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Thursday, 19 March 1987
Page: 1191

Mr RONALD EDWARDS(9.06) —I am pleased that the Opposition is supporting the legislation. I have listened to the remarks of the honourable member for Fadden (Mr Jull) and my colleague on this side of the House, the honourable member for Eden-Monaro (Mr Snow). I commend them for their intelligent contributions to the debate. The Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) will sum up the debate and talk about the question of conversion to FM. I want to make some remarks with respect to Western Australia. I think that the overall question that the honourable member for Fadden addressed about that market pressure towards the conversion to FM is one about which, obviously, there is a lot of discussion in the industry. I think it would be most appropriate for the Minister to make some reaction to that point.

I want to take up an issue that I think is relevant to what the honourable member for Fadden has said-and that is that in Western Australia there is a particular problem in terms of AM coverage due to ground conditions. As the honourable member for Fadden knows, the metropolitan area of Western Australia has basically a sandy soil condition. The consequence is that there is great difficulty in the transmission of AM signals. As has happened in his city of Brisbane, an urban sprawl has developed. We have found that there are outer suburbs that now have great difficulty in getting AM signals. So the issue that the honourable member raised in an Australia-wide context has a Western Australian focus to it. While the answer, at first hand, seems straight forward-that is, the AM stations would seek to convert to FM-it is not always straightforward to provide that solution. But as I indicated, I would like the Minister to make some comment on that, and would welcome his comments.

I will speak specifically about the Perth situation. The AM stations have approached me and have said that they are having great transmission difficulties. In a sense, their coverage area is now quite limited, because of the fact that the outer suburban areas cannot receive the signals of stations such as 6IX, 6PM, 6KY and 6PR. Those stations are not getting to those audiences. People in those areas do pick up Australian Broadcasting Corporation's 6WF because it has the most powerful transmitter, and they also pick up 96FM and ABC Stereo FM. So I think that the substance of the point made by the honourable member for Fadden is found in the experience in Perth.

The stations have been seeking one of two possible solutions. One is to increase the signal output from their existing AM transmitters. Many of them are at different stages with respect to that proposal. The Federation of Radio Broadcasters is also making an approach for this upgrading towards FM. Without wanting to anticipate an outcome on that, I would want both the House and the community to recognise that I see that as being an important difficulty to be faced by these AM stations, because advertisers on those AM stations know that a lot of the audience in the outer suburbs do not pick up the transmission. As the honourable member for Fadden said, the revenue implications are quite serious. It is an issue that I draw to the attention of the House. I think it is an issue that, clearly, we need to look at, and I anticipate we will be looking at it. It is one that must not be dealt with lightly, because the commercial future of radio stations 6IX, 6KY, 6PM and 6PR is at stake. Suburbs such as Mulalloo, which is in the electorate of my colleague the honourable member for Moore (Mr Blanchard), get very little AM service, except in more optimal conditions. Then suburbs further to the south in the electorate of my colleague the honourable member for Brand (Ms Fatin) are not getting the AM signal. Even in my own suburb of Trigg, which is probably about 12 kilometres from the centre of town, reception of 6KY and 6PR is very patchy. We need to address this issue and the honourable member for Fadden is quite right in his general remarks.

I move to another issue which I believe is also central. I have referred to this matter previously in this chamber, namely the role of Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio. This matter was also mentioned by the honourable member for Fadden. At the moment the various capital cities have ABC Radio 1, Radio National and ABC Stereo FM. I am pleased to see the development of a regional radio network for the ABC. It is my view, and the view of many in this chamber, that people in country areas by and large have been under-served in terms of options. I am pleased to see the ABC moving more energetically towards that goal. One issue we raised was the concern with the networking of ABC Radio 1. There was a move in Western Australia to remove from the program schedule the night music programs, the Country Hour on Radio National and another program called Always on Sunday. Fortunately, good sense prevailed and the ABC in its wisdom restored those. Many people in Western Australia are delighted. People listening to this debate or participating in it will be interested to know that the country and western program on Tuesday nights on 6WF in Perth rates 17 per cent. In ABC terms that is very impressive. Many of those people are in the outer and remote areas of Western Australia. It is very important that the integrity of those programs remains so that we can get to those audiences. That is a view about the importance of people in country areas that is shared on both sides of the chamber.

The other issue which it is important to address in this context is the future role of the ABC in its coverage of parliamentary proceedings. That is a matter for a separate report and is a separate issue, but there is a lot of active consideration in the community about what we should be doing sensibly to ensure that we get optimal coverage of Parliament and to ensure that ABC Radio 1 is able to develop its own audiences. I know that in Brisbane Radio 1 does very well in the ratings. That is not the case in Western Australia where Radio 1's 6WF does not perform as well. Obviously we in this place have an objective to give the ABC the best possible opportunity to perform as well as it may.

Without anticipating later decisions or deliberations of the Parliament, there is an issue of currency with respect to parliamentary coverage, and that concerns the Sheffield Shield cricket final in Perth tomorrow and on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. I cannot anticipate the outcome of the deliberations of the Parliament, the Presiding Officers or the Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, but I say to my colleagues in this place that I have appreciated their intelligent comments about our intention of trying to get as much cricket coverage as possible.

Mr Charles —We are very keen to listen to the cricket.

Mr RONALD EDWARDS —We are very keen to listen to the cricket, as my good friend and colleague the honourable member for Isaacs indicates, particularly as Victoria is playing Western Australia. I am very hopeful of the outcome with respect to Western Australia.

Mr Duffy —I hope it is a pleasing result.

Mr RONALD EDWARDS —The fact that we are getting a very good result from it is very much due to the co-operation of all parties and the intelligent contribution of people such as the honourable member for Fadden, my colleague the honourable member for Bendigo (Mr Brumby)-who is on the Committee-Senator Watson, the President of the Senate and Mr Speaker. I cannot anticipate the outcome of any committee reports on the matter, but I know that in Western Australia cricket broadcasts rate very highly on Radio 1. I suggest to the honourable member for Charlton (Mr Robert Brown) that that has a lot to do with the success of Western Australia in cricket over the years. I am very keen to see that there is as much opportunity as possible for that cricket contest to be broadcast and I would not want to think that Parliament was impeding that. I know that other members of Parliament, like the honourable member for Charlton, are concerned about the electorate demand in respect of this matter. There is a sense in this place that the broadcasting of Parliament so that it may go directly to the community is important. There is also the recognition that some of the broadcasts that people hear leave a little to be desired. There is a recognition that we should be doing something to give the ABC as many intelligent options as possible to be competitive in the market-place. I close that section of my comments by recognising the contribution of my colleagues.

The other issue I have addressed on previous occasions that is still relevant is the concern I have with the subject of ratings in the commercial market. It is brought to my attention on regular occasions that the quality of output of a television station during the ratings period is markedly different from the quality of output of a television station during the non-ratings period. In fact, even a five year old child can tell the difference because the quality of output is low during the non-ratings period and yet during the ratings period the quality of output is very high. We should be telling the industry to lift its game during the non-ratings period. I commend the industry because it has increased its rating periods. The honourable member for Isaacs, who is an intelligent observer of the communications industry as well as a good member of Parliament, has discussed this matter with me.

There is a general view in the community that we should ensure that television stations provide the best quality programs over the longest possible period of the year. One should not get A-grade programs, one movie after another, during the ratings period, and not even B-grade but C-grade programs during the non-ratings period. Incidentally, no other industry in this country is allowed to produce two qualities of product and then pretend the products are the same. If one is producing butter, canned peaches or motor vehicles, one cannot produce two qualities of product and pretend they are of both the same quality. One has to admit that one is a lesser quality. Yet the television industry, unfortunately, has developed the practice in the ratings period of producing an A-grade product with many movies, but in the non-ratings period of having reruns and basically very sub-standard programming. The community recognises that. The advertisers have a great interest in increasing the quality of television programming in the non-ratings periods. Clearly, they want to ensure that there are people watching during the non-ratings periods. If all that is on are reruns, they will not get the audiences and, to that extent, advertisers will not get the best value for their dollar.

As I said at the outset of my comments on this matter, I recognise that the industry itself is increasing its ratings periods. I believe that we must take the view that the ultimate will be ratings for 52 weeks of the year or to conduct ratings in such a way that the television stations themselves do not know when the ratings are being conducted; that is, to have a proper survey. No survey is legitimate if its results are interfered with, yet in regard to television it is agreed that there is a ratings period and then all the stations deliberately set out to influence the result by putting on higher quality programs. What value is any survey if the outcome is deliberately interfered with? It is a nonsense. The interesting point is that everyone out there in viewerland knows that it is a nonsense and have been pointing it out for a long time. It is a mark of the arrogance of television stations that they think they can get away with this. Why do they think they can conduct a survey and then interfere with the results? That is what they do. They put on higher quality programs and try to increase the viewing audience.

What if we were to conduct a survey without high quality programs being put on the screens? What would be the outcome of that exercise? I recommend that the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal should look seriously at conducting ratings during the non-ratings periods and getting assessments of the viewing audience during that period to put the industry to the test. Let us make the industry more accountable. Let us conduct surveys that have a legitimacy, or let us perhaps do what is done in the United States of America and use the Nielsen ratings system, which consists of an electronic recording device that records when a television set is on, the station it is tuned to and the period for which it is on-that is, have ratings during an extended period.

I return to my original remark. Which other industry can get away with putting out two qualities of products which vary so much in quality? The viewing audience is impatient with the position. Those who run video shops will testify that their hire-out rate of videos during the non-ratings period is astronomical, yet their hire-out rate during the ratings period is very ordinary indeed. What does this mean? It means that the people out there are not silly; in fact they are very intelligent. They say: `Well, it is the non-ratings period, we will go and hire some videos so that at least we can watch something decent on television. Because it is the non-ratings period there is nothing to watch'. It seems to me that that is underselling the Australian audience. I do not think that we in this place should stand by and let that happen. I am not talking about interference by the Parliament in the conduct of the industry; I am telling the industry to lift its game because people out there are impatient with the fact that it is putting out substandard programs during the non-ratings period. In this respect I think that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation deserves commendation in that it tries to have an evenness in the quality of its programs. Some people might well observe that its programs are not of a high enough standard right throughout the year, but at least there is an attempt to be even-handed about it.

Let me reflect for a moment upon the prospects of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation-Special Broadcasting Service merger. I think that there is much to be said for that merger. Unfortunately at the moment on Sunday evenings we have on both ABC and SBS television what I would call `the parade of the sweaty conductors'. On both ABC and SBS television on a Sunday evening there are classical music offerings. Surely had we merged those two stations we would not have duplication of programs. I do not deny that there is a role for classical music on television. Of course there is and of course the ABC has a role in providing that. But surely in a city such as Perth, with four television channels, two of them should not offer classical music on a Sunday evening. What else is there for people to watch? If it happens to be in a non-ratings period people not only have those classical music programs on a Sunday evening on ABC and SBS, but they also have nothing of quality to watch on either Channel 7 or Channel 9. What is left for the viewer? He has to go down to the video shop and hire something.

Is the television industry serving its market? The answer to that is definitely not. Not only are the ABC and SBS not serving their markets but neither are the commercial channels in those circumstances because people are being undersold. People out there are increasingly impatient. Let us not have this parade of the sweaty conductors on SBS and ABC every Sunday night in tandem. Let us at least have some choice and let us have some choice in respect of commercial television.

People might say that my remarks are those of a philistine. They are not. That particular audience of classical music followers is one of the best served audiences in Australia. It has ABC stereo FM, it has concerts that are subsidised by the taxpayer, it has ABC and SBS and sometimes Radio National. Those people get a very healthy serving indeed. Generally speaking, they are people of above average income who can often afford to buy records, compact discs and tapes. My colleague the honourable member for Grayndler (Mr Leo McLeay), who is the Deputy Speaker in this House, has said previously that if we subsidise classical music concerts why should we not subsidise Dire Straits concerts? I make my point by saying that ordinary people in this country deserve some service as well. We must make sure of that.

I was disturbed when the ABC was threatening to take the TV program The Winners off the air. That is a program of Victorian Football League highlights. I am delighted to say that we had over 2,500 phone calls to my office in two days. The ABC, being the intelligent organisation that it is and David Hill being an excellent Managing Director, put it right and The Winners will now be back on television on Sunday nights at six o'clock. People in Western Australia, where the program rates 15 per cent, can now watch The Winners again. That applies particularly to people in country areas who, again, are part of that underserviced group. Given that guarantee by the Managing Director of the ABC that The Winners will be back on television, these people will now be able to watch a program that they want to see. I was delighted with the response of ABC viewers and equally delighted with the reaction of the ABC because it responded intelligently to the very important market demand. That is the sort of thing that we should be talking about in respect to our attitude to the communications industry.

I wish to make a couple more significant comments on another issue that has been addressed to me from time to time-and that is the concern of radio station 6PR in Perth which, because of its relationship with the Totalisator Agency Board, has an extraordinary heavy racing coverage. Unfortunately, the programming operation of that station is buried under a racing format. Thus one has the absurdity of the Treasurer (Mr Keating), or the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) or the Leader of the Opposition at present (Mr Howard) being interviewd on 6PR and then being interrupted while the station cuts to a race at Cranbourne. I am not against racing, but what I am saying is--

Mr Duffy —That is in my electorate.

Mr RONALD EDWARDS —Yes, I recognise that it is in the electorate of the Minister and I would not want to downplay it but, compared with a major race meeting at Randwick or Flemington, it is somewhat less significant. Thus we have interviews being interrupted by very minor racing events. Radio station 6PR is being buried by its obligations to the TAB. I believe that racing coverage has a substantial role to play, but people in radio station 6PR to whom I have spoken feel that they are being buried under an excessive racing coverage and it is certainly affecting their ratings. That is not healthy in terms of the station's market position.

I close by making these comments: There are many important issues relating to the vitality of the broadcasting industry. I referred to the question of AM radio stations in Perth and their coverage. This could be improved and we must look seriously at those options. There is also the question of the ABC's operations, coverage and regional content and I commend it for these. I am delighted to see that the ABC is trying to react positively to the coverage of the Sheffield Shield cricket final in Perth this weekend. I hope that the television industry can improve its ratings, its coverage and the quality of its offerings. In general I must say that this Minister has had a very intelligent and positive attitude towards the communications industry. He is to be commended for his efforts. I believe we will have a very healthy and vital communications industry in the future and much of the credit must lie with the Minister.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Mildren) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.