The Australian Federal Government recently announced a relief package to assist the Australian media industry which was, in the words of Federal Arts Minister Paul Fletcher, “hit early and hard by the COVID-19 crisis”.
There are four elements to the package, which we have outlined below.
1. Short-Term Red Tape Relief
Commercial television broadcasting licensees (such as free-to-air broadcasters) in Australia are required by law to satisfy certain programming and advertising quotas in respect of Australian content.
Subscription television broadcasting licensees (such as Foxtel) are also subject to certain quotas – such licensees are required by law to maintain minimum levels of expenditure on new eligible Australian drama programs.
What has changed?
For the remainder of 2020, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) will not take enforcement action against:
a commercial television broadcasting licensee’s non-compliance with Australian drama, Australian documentary and Children’s and Preschool program quota obligations; or
subscription television broadcasting services who fail to satisfy the minimum expenditure requirements for new eligible drama programs where non-compliance is caused by COVID-19 related disruptions.
There are a number of statements that have been issued raising concerns that this change will result in a reduction in new Australian content being funded by broadcasters (as broadcasters are relieved of the legal obligation to do so), meaning producers will be even more hard-hit.
Commercial television broadcasting licensees are still required to ensure that, of the total hours transmitted on their primary channel between 6am and midnight, 55% of those hours are Australian content. Such licensees must transmit at least 1,460 hours of Australian programming across their non-primary channels between 6am and midnight. So, whilst we may not see much expenditure on ‘new’ Australian content, drama, documentary and kids’ TV the broadcasters will still need to fulfill their scheduling obligation in respect of overall hours.
ACMA will consider, in consultation with industry, whether this ‘red tape relief’ will be extended into 2021.
The Government’s ‘Red Tape Relief’ package contrasts quite starkly with some of the proposals being made (for public comment) in the Federal Government’s Options Paper, which looks at the future of content quotas in Australia beyond the COVID-19 crisis. For more on our coverage of the Options Paper, click here.
2. Tax relief for commercial television and radio broadcasters
Individuals or entities who provide a commercial broadcasting service on radio or television in Australia must hold a commercial radio or television broadcasting licence.
Pursuant to the Commercial Broadcasting (Tax) Act 2017, a tax is levied on commercial radio and commercial television transmitter licences that are associated with a broadcast service licence (Commercial Broadcasting Tax). The Commercial Broadcasting Tax is for the use of radiofrequency spectrum and was introduced to replace the licence fees previously paid by commercial broadcasters. For 2018-19, the Commercial Broadcasting Tax generated $104.59 million in revenue for the Government.
What has changed?
Commercial television and radio broadcasters will receive a 100% rebate on the Commercial Broadcasting Tax from 14 February 2020 to 13 February 2021, to provide financial assistance to broadcasters and allow slim budgets to be directed elsewhere.
It is expected that this rebate will assist with offsetting an expected downturn in advertising revenue on these media. Broadcasters who have already paid this tax for any part of the relief period will be refunded by ACMA.
3. Innovation Fund 2020
In 2017, the Federal Government announced the Regional and Small Publishers Jobs Innovation Package (RSPJIP), which aimed to support public interest journalism and has provided up to $16 million in grants over 3 years.
The Fund is independently administered by ACMA and targets small regional and remote publishers to provide access to grants to assist with adapting to the contemporary media landscape and improve business sustainability.
What has changed?
The Government has brought forward the 2020 round, which will provide up to $5 million in grant funding, with each grant being up to $400,000.
Applications for the 2020 Round are open from 24 April 2020 to 22 May 2020.
Application and processing timeframes have been shortened to expedite the movement of funds to struggling content providers producing public interest journalism.
The 2020 round is open to regional and metropolitan publishers and content service providers that:
are an incorporated company;
have an Australian Business Number and are registered for GST;
are a publisher/ content service provider;
for metropolitan applicants only, have annual turnover of less than $30 million.
Grant recipients from previous years are not precluded from applying for the 2020 round.
Applications can be made here.
4. Public Interest News Gathering (PING) Fund
In July 2019, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) Digital Platforms Inquiry called for the RSPJIP to be replaced by a new grants program for public interest journalism.
The ACCC suggested that grants totalling $50million per year targeted at public interest journalists would be a more effective form of assistance to regional and remote publishers than certain tax offsets, or making personal subscriptions for publications tax deductible. The grants serve to promote the production of local reporting (that is, original journalistic coverage of local courts, local government issues and issues concerning local and regional communities). The ACCC suggested that the grants should be platform neutral, so that print, online and broadcast news providers would be eligible to apply.
What has changed?
The Government has now announced the $50million PING Fund for regional media, effectively in line with the ACCC’s 2019 recommendation.
Regional newspapers (including online newspapers) and regional commercial television and radio licensees that produce public interest journalism will be eligible. The Government defines public interest journalism as “journalism that investigates, reports on and explains public policy or matters of local or public significance, engages citizens in public debate, or informs democratic decision-making”.
Further information about the grants will be made available once the Grant Guidelines are released.
While the Innovation Fund will provide a more immediate injection of funds into the regional media industry, the PING Fund offers a long-term support.
Regional and remote publishers have faced considerable challenges in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, evidenced by publications such as Australian Community Media (which publishes more than 160 newspapers across Australia) suspending printing operations in some regional centres until the end of June, owing, in part, to a significant reduction in advertising revenue.