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Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Page: 6805

Senator EGGLESTON (Western Australia) (18:34): I would like to make a few remarks about the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Anti-siphoning) Bill 2012. I was chairman of the Senate communications committee for a long time—for about eight years, in fact—and antisiphoning was always an issue because it meant that to some degree the public was not getting access to televised sporting events, which of course to Australians is important because Australians love their support: we are sports loving nation—Aussie rules, rugby, tennis, swimming, horseracing, cricket. Anything at all that is competitive, Australians like to watch on TV. But, because of the antisiphoning legislation there were sometimes restrictions which meant that people could not watch the sports they wanted to on free-to-air television if they had been purchased by pay TV companies, whose coverage was limited.

This bill proposes to repeal the current antisiphoning and antihoarding provisions in the Broadcasting Services Act and to introduce new antisiphoning measures. Of course, the world has changed and the world of broadcasting from the time when these provisions were first put in place, because now we have digital television. That has brought with it, through narrower spectrum, the opportunity for multichanneling. Television stations now often have three or four channels. That, of course, means that they are looking for content and the opportunity to broadcast sport to fill that content and to attract an audience is very, very important in that context. Siphoning refers to the practice employed by pay TV broadcasters, such as Foxtel and Austar, in which they adopt or siphon off some sporting events that have traditionally been broadcast on free-to-air television. This means that Australians who do not subscribe to pay TV are sometimes prevented from being able to see such important programs. As antisiphoning legislation currently stands, pay TV licensees are prohibited from acquiring rights to television listed events on pay TV until rights have first been acquired by the ABC, SBS or one of the commercial broadcasters. The antisiphoning listed events are determined by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and are on what is known as the antisiphoning list. These events must be available to free-to-air television for viewing by the public and provision is also made for an event to be delisted on the chance that no free-to-air broadcaster displays an interest in acquiring the broadcasting rights.

Australians love their sport. Antisiphoning laws and protections permit sport to be aired on free-to-air broadcasting and have been around for some time. There has been quite a lot of public and industry discussion about the need to reform the antisiphoning regime in view of new technological developments, as well as the need to provide equity to the community, and this bill goes some way to ensuring that all Australians will have the expectation of being able to view the great sporting events which are going on. The bill allows free-to-air broadcasters to make greater use of their digital multichannels, which means that the bill is up to date with contemporary technology. It is a sensible move which will increase the programming flexibility of broadcasters without impacting on the ability of Australians to access free-to-air sports.

The bill also increases the period before an event where, if free-to-air broadcasters have not purchased the rights to an event and it is therefore not being broadcast on free-to-air TV, the event is automatically delisted from 12 to 26 weeks. This will enable pay TV providers to better assess, prepare for and manage their purchase of rights to such events and sports bodies to better negotiate and engage with broadcasters for the sale of broadcasting rights. In a similar light, the bill introduces a must-offer provision which requires free-to-air broadcasters that hold the broadcast rights to an event, but which cannot or do not cover the event, to offer those rights to other free-to-air broadcasters within 120 days of the event for $1 to prevent hoarding of rights by free-to-air broadcasters. Hoarding of rights was one of the big issues which needed to be addressed by this legislation and it has been, through these provisions. That is a public benefit.

Under the bill we will also see the introduction of a tier system for antisiphoning, while new category A and category B quota groups will enable different conditions to be applied to different events. Tier A includes iconic events such as the Melbourne Cup, the Australian Open finals—the West Australian Football League final would, I suppose, have to be up there with those—and the AFL and the NRL final series, and must be broadcast live or with as short a delay as possible. Tier B events must be broadcast within four hours of play commencing and may be broadcast on digital multichannels. Quota groups are rounds of AFL and NRL matches where a minimum number of matches—a quota—must be shown on free-to-air television. This therefore provides flexibility for certain listed events to bypass certain antisiphoning provisions. The quota is four for AFL matches and three for NRL matches, meaning pay TV may acquire the rights for the remaining matches. This system will also enable the minister to determine which is the best Friday night match which must therefore be shown on free-to-air TV around the country or the state concerned, and will enable matches involving local teams to be shown in their state market.

The listing of particular events is a matter of ministerial discretion and adds to the sense of some stakeholders that the system is overly complex and provides too much ministerial discretion, but this legislation should change that somewhat. The changes that are encompassed in this bill have been a long time coming. The government first announced the changes to the scheme in November 2010—almost two years ago. Since then these changes have been subject to much consideration, commentary and examination, including a Senate inquiry. The Senate inquiry made several recommendations, some of which the government picked up and some of which it did not, but nevertheless this new bill is a step forward and means that more Australians will be able to watch major sporting events on free-to-air television. That is to be applauded as a definite gain for the Australian public.