The fragmentation of mass audiences in a multi-platform media landscape is the subject of ongoing discussion and action in the Australian screen industry (Harris 2007). Factors such as the proliferation of digital television channels, the expansion of pay-TV providers, greater instances of internet piracy and the introduction of video streaming services into the Australian market are altering the screen habits and experiences of viewers (Anning 2015).
While these developments offer audiences exclusive media content and products, new forms of access and greater consumer autonomy, they also threaten to obscure local content under a deluge of foreign programming (Scarlata 2015). This raises the key question of how, in an era of digital convergence, will Australian policymakers protect and promote the production and consumption of local content?
The widespread access to new distribution platforms is challenging the ability of regulators to develop and maintain domestic content policies designed to support national production and cultural protection (Picard et al. 2016, p.683). Content regulations are ineffective in the digital environment as active and media-literate audiences are capable of, and willing to, exercise greater choice (Picard et al. 2016, p.691). As a result, policymakers impose domestic content quotas only on traditional broadcasters, with online distribution platforms exempted from regulation (Picard et al. 2016, p.687). This is argued to create an uneven playing field that disadvantages free and pay-TV services (Kroenert 2010, p.12).
To address this issue, Picard et al. (2016, p.692) suggest either imposing domestic content production requirements on online streaming services or requiring contributions to domestic content funding programmes as a condition of doing business in Australia.
Despite the potential efficacy of such policies in ensuring local content is increasingly available and accessible, it seems unlikely foreign negotiators would agree to these conditions given the unequal power relations between Australia and its partners within global trade (Breen 2010, p.660). Indeed, the Australian Government’s agreement to the repressive USA-Australia Free Trade Agreement indicates the extent to which Australian cultural policymaking is powerless to resist the force of US superiority (Breen 2010, p.670).
Regardless of whether any global decisions will be made, Australian regulators must recognise that Australian audiences will consume local content only if it is attractive. This requires audience research to interpret and understand audience likes, dislikes and behaviour (Davies & Sternberg 2007, p.39).
Scarlata (2015) proposes leveraging the immense and innovative audience-tracking capabilities of online distribution platforms to influence how original Australian content is produced. The minutiae of individual viewing habits – monitored, accumulated and interpreted on a mass scale – provides insights into the practices and preferences of local audiences (Scarlata 2015). With this information, Australian content producers can create content that appeals to specific audiences (Scarlata 2015).
The quantitative analysis of big data alone is not, however, satisfactory to inform cultural decision-making. Luke Eric Lassiter (2005, p.83) proposes the idea of ‘collaborative ethnography’ to yield rich, in-depth insights into complex, multifaceted issues. A collaborative ethnographic approach to researching audiences’ patterns of screen consumption would entail consulting with viewers to determine their preferences on how Australian films and television programmes should be structured, cast and scheduled.
Rather than being mere participants, informants in collaborative ethnography are better thought of as “consultants about culture and meaning” (Kleinknecht 2006). A collaborative ethnographic project would encourage viewers to develop interpretations about Australian screen content. Australian screen producers could utilise this input to shape program content and distribution tactics to the viewing preferences of local audiences. This increased audience ‘addressivity’ (Scarlata 2015) is paramount to protect the continued consumption, and subsequent production, of Australian-made stories in a huge shadow of cheap and prolific foreign content players.
Anning, J 2015, ‘Wandering eyes: Audience fragmentation continues to affect content producers’, IBIS World, 30 July, viewed 22 January 2016, <http://media.ibisworld.com.au/2015/07/30/wandering-eyes-audience-fragmentation-continues-to-affect-content-producers/>.
Breen, M 2010, ‘Digital determinism: culture industries in the USA-Australia Free Trade Agreement’, New Media & Society, vol.12, no.4, p.657-676.
Davies, CL & Sternberg, J 2007, ‘The Spaces and Places of Audience Research in Australian Television’, Media International Australia, Incorporating Culture & Policy, no.122, p.28-42.
Harris, R 2007, Film in the Age of Digital Distribution: The Challenge for Australian Content, Currency House, Strawberry Hills, NSW.
Kleinknecht, S 2006, ‘Luke Eric Lassiter. The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography.’, review of The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography by Luke Eric Lassiter, Canadian Journal of Sociology Online, viewed 24 January 2016, <http://www.cjsonline.ca/pdf/collabethno.pdf>.
Kroenert, T 2010, ‘Casting The Net’, Inside Film, no.128, p.12-12.
Lassiter, LE 2005, ‘Collaborative Ethnography and Public Anthropology’, Current Anthropology, vol.46, no.1, p.83-106.
Picard, RC, Davis, CH, Papandrea, F & Park, S 2016, ‘Platform proliferation and its implications for domestic content policies’, Telematics and Informatics, vol.33, p.683-692.
Scarlata, A 2015, ‘Australian Streaming Services and the Relationship Between Viewing Data and Local Television Drama Production’, in Australian Screen Production Education and Research Association Annual Conference (2015) Proceedings, Flinders University, Adelaide, 15-17 July, viewed 23 January 2016, <http://aspera.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Scarlata-2015_v2.pdf>.