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Wednesday, 25 March 1987
Page: 1332

Senator GILES(5.52) —Because of constraints of time and the nature of the reference, the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation had no choice but to concentrate on the electronic and engineering technicalities of the television industry, and of course the financial considerations of the commercial television licensees. I think at the end we were left with a lot of unanswered questions, even in relation to those technical and financial matters. We found, of course, that as we had to put together a report of this complexity in such a short time we simply did not have the luxury of going to those questions of public interest which should in a reference of this nature get a great deal more attention. We simply could not spend the time or the consideration on submissions such as those put to us by Mr Huw Evans, Dr Brown and Academics Responsibility in the Media. We were not able to address consumer interests. There certainly is an opinion, and an educated opinion, that those in the market will pay enormous amounts for television licences, if the amounts for which they have changed hands over the last few months are an example, and that consumers in the end will pay. We talked about audiences a lot, mostly in relation to the quality of transmission that they were currently receiving or were likely to receive in the near future. Their program preferences were discussed at some length, but mostly in terms of the sorts of programs they are getting now. The assumption is made that the consumers want more Dallas, more Dynasty and more football. I was diverted by a paragraph from Phillip Adams's television review in last Saturday's Weekend Australian, in which he says:

It's a paradox. While the technology gets trickier, the programming is increasingly predictable. There is, on balance, about one new idea per annum, something as innovative as Ted Robinson's The Gillies Report or Geoffrey Robertson's Hypotheticals. The rest is variation on a theme. Media tedia.

We had only one piece of useful evidence given to us about what audiences really thought when offered more services, as distinct from the assumption in the reference that they required more commercial stations. The Public Television Association of Australia which gave us that information cited the survey done in Perth not so long ago as part of the process of issuing a third commercial licence there. Seventy per cent of the people surveyed had a preference for a non-commercial station of some kind. Perceived need for real diversity, choice and range in television was often mentioned. To paraphrase what Senator Sheil just said, Australian audiences are perceptive and, given a real choice, I believe that many of them would agree with suggestions put by, for example, Huw Evans, for a fourth channel-a channel which is not commercial, which would provide real options and which might have at least an element of public participation.

I do not dissent from the recommendation of the report that 75 per cent should be the maximum combined potential audience of any one licensee. We were also able to recommend that the one licence to a market rule should stay. My feelings about the maximum combined potential audience is that the time has gone when we could have ideally split off the Sydney and Melbourne markets, which in my opinion should never have been allowed to combine. There is a certain inevitability which hinges, I think, mostly on the size of the Australian population. The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal came to the conclusion some time ago that networking is inevitable and desirable. The opinion echoed in our report was that it was not undesirable. Trying to unscramble what is now very clearly set, to mix my metaphors, in something closely resembling concrete simply seems to be a futile exercise. For those who are interested, networking is interpreted in this report at paragraph 8.44. The ABT believes that we will have no more than three networks. I might add that there are no more than three in the United States, which has a population vastly larger than ours.

We were impressed with the fact that the cost of production of high quality programs and the development of a critical mass-a phrase coined by witnesses to the Committee-inevitably pointed towards the necessity for networks to have considerable resources. It has been interesting to discover during the inquiry what the regional stations consider to be their responsibility in contributing towards the development of high quality programs. A submission from the Australian Children's Television Foundation included a description of the programs it has been developing over the last few years. Its excellent children's drama and programs for young children are very highly regarded internationally. One of their series, the program Winners, has won international prizes. It has been sold to a wide range of countries-33, I believe-and has been translated into a number of different languages. The series is also appearing as paperbacks. Without doubt there is capacity within the Australian population to produce programs of this calibre. The Children's Television Foundation is to be sincerely congratulated for it is now moving into a series of programs for younger children, films, and discussions for teenagers which will be shown within the next 12 to 18 months. Once again, the capacity to produce programs of this quality requires very large bankrolling. That seems to be a capacity that is beyond any except those who have the enormous resources of the metropolitan majors and perhaps the regionals in combination.

Another point about children's programming is the fear of the Australian Children's Television Foundation that aggregation will require an alignment of competing regional stations with a network program supplier. This will mean that the networks' response to the children's drama regulation will in turn determine the respone of all stations in the system. That is a minimum compliance strategy. The Foundation gave evidence to the effect that very many stations are complying only minimally with what is required.

It seems to me that we are extremely dependent upon the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal to maintain standards to ensure compliance with program standards. We are also going to be very dependent upon other legislative requirements in relation to the monopoly considerations that are of such importance to many Australians, particularly to trade unions with whose concern for employment issues I have a great deal of sympathy. There is a need for a great deal of vigilance. I think there is also a need for another inquiry into all of the qualitative issues that we simply did not have the luxury to address.