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Shadow Minister comments on Opposition's proposal to give the ABC a licence for pay TV

PETER THOMPSON: Pay television is finally on the way in Australia, and the ABC could be guaranteed one of the three new licences. The new Broadcasting Services Bill, which includes provision for pay television, was passed last night by the Senate. The Government's final proposal would have allowed the ABC to bid for one of the transponders; instead, the Opposition and the Democrats have now combined to give the ABC a pay television licence. However, there's a snag: the Government may still block the amendment when the legislation returns to the Lower House for approval, today.

The Shadow Minister for Communications is Warwick Smith. He's in our Canberra studio, and to speak to him, here's Andrew Sholl.

ANDREW SHOLL: Mr Smith, good morning. Why should the ABC get a licence to the detriment of somebody else?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, we don't believe it'd necessarily be to the detriment of somebody else; it'd be to the advantage of Australians, and that's what our obvious preoccupation is.

ANDREW SHOLL: Isn't the Government's idea fairer where the ABC has to bid with others, to get involved?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, the proposal that the Government had was acknowledged by everyone as being a meaningless gesture. This is a one-off opportunity to enable the ABC to migrate into the new technology of pay television for information and entertainment.

ANDREW SHOLL: Is this not unfair on other bidders, though?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, we don't believe so. This is the commencement of a new industry and what one has to do is sit down and work out what is the optimal structure to give diversity, to give the opportunity to existing service providers and other new service providers, and this in our judgment was the best way to go in terms of where technology was going in the future and what is probably the best for the ABC, itself, in the future.

ANDREW SHOLL: But let me ask again: what's the ABC going to have that others won't?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, the ABC is a distinctive national broadcaster now, with a range of programming, diversity of programming.

ANDREW SHOLL: Will it be in competition to the other bidders or to the other stations, or will it be complementary, do you think?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, it's partly complementary now, and I would imagine that its programming profile in a new service that is being proposed, would continue to be similar to what it is doing now, but it ought to have the flexibility to provide from its broad range now, where it believes its best opportunities are. I mean, after all, this is going to be a subscription service. You will pay to receive it into your home and, therefore, there is an opportunity for the ABC to be involved in it, and I think that's good.

ANDREW SHOLL: There's a mark of paranoia on the part of some people who say that you want to move the ABC to pay TV forever, and have it off free TV, is that right?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, I think, you know, that there might be a degree of paranoia there. I think what people have to recognise is that in broadcasting - and that's why this Bill is so important - in broadcasting, the landscape is changing dramatically; it's been driven by technology; the market is being fragmented.

ANDREW SHOLL: Should there ever be a time when the ABC moves to pay TV forever?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, it may emerge but who can say? We're starting off .. this is an infant industry, pay TV, in this country. We're starting .. what we are saying is there's an opportunity, there's a rationale, reason, for allowing the ABC to be involved. Now is the time to make that decision.

ANDREW SHOLL: But down the track, you may have to pay for access to the national broadcaster, is that right?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, that's possible but it might well be that the free-to-airs continue into the future. I take the view, personally, that the take-up of pay TV will be moderate in the middle of the recession and that really it's the medium term we have to think about, and that free-to-airs will continue to have a vast, significant slice of the marketplace.

ANDREW SHOLL: Now very few people really understand what is in the Broadcasting Services Bill, but the Government has given the ABC $12.5 million to bid for one of the licences. If this passes the Reps today, should the ABC give that $12.5 million back, or should it not be given to the ABC?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, I think the ABC knows that it's only received an indication from the Prime Minister and, after all, it's he who's deciding all of these things, apparently, not Caucus or his Cabinet; that there's no money that has yet passed and it's unlikely to. And I think that the ABC have always prosecuted the case to be in pay TV. They've said that they can do it without the necessity for further public funds.

ANDREW SHOLL: Just finally, you want to cut $50 million off the ABC budget. Would pay TV help lift the ABC's revenue?

WARWICK SMITH: Well, it certainly has the capacity to do so, and it doesn't impinge upon the broader policies that we are following, and I think it's an opportunity for the ABC and they ought to go for it.

ANDREW SHOLL: Mr Smith, thank you.