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Tuesday, 20 June 2006
Page: 80

Mr RIPOLL (6:24 PM) —I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Subscription Television Drama and Community Broadcasting Licences) Bill 2006. This legislation deals with two discrete issues. The first relates to how the subscription television industry meets the legislative requirement to invest in the production of local drama. The second issue concerns ACMA’s ability to facilitate the smooth transfer of community broadcasting licences in circumstances where a licensee changes its corporate identity or dissolves. I can indicate at the outset of this debate that the opposition support the government’s proposals for dealing with these two matters and that consequently we will be supporting the passage of this bill through the House.

I would like to start with the issue of subscription television drama. Schedule 1 of the bill contains a series of amendments to division 2A of part 7 of the Broadcasting Services Act. This part of the act provides that subscription television licensees must spend at least 10 per cent of total program expenditure on new eligible drama programs. For the purposes of the act ‘eligible drama programs’ include Australian and New Zealand programs. The inclusion of New Zealand programs reflects the requirements of the closer economic relations agreement. These provisions were inserted into the Broadcasting Act in 1999.

The local content requirements for Australian television reflect a point long acknowledged by both sides of politics in Australia: that, in the absence of government intervention, the market is unlikely to produce desirable levels of Australian content. Producing Australian drama is an expensive business. It is far cheaper to fill program schedules with foreign programming. Labor strongly supports the continued retention of local content requirements for free-to-air and pay television.

Drama programs play a crucial role in shaping our national identity and reflecting our national character and cultural diversity. It is important that our kids see Australian stories and hear Australian voices. While other countries produce excellent programs that we all enjoy, government must ensure that there remains a significant place for Australian talent to be showcased.

At present the local content requirements for pay TV are substantially less than the free-to-air networks. All commercial free-to-air television broadcasters must show at least 55 per cent Australian programming between 6 am and midnight. In addition there are specific minimum annual subquotas for Australian adult drama, documentary and children’s programs. At this stage of the development of the subscription TV sector it is appropriate the requirements for local content are less demanding than those for the mature and extremely profitable free-to-air sector. Nevertheless, it is reasonable that in return for a licence to operate pay TV services in this country licensees like Foxtel and Austar be required to put something back into the community.

Under the current legislation the pay TV sector is making a significant contribution to Australian drama production. The pay TV industry spent $15.9 million on Australian drama in 2004-05. Programs like Somersault and Love My Way have received critical and audience acclaim. Love My Way, starring Claudia Karvan, has won the best drama Logie for the last two years. It also won the best television drama category at the AFI awards.

Eleven years after the previous Labor government introduced pay TV in Australia, the sector is growing in strength. It is estimated that around 1.8 million households, around 25 per cent of the population, have access to pay TV. Industry analysts have forecast that it will reach 30 per cent of households in the next three or four years. Revenue and profit forecasts in the sector are strong. There is strong evidence that, once people adopt pay TV, consumers strongly value the extra choice that it provides over free-to-air networks. In households with access to pay TV, pay TV viewing accounts for around 55 per cent of all TV viewing. These statistics emphasise the importance of ensuring that Australian content has a place on what is an increasingly popular platform.

Pay TV has also been at the forefront of introducing new digital technology to Australian consumers. Labor supports the development of a viable and strong pay television industry to provide choice to consumers and to enhance competition. As the industry continues to grow, it will be appropriate to review the local content requirements for the sector. Under the US Free Trade Agreement, Australia can increase the existing 10 per cent expenditure requirement on drama channels on pay TV up to 20 per cent if it is deemed necessary. However, Labor does not believe that any increase in the drama expenditure requirement is appropriate at this time. The government has announced that a review of the drama expenditure requirement will be conducted in 2008. This review will provide a suitable opportunity to reconsider this matter in the future.

I would now like to turn to the detail of the changes proposed by the bill. The amendments to division 2A of part 7 of the Broadcasting Services Act contained in this bill flow from a review of the drama requirements conducted by the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts in 2004. The report of the review was tabled in March 2005. The report recommended the continuation of the drama expenditure requirements. The report also stated that the current legislation ‘is highly valued by the production industry and underpins a wide range of drama projects for theatrical, subscription and free-to-air release’. However, the review did recommend changes to give licensees more flexibility in meeting the requirements.

The bill proposes that pre-production expenditure on script development should count towards the fulfilment of that quota. This is intended to stimulate investment in script development and encourage pay TV licensees to support projects at an earlier stage. The bill also allows licensees to carry over new drama spending in excess of 10 per cent of the total program expenditure to the following financial year. This change is consistent with the regime that applies to commercial free-to-air broadcasters in relation to Australian content and better reflects the commercial reality of how programming decisions are made.

The changes in the bill will have retrospective application from 1 January this year. These changes should further improve the quality of Australian drama on pay TV by encouraging investment in quality scripts. Labor is persuaded that these amendments improve the operation of the regulatory regime by enhancing flexibility for pay TV channel operators and licensees. It is essential that these amendments do not operate in such a way as to subvert the intention of the local content requirements of the Broadcasting Services Act. Labor will carefully scrutinise and review their operation.

Before I conclude on this issue of local content, I think it is important to state that quality Australian drama should not be available only to Australians who can afford subscriptions to pay TV. It is vitally important that the government also ensure that the ABC is properly funded so that it too can play a role in promoting Australian culture. This is, after all, a key element of its charter. Local drama produced by the ABC has fallen to record lows in recent years—a very disappointing outcome. Last year the ABC broadcast only 13 hours of drama. In contrast, when Labor left office in 1996 the ABC showed 73 hours of Australian drama.

In the budget the government did provide an extra $30 million over the next three years, but that was just half of what the ABC had deemed necessary for it to improve its services. Based on the ABC’s triennial submission, the extra funding granted by the government will only allow the production of 28 hours of local content next year. It will pay for just six additional hours of drama. Surely a government sitting on a massive budget surplus can do better than that and can support our Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Australians are entitled to a world-class public broadcaster that is able to adequately invest in local drama.

Turning to the issue of community broadcasting, I refer to proposed section 2 of the bill, which contains amendments to allow the regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA, to license community broadcasters. Labor supports the community broadcasting sector as a vital part of our national media landscape. There are around 500 community radio and television broadcasters across Australia, including specialist broadcasters such as Indigenous broadcasters, ethnic broadcasters and religious broadcasters. Our democracy depends on different and diverse voices in our media community. The community broadcasting sector is a critical part of this diversity and should be supported. It is estimated that around 25,000 Australians are involved in the community broadcasting sector. It is important that the regulatory regime governing the sector appropriates efficiently.

Schedule 2 of the bill addresses an anomaly in the existing legislation. At present, ACMA is not able to transfer community broadcasting licences. In recent times, ACMA has encountered difficulties where companies operating community broadcasting services for Indigenous communities or Radio for the Print Handicapped have dissolved or changed identity. The bill proposes to allow ACMA to approve the transfer of a licence where the new licensee represents the same community of interest without the need to go through the full licence allocation process. This will save the regulator and community broadcasters both time and unnecessary expense. Under the amendments contained in the bill, the company taking up the broadcasting licence must notify ACMA within seven days of the transfer. ACMA’s decisions on whether to approve the transfer are subject to merits review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. These changes will give regulatory certainty to broadcasters and are supported by Labor.

While this House is considering issues related to community broadcasting, I would like to raise another matter which is of great importance to that sector. The single most important issue confronting the community broadcasting sector over the next few years is the need to ensure that the sector is able to make the transition to digital broadcasting. In her recent discussion paper, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Coonan, indicated that the government would like to switch off analog broadcasting between 2010 and 2012. The minister promised to develop a digital action plan to facilitate this transition. There will be an advertising campaign to encourage Australians to buy a digital television or a set top box timed to coincide with that.

Digital television is supposed to offer Australians increased picture quality and more choice. That is not the case with community television, however. More than five years after the commercial and national television broadcasters began digital transmission in Australia, there is still no plan to assist community broadcasters to go digital. Consequently, consumers are faced with the absurd situation that when they make the switch to digital they actually get less choice. You cannot receive community television on Briz31 in Brisbane with a set top box. Labor believes that it is essential to provide a pathway to get community television into the digital age. If we do not, community television will simply die. This cannot be allowed to happen. I commend the bill to the House.