs Hastings, and reminds us all that quotas are there to help get a foot in the door. The high-quality Australian content is already there; audiences just need to be able to access it, and quotas are a way to do that.
We are a small nation, but our film and television industry certainly doesn’t reflect that.
Australian entertainment is renowned worldwide, and the industry brings a massive $3 billion to the Australian economy each year. If we keep ignoring Australian media and let it get pushed to the back catalogue of streaming platform’s offerings, we risk losing an important part of the Australian identity. Sending a message to the Australian Government that campaigns like ‘Make it Australian’ (which you can do via a preloaded message on their website) is one way you can help, another is just by making it a point to watch Australian content on whatever streaming service you subscribe to. Australia has been a continent of stories for thousands of generations, and now we must protect our tradition (and our industry) for the future.