Acma calls for overhaul of TV rules as viewers switch from free-to-air to streaming

More Australians are now watching streaming services than free-to-air television, prompting a need to overhaul the rules governing TV, according to the broadcasting watchdog.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (Acma) said 58% of adults used online subscription video services such as Netflix, Stan and Binge in a given week, compared with 54% who viewed Nine, Seven, Ten, SBS or the ABC.

But the self-regulatory codes of practice for broadcasters do not apply to the streaming services, or to the online catch-up TV services offered by the networks. The various codes regulate accuracy, commercial interests, offensive or violent content, advertising restrictions, fair portrayal, emergency broadcasting and other safeguards.

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When we do watch free-to-air, reality shows such as Nine’s Married at First Sight (MAFS) are a big drawcard, with 76% of people saying they’ve watched a relationship-based reality TV show.

But public concern around the potential social harms associated with these programs has not been met by the outdated self-regulatory codes.

Last year the broadcasting regulator had a bump in the number of complaints about MAFS which prompted an investigation of three episodes that may not have complied with requirements under the commercial television industry code of practice.

However, the investigation found no breach of the code. “The code does not deal with matters relating to the licensee’s treatment of contestants, which was the focus of some viewer complaints,” the Acma said.

The Acma said broadcasting codes are hopelessly out of date with the nature and delivery of content and the commercial TV code does not apply to online content, even when that content appears on a broadcaster’s livestreamed, catch-up or on-demand platform.

The Acma chair, Nerida O’Loughlin, said audience expectations were not being met by the current self-regulatory arrangements.

“With the rapidly changing content environment, we consider there is an urgent need for broadcasters to apply content rules consistently across their multiple delivery platforms so that all their audiences are afforded similar protections,” O’Loughlin said.

The Covid-19 pandemic significantly accelerated our love affair with subscription services such as Apple TV+ and Binge as well as free social media sites such as YouTube and TikTok as we spent more time at home: 28% of adults watched five or more online services in the first half of 2021, up from just 1% in 2019.

Since 2013, eight major streaming services have entered the market.

Australians are consuming more content than ever before, watching on average 26.6 hours of TV and online video content per week in 2021, up from 21.4 in 2019.

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To compete with the on-demand content provided by the streaming services, the traditional broadcasters have ramped up their own catch-up TV services including ABC iView, 9Now and 7Plus, however they have suffered from diminishing profitability and advertising revenue particularly during the pandemic.

The Acma is calling on broadcasters to consider the community’s changing viewing habits when they review and update their respective co-regulatory codes of practice. The commercial television code of practice was last reviewed and updated in 2015, and the subscription broadcast television code, which applies to Foxtel, in 2013.

Current codes of practice are out of date and do not cover all content available to Australian audiences.

There are nine industry codes of practice registered by the Acma providing safeguards for viewers. The ABC and SBS develop their own codes without any registration by the regulator.

“With the changing nature of audiences over these periods, we consider it timely for all broadcasters to consider the applicability of their current codes in the contemporary environment,” the Acma said.