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Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Page: 100

Senator EGGLESTON (8:41 PM) —The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 and the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006 deliver very real and necessary reforms to media ownership and media services in this country. Media and media technology have changed dramatically over the last two decades. The triumvirate framework based on the traditional media of press, radio and television is no longer a real reflection of the nature of the media in Australia. We now have pay TV, free-to-air digital TV with multichannelling and 3G mobile networks offering music, video and text along with phone calls. We have podcasts, digital radio, websites from around the world and now mobile TV. The existing media players are operating in a restricted market where their expertise and capabilities are constrained by unrealistic regulation.

Australian media is competing with media from all over the world: American newspapers online, podcasts of German radio programs and Asian news video on the internet. We no longer live in a world where the local daily paper, the morning radio news and the evening television news are our only sources of information. Changing the ownership rules will let the media market operate more efficiently, benefiting industry and consumers by allowing greater competition and economies of scale. These benefits will be shared across a large sector of the economy.

Like other microeconomic reforms undertaken by the Howard government, the benefits of reforming the media ownership restrictions are real, both for industry and consumers. The removal of foreign ownership restrictions allows foreign media companies and investors to enter the television and daily newspaper markets, providing greater opportunities for investment, new players and services. Similarly, the removal of cross-media restrictions will allow Australian media companies to enter different media, providing greater competition opportunities for greater efficiency and new and improved services for consumers. Any reform needs to protect diversity of ownership, but this can be done in a way that is less restrictive than the current regime. The diversity of ownership will continue to be protected through the two out of three requirement, and licence and reach limits.

The current media ownership laws regulate commercial radio and television and daily newspapers above other media because of their greater level of influence. While they remain influential, they are no longer the sole source of news and information, as I have already said. A regulatory framework that assumes that radio, television and newspapers are the only sources of information will become outdated and ineffective, ultimately to the detriment of consumers.

As the chair of the Senate committee which conducted the public hearings into these bills, may I say the committee encountered a wide range of views and produced a report, which I felt was very balanced, on the effects of this legislation. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues from all parties and all those who contributed to the inquiry, especially the committee secretariat staff.

One of the issues I found of most concern was the proposal to regulate local content on regional radio. All the witnesses representing regional radio said that they had not been consulted about the proposed regulation of regional radio services and believed that they were providing the services required by their communities. The proposed regulations would require regional radio stations to satisfy a quota of 12½ minutes of local news every day, have a local content plan in force and report annually to ACMA on their compliance with the local content plan. I feel that any regulation should be as light as possible. The reality is that market forces will strike the balance of local, regional, national and international content. If a radio station is providing too little or too much local content, people will stop listening and advertisers will stop buying time on that station. In fact, in my experience regional and rural listeners want a balance between local, state and national content.

As an example, my Western Australian colleague Senator Adams cited at estimates that residents in Albany in the south-west of Western Australia were displeased when the ABC radio program hosted by Liam Bartlett from Perth was replaced by a local Albany morning program. They in fact preferred the Perth program. I am very pleased that the minister has agreed to the committee’s recommendation that the regulation of local content measures for regional radio be reviewed.

The digital television bill will remove the current genre restrictions on multichannelling by national broadcasters. It will remove, from 1 January 2007, the high-definition digital television broadcast requirement which will enable a broadcaster’s HDTV simulcast service to become a multichannel. I have always believed that the mandating of HDTV broadcasts unnecessarily restricted the Australian television industry. This change means that broadcasters will be able to offer a broader range of digital services to customers. From 1 January 2009 commercial free-to-air television broadcasters may provide a single multichannel in standard definition television in addition to the standard definition TV simulcast of the analog service. This is intended to allow commercial broadcasters to provide additional services during the simulcast period.

The current restrictions on full digital multichannelling by commercial free-to-air broadcasters will be removed at the end of the simulcast period. The usual viewer protections will apply in relation to the regulation of content on multichannels; however, other content obligations, such as Australian content standards, will not apply initially so as to assist with the development of these channels. There will, however, be a review of the regulation of multichannels before analog switchover. The government is committed to encouraging the uptake of digital television. However, it has to be said that the uptake of digital television in Australia has been slow compared to other parts of the world. In my opinion, it is unlikely that the viewing public will invest in digital TV technology on the mere promise of improved picture quality. I believe content will be the major incentive for the uptake of digital TV.

In Europe, digital stations offer multichannelling and interactive services. As shown elsewhere in the world, multichannelling can generate positive outcomes for consumers through this enhanced competitiveness, as, for example, was the case in the UK when Channel 4 removed both the E4 and the Film4 channels from its subscription platforms and made them part of its free-to-air multichannel service. The government intends to remove the restrictions on commercial free-to-air stations with regard to multichannelling at the end of the simulcast period, as I mentioned earlier. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission noted in a report in 2003:

... benefits flowing from maintaining the status quo may be lessened over time. The restriction on FTA multi-channelling may actually prevent the FTA operators from responding to new sources of competition.

Pay TV is now an increasingly secure and commercially viable part of the Australian media market. As it seems clear that competition will drive content and that content will drive digital TV uptake, accordingly I believe that the government should consider bringing forward the date for lifting multichannelling restrictions on free-to-airs and consider shortening the simulcast period in the interests of encouraging householders to purchase digital televisions. However, given the complexity of the issues involved, I acknowledge that this is a difficult decision for a government to make.

There have been some minor changes in the antisiphoning scheme, the most important being to remove present broadcasters from premiering antisiphoning listed events only on digital multichannels. This will ensure that listed events remain available to the widest possible audience. The government has announced that it will introduce a use it or lose it scheme for events on the antisiphoning list; however, this scheme is to be controlled by the minister and, in the view of the committee, does not require legislation.

The legislation will also open up two new channels of currently unallocated spectrum made available for new in-home and other services, such as mobile TV. There was a lot of discussion in the committee’s public hearings and private meetings about access to these two new channels, particularly the channel B spectrum. It is proposed that the channel B spectrum may be used for mobile television services and there was some concern that, by awarding this spectrum to one provider, a monopoly situation would arise. There was some concern from the 3G mobile phone industry about how mobile TV and 3G services may dovetail. There was also some discussion on the committee about splitting the channel B spectrum to encourage diversity. I am confident that the government has listened to these concerns and will put in place measures to ensure that there is a balance between encouraging the development of these new technologies and ensuring competition in the market. SBS and the ABC will be able to provide a broader range of content on their multichannels with the removal of the genre restrictions.

The government has fulfilled its election commitment to transfer the power to allocate commercial television licences from the Australian Communications and Media Authority to the government of the day. It is important that a democratically elected and publicly accountable body exercises this power, and that is achieved by these bills. The Australian Communications and Media Authority has had some concerns that its range of enforcement powers are not sufficient to enable it to fulfil the objects of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992.

The bills before the Senate today will enhance ACMA’s broadcasting regulatory powers under the BSA by providing ACMA with powers in relation to civil penalties, injunctions, enforceable undertakings and infringement notices. The government is introducing these changes to enable ACMA to be more responsive, particularly when it comes to ensuring compliance with broadcasting codes of practice and licensing conditions. The changes build on ACMA’s review of television codes of practice for reality television and the government’s announcement in June this year that content safeguards would be extended to mobile devices and premium internet services. The Howard government is committed to a classification system and coregulatory regime that enables people, especially parents, to make informed decisions about the types of programs that are suitable for them and their children to watch. I must say, of course, that the committee recommended that ACMA also have divestiture powers.

In conclusion, we have heard many opposition speakers today talk about media concentration and control of the media. The changes proposed in this legislation will allow greater flexibility in the media market, reforming the outdated system created prior to the internet, the iPod, pay TV and 3G mobile phones. ACMA will continue to enforce rules regarding content and broadcasting. The ACCC will continue to ensure competition and fair trade practices in the media market, as it does in all Australian markets. The Foreign Investment Review Board will continue to assess and regulate foreign ownership of Australian businesses. The two out of three rule will maintain media diversity. All of this will occur without imposing an outdated and meaningless straitjacket of regulation on media organisations—regulation based on the state of the media market 20 years ago. I do not believe for a minute that journalists will be any less fearless in researching and disseminating news. I do not believe that journalists will be any less diverse in their views when this legislation is passed into law. These reforms will revolutionise the media in this country and will provide, I believe, a more flexible framework for media organisations and better media products for consumers.