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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 June, 2003, 17:12 GMT 18:12 UK
Australia's media fears free trade

By Christian Mahne
Sydney, Australia

The Australian film and television industry is dominating a free-trade agreement being struck between the US and Australia.

The quickest free trade agreement the United States has ever negotiated is on track for its year-end deadline.

Film clapper board
Can Australian films compete with Hollywood?
Two rounds of talks with Australia are complete, with two more to go by November.

Agriculture is the heart of the deal with Australia's farmers settling for nothing less than full up-front access to the US market.

They're wary of the example set by Chile's recently completed free trade deal with the US, where modest concessions on agriculture were deferred for up to 12 years.

But if farming is the heart of the deal, culture is its soul and that's proving just as tough a nut to crack.

Quality control?

The Australian film and television industry is small by world standards and protected by a raft of local media content rules.

Some 55% of commercial television primetime viewing must be Australian made.

At upwards of $250,000 an hour for quality drama, that's no small investment.

In contrast, top rating US shows can be bought in for as little as a tenth of the cost of the homegrown version.

Because all their production costs have already been recouped from the home market, international sales are an added bonus.

That's a powerful economic imperative. In 2002, 63.4% of all new programmes were overseas buy-ins.

Future cash crisis

As Australia moves towards a multi-channel digital broadcast environment, culture industry bodies fear a tidal wave of cheap imported television if the Free Trade Agreement restricts or weakens Australia's control over the quota and subsidy system.

Australian Federal Trade Minister Mark Vaile
Mark Vaile: The deal must go on
The Australian Film Commission (AFC) says anything less than retaining complete control leaves audiovisual culture at risk, as emerging broadband and digital networks (which have no quotas) become the primary means for delivering home entertainment.

The loss of the quota as primary driver of Australian production will put the entire industry in jeopardy, according to the AFC's Kim Ireland.

"Because it's a small industry, people work across film, television and commercials. They need all of that work in order to make a living and in order to sustain critical mass," he says.

"So you take that away and there probably won't be an Australian film school because there'd be no point, there's no industry for them to graduate to - there's nothing for them to work in."

Essential to press on

That will kill off the Australian Film Industry, meaning the Heath Ledger and Judy Davis of the future never get as far as the small screen, let alone the cinema.

Already the entire $100m annual budget for Australian film production could be swallowed up by just one Hollywood blockbuster.

So there's little room for cutbacks.

Australian Federal Trade Minister Mark Vaile acknowledges the Free Trade negotiations with the US are tricky but says agreement is essential.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for an economy like Australia to engage and integrate itself much more deeply with the largest economy in the world," Mr Vaile says.

"We must take advantage of this opportunity... It's a challenge but we can achieve the deadline set by President Bush and Prime Minister Howard."

Wider impact

The outcome of those negotiations will have an impact far beyond Australia.

Europe and the US have their own film and television access battles to come.

"Fortress Europe" has long been in the sights of Hollywood moguls.

The precedent set by the Australian free trade agreement will have a lasting legacy around the world.


SEE ALSO:
US trade talks stumble on farm aid
29 May 03  |  Business
The argument for free trade
12 Feb 03  |  Business


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