Australia's Pacific TV mistake

The Federal Government plan to push Australian TV shows into the Pacific region is the wrong move at the wrong time.

Shows like Neighbours, Masterchef and Border Security will be shown in Pacific nations as part of a $17 million Australian plan to counter the rapid rise of Chinese media in the region.

Australia's Pacific Minister, Alex Hawke, announced this week that Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji are the first of seven countries to receive the content, which also includes Better Homes & Gardens, 60 Minutes and Legomasters.

The deal has been criticised by Pacific leaders and regional media specialists, who say the Australian Government has ignored an opportunity to restore culturally relevant broadcasting formerly provided by ABC international radio and TV services.

Instead, they say, the Morrison Government has splashed cash in the commercial TV sector to deliver soap operas and reality shows into the region.

COMMENT

Our friends at Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative (AAPMI) have opposed this scheme since its inception, calling for a restoration of ABC services relevant to the Pacific and the inclusion of original Pacific-made material in that offering.

Australia faces the most complex geopolitical environment since WWII. The growing threats to the future of independent public interest media, burgeoning misinformation and the contest of ideas between authoritarian and democratic states make it urgent that Australia has a significant and fit-for-purpose media voice in the region.

Cash-strapped Pacific broadcasters are likely to welcome the programs on offer. But the experience of commercial and public broadcasters globally – from Latin America to South Asia and Europe – demonstrates that audiences are not likely to engage deeply unless foreign media offer a dialogue of cultures. That means content production and presentation with which local audiences can identify and perceive to be culturally compatible.

The PacificAus TV Initiative will see 1,000 hours of existing commercial programs provided free to television stations in seven Pacific countries each year for three years.

Content will include lifestyle programs, factual programs, children’s programs, drama, reality TV and sport, including programs such as Neighbours, MasterChef, Better Homes and Gardens, Legomasters and Border Security.

“Australia needs to talk ‘with’ not ‘to’ our region and include the rich diversity of Australian voices and voices from the region,” said Jemima Garrett, co-convenor of the Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative (AAPMI.)

“Watching rich white people renovate their homes will not ‘deepen the connection’ with the Pacific or overcome perceptions that Australia can be paternalistic,” she said.

“Nor will providing ‘Border Security’ in a region in which visa access is a sore point.”

AAPMI - an expert and community group with supporters in most states and territories and in 10 countries in our region - calls for a much bigger initiative with a wider range of content which directly addresses the needs of the region and Australia’s national interest.

This includes radio, online and mobile options as well as television in all Pacific countries and in Asia.

“If the PacificAus TV initiative is about building relationships, then co-productions made by Australian and Pacific media companies working together are the way to go,” said Ms Garrett.

“Currently the initiative does not provide for involvement of Australia’s Pacific communities or for the involvement of ABC, SBS, National Indigenous Television or independent producers with an interest in the region.

“If Australia wants to distinguish its approach from that of expanding Chinese state-owned broadcasters it needs to engage with the region in real partnerships.

“There are many exciting, untold stories in the Pacific that would capture the imagination of Australian and Pacific audiences,” she said.

Australia’s underspend on international broadcasting is stark. A recent report by the Lowy Institute found that

Australia ranks way below its OECD peers. While the UK spends AUD$7.05 per capita per annum on international

broadcasting, France $6.34 and Japan $4.58, Australia spends just $0.66.

At $5.7 million a year for less than 6 weeks of programming the PacificAus TV Initiative is not value for money.

By comparison, for $11 million a year the ABC’s services for Asia and the Pacific currently provide 24-hour television to more than 40 countries, 24-hour radio including programs made specifically for Pacific audiences to 7 countries and online and mobile services. Thanks to government cuts these services are a shadow of their former selves and are no longer comprehensive enough to make sufficient impact.

Existing commercial television programs have a place in Australia’s media programming in the region but need to be carefully chosen and part of a suite of offerings that respond to the region’s needs.

AAPMI calls on the government to urgently rebuild Australia’s multi-platform media voice in both Asia and the Pacific.

AAPMI has put a well-researched proposal to the current inquiry into strengthening Australia’s relations with the Pacific Region being undertaken by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.