My wife and I watch a lot of movies in theaters, and even more at home on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Thanks to those streaming services, many of the films we watch are from overseas.
One of my all-time favorites is “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” the 2002 dramatization of Doris Pilkington’s book “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence.” The film tells the story of three biracial Australian girls who, in the 1930s, are taken from their aboriginal village and sent to a white-run boarding school to be educated and culturally assimilated. The film is fictionalized but based on a true story. Such things happened historically not only in Australia, but in Canada and in the United States.
In Australia, the government had constructed a series of fences across the country from north to south, to stop the spread of an invasive species – the rabbit – that was consuming scarce vegetation vital to the country’s livestock industry. The girls realize that if they escape their school and follow the rabbit-proof fence, it will lead them back to their home village. But they have to evade efforts of a government tracker to recapture them as they make their way across the sparsely populated Outback.
I first saw the film some years back when it was available on Netflix. It is no longer in the Netflix catalog, but you can rent it on Amazon, or buy the digital file or the DVD.
Video, both film and television, is a transnational business. As an HBO production, “Game of Thrones” was technically American, but much of it was filmed in Northern Ireland, Iceland, Spain and Croatia. It had a multinational cast and a global audience.
The big Western streaming services are American-run and U.S.-based. But they are publicly traded, with shareholders – as well as content and customers – from many industrialized countries. These services make it possible for casual viewers (and despite my exorbitant watch time, I am only a casual viewer) to discover and enjoy content from practically everywhere.
I have enjoyed quite a few productions from Down Under besides “Rabbit-Proof Fence.” My wife and I have more recently viewed “Secret City” and “The Kettering Incident,” two Australian television series that are available on Netflix and Amazon, respectively. I also enjoy Australian lamb chops.
I will elaborate in case you don’t immediately see the connection.
Australia, a land area nearly the size of the continental United States, has about 25 million people and about 65 million sheep. Sheep don’t watch movies or television series. So if you are an Australian actor, producer or director, reaching foreign audiences is pretty important to you. For that matter, if you raise sheep on an Australian station (their term for what we’d call a ranch), my dinner table matters to you, too. You could subtract Australia’s entire population from that of the United States, and still have a remaining potential market of 300 million consumers of Australian films, TV shows and lamb chops.
So why are Australia’s lawmakers considering legislation to try to force streaming services to provide a certain minimum amount of Australian content?
Their logic is that it is unfair for the streaming services to be taking money from Australian viewers without buying sufficient content from Australian producers, especially when strict content requirements apply to the country’s broadcast networks. This argument loses sight of the fact that Netflix does not merely take money from Australian subscribers; it delivers non-Australian viewers like me to Australian content producers. Australian broadcasters are not part of my cable package in Florida. The streaming services have shown that they will, in fact, buy Australian programming, which they then expose to a worldwide audience.
If one country sets arbitrary content demands, it forces the streamer’s purchasing decisions to consider factors beyond what their worldwide subscribers want to see with their subscriptions. And it is those subscriptions that help keep Australians employed in the entertainment industry.
When more than one country makes similar content demands, the results can be even more ludicrous. The Wall Street Journal reported that the European legislature has demanded that 30% of Netflix content come from Europe. Netflix might well have met that figure anyway, but it is still arbitrary. Canada already punches far above its weight in terms of production, thanks to American films and shows that shoot north of the border. But some Canadian groups want to require Netflix and other streaming services to make Canadian content more prominent, whatever that means. Led by mainly South Africa, demands that streaming services support and carry more African content are getting louder too. (Question: Would Israel, home of several excellent productions including the series “Fauda,” count as production in Africa?)
Taken to its logical extreme, the content demands of various nations and groups like the European Union could amount to 100% of a streaming service’s catalog – or more. And what about the American talent put out of work when my subscription money finances additional international content that I don’t actually want to watch?
If American actors, writers, gaffers and grips are going to pay the price of this culture war, so should Australian sheep. As the American economy increasingly focuses on intellectual property, we have to expect and demand open access to foreign markets whose physical products are shipped here in return. This includes my lamb chops.
If our Aussie friends try to cram more of their content down my throat, especially during the current U.S. administration, they had best be prepared to raise their game when it comes to domestic mutton consumption. We can always reserve space on our American dinner tables for American meat.