Streaming Is the New Frontier for Cultural Protectionism

Streaming is the latest medium to be hit with quotas for locally produced content as it becomes an increasingly dominant entertainment channel across the world.

A detail of TV remote control with streaming platform buttons
Streaming platforms must invest in Australian productions according to new rules. NurPhoto via Getty Images

Australia will require video streaming platforms to offer a certain number of Australian-produced titles by mid-2024, the government announced Jan. 30. The policy is part of a five-year push by the country to restore Australian culture through arts and entertainment, especially the cultures of Aboriginal peoples.

This isn’t the first time a country has tried to elevate its own cultures in film and media. In Canada, at least 35 percent of popular music on the radio must be Canadian according to requirements instituted in 1971. France holds that 60 percent of films broadcast on television networks be produced in the E.U., of which 40 percent must be French. The country also ruled in 2021 streaming platforms must invest 20 to 25 percent of revenue earned in France in local content.

Streaming is the latest medium to be hit with the decades-old requirements as it becomes an increasingly dominant entertainment channel across the world.

“Streaming has the incredible ability to flow across borders in a way broadcast is still scrambling to do,” said Michael Kackman, a University of Notre Dame professor and television historian. This makes overseas content more accessible, but it also means Hollywood productions, with their massive budgets, can overshadow independent and locally-produced films and television in overseas markets. The quotas are an attempt to protect national cultures but also create viable economic models for a country’s own filmmaking industry, Kackman said.

The push for local media in non-U.S. markets stems from the large number of U.S. titles on global streaming platforms. American movies and television account for 92 percent of content on Disney+, 91 percent on AppleTV+ and 48 percent on Amazon Prime Video, according to a report published last year. The percent of U.S. titles on Netflix varies from 36 to 44 percent based the territory, and while this statistic is low compared to other platforms, Netflix still isn’t necessarily driving local video production. Less than 8 percent of domestically produced media on Netflix appears in their respective markets, the report found.

“Media consumption is essential to how we understand ourselves,” so it is reasonable for countries to want their own cultures represented in the media available to their inhabitants, Kackman said. Media can additionally contribute to shared cultural experiences that unite groups of the same citizenship, he said.

Do quotas for culture work?

The success of the quotas is evidenced by France’s thriving film industry, said Laura Mason, a Johns Hopkins University film and media professor. France has additional film distribution requirements in place that ensure French films won’t be eclipsed by American films in the box office. Critically acclaimed French movies like A Tale of Love and Desire (2021) and One Fine Morning (2022) were both underwritten by French production companies and might not have had the same success without France’s regulations, she said.

Others argue viewers just want the best entertainment. Consumers only have a limited amount of time each day, so they will spend it with quality content, regardless of if its locally produced or not, said Jimmyn Parc, who has taught and researched film at universities in Malaysia, France and Korea. Squid Game’s international boom is an example, he said. “They believe they can protect local industry, but it might not actually work,” he said. Consumers will ignore the locally made shows they don’t want to watch and find ways to watch the foreign ones they do, he said.

Australia has a long history of requiring 55 percent  of its free-to-air television programming be Australian, so the country was blindsided by the explosion of streaming in recent years, said Kackman, the Notre Dame professor.

Netflix doesn’t oppose Australia’s regulations, but it wants the quotas to be sustainable, equitable and evidence-based, a Netflix spokesperson said via email. AppleTV+, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video didn’t respond to requests for comments.

Streaming Is the New Frontier for Cultural Protectionism