Neighbours fall out Down Under over Kiwi TV invasion

A legal ruling could see Australia swamped by a flood of cheap New Zealand soaps - and the Aussies don't like it, reports Robert Milliken
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The Independent Online
IMAGINE a world where Neighbours, Home and Away and other antipodean soap operas suddenly disappear from British television screens. After the cheering or howls of protest have died down, depending on your point of view, the prospect is looking soberingly real, thanks to a court judgment in Australia that has the country's television industry up in arms.

After a three-year legal battle, the Australian High Court ruled recently that New Zealand television programmes are entitled to be classified Australian under laws defining Australian TV content. It has taken almost six weeks for the judgment's impact to sink in, and Australian producers, directors, writers and actors are crying foul. They predict that a tidal wave of low-cost television will come flooding across the Tasman Sea, displacing Neighbours, Water Rats and other Australian-made programmes and replacing them with the likes of Hercules, Xena - Warrior Princess and Shortland Street, New Zealand shows made even more cheaply than their Australian counterparts.

"One hour of Hercules is bad enough," said Mac Gudgeon, a screen writer and president of the Australian Writers Guild. "But two hours of Xena is beyond the pale. I wouldn't mind if they were historically accurate. But they're a mish-mash."

Mr Gudgeon is among 500 Australian film industry people who signed an open letter to John Howard, the prime minister, calling on him to intervene urgently and change the law to counteract the ruling that opens Australian screens to the New Zealanders. "Please, Mr Howard," they pleaded. "Keep the Australian in Australian television." Fellow signatories included actor Geoffrey Rush (Shine), directors Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom) and George Miller (Mad Max and Babe), and actor Colin Friels (Water Rats).

The letter followed a protest meeting at the Sydney Opera House last Sunday, attended by some of Australia's most prominent household names and their supporters. They heard Barry Otto, the actor, declare: "We will have a content standard that is now meaningless. The television and film industry will disappear before our eyes." Sonia Todd, star of Police Rescue, an Australian soap, called the court judgment a "scandal". Sigrid Thornton, star of a new high-rating drama series called Sea Change, described the ruling as a "black day for Australian television". Others accused the New Zealanders of "hypocrisy", and of trying to "pinch" Australian television quotas through the back door.

The TV row between the two antipodean neighbours has its origin in the ever-mounting strains between the forces of cultural nationalism and the free market. Thirty years ago, when Australia had no home-grown television industry to speak of, its screens were dominated by British and American series. The Australian government of the day responded to lobbying by actors, writers and producers by setting quotas of Australian content on commercial television that were designed to foster the development of a local production industry. Those quotas now require a minimum of 55 per cent Australian programming between 6am and midnight daily.

Much of this is cheap stuff, like games and chat shows. But the quotas have also helped to build Australian drama to a position where it now dominates Australians' viewing tastes. The country's two highest rating dramas are Australian: Water Rats, a cop show based on the water police who patrol Sydney Harbour (and shown on Channel Five); and Blue Heelers, another cop show set in a country town (and bought by Carlton). Of Australia's 20 top rating programmes, 17 are Australian-made.

New Zealand has no such domestic television quotas. Although its television production industry is more heavily subsidised than Australia's, it is also more deregulated. Series such as Hercules and Xena, both set in mythological worlds of antiquity, could have been made in Morocco or Arizona as much as New Zealand. They are backed by American money and feature American actors. Both shows have become cult Saturday night viewing on Channel Ten, an Australian commercial network. But Shortland Street, a New Zealand soap set in a medical clinic, rated poorly when shown on Australian TV.

The court challenge to Australia's television rules came from a group of New Zealand producers who called themselves Project Blue Sky. They argued that the rules on Australian content violated a free trade agreement called Closer Economic Relations that Australia and New Zealand signed in the 1980s. In accepting their argument, the Australian High Court ruled, in effect, that New Zealand-made programmes, no matter what they depict, can qualify to be included in Australian content quotas.

And, as Australian commercial networks can buy New Zealand shows for about one-tenth the cost of producing Australian drama, Australian producers fear the writing is on the wall. Neighbours, Home and Away and other top- rating soaps are unlikely to be dropped straight away, they say. But what happens at the end of their runs ,when Australian networks may be tempted to buy from across the Tasman rather than to order a fresh series of the home product? The New Zealand precedent could also open the floodgates to programmes from Japan, America and any other country with which Australia has signed an international commercial treaty.

Jo Tyndall, executive director of Project Blue Sky, accuses the Australians of "hysterical scaremongering". She points out that New Zealand exports A$200,000 (pounds 73,000) worth of television programmes to Australia a year, whereas Australian programme sales to New Zealand are worth 75 times that amount.

It all boils down to a question of whether cultural identities can survive at at time of globalisation. Australian authorities are looking at circumventing the court judgment by introducing new criteria that programmes must have an "Australian look" to qualify for Australian TV quotas. But even champions of Australian products such as Mac Gudgeon are sceptical: "How do you define that?" he asks. "Is it four gum trees and a koala or three billabongs and a kangaroo? It's a meaningless concept in an era of multiculturalism when all cities look the same."