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Shadow Minister discusses the future of the ABC in pay television

PETER THOMPSON: The ABC's pay TV venture - up the Khyber, so to speak?

PRU GOWARD: Yes, it's obviously going to be hard for them. I guess you can't entirely rule it out, because in a practical sense, if the ABC were still to come up with an outstanding and very cheap news service, there is still no reason why the two carriers would not choose that in preference to the Murdoch-Packer group. It looks unlikely, but theoretically at least you can't rule it out entirely; but it's $12.5 million. The Opposition, I think, will put the Government under great scrutiny over this because $12.5 million is a lot of money to tip down the tube.

But earlier this morning I spoke to the Opposition spokesman on this, Richard Alston, and I asked him whether with all these events that, as far as pay television was concerned and the news channel, shouldn't the ABC just close it down.

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, I think there's a very big question mark over its future. The options are so limited now that effectively Foxtel and Optus Vision are out of the game as far as the ABC is concerned and, indeed, this new joint venture operation news and current affairs service is being offered to Australis as well. There really is nothing else left for the ABC. It's been negotiating with Australis now for some months - it's made no progress - and I think there'd be every chance that Australis might do the same as the other two players.

Now, I suppose the Trade Practices Commission will have a say on all this, but subject to clearance, the future for the ABC looks very bleak, indeed.

PRU GOWARD: Yes, but isn't that the point that it would be very disappointing if there were only one monopoly on news, on all those pay channels?

RICHARD ALSTON: Yes, I don't think it would be a terribly good outcome for Australia, but once again it simply raises the whole question of whether this was ever viable in the first place.

PRU GOWARD: For the ABC to do it?

RICHARD ALSTON: Yes, and indeed as far back as June last year, I was calling on Michael Lee to extend the review of the overseas satellite service to pay TV because there were question marks at that time. And I think it was always going to be an inherently risky venture. The ABC doesn't have any commercial track record; it's up against the biggest players in the world; they've got virtually unlimited resources; the ABC is on a shoestring. So, I don't know what the Minister has been doing for the last 18 months or so, but some pretty tough questions are going to have to be asked because....

PRU GOWARD: Because of the $12.5 million?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, yes. And I mean, there are 110 people on the payroll and, presumably, a lot of those people went there on a promise; in other words, they were assured that this would be a viable service; that it had a long-term future. Indeed, I'm told that they were assured that they'd be on every pay television service. So, I think we really need to ask what happens to those people and how this all came to pass. I mean....

PRU GOWARD: Now that's very easy for the Opposition to keep asking questions, but what is .. can you see a solution?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, if you are talking about whether a pay TV service that can't get on to any .. or pay TV company that can't get on to any service who's viable, the answer is 'no'. I'm still very concerned about the satellite service. I think that's always had more going for it, and I think that's where the concentration ought to be, but ultimately the Minister is the one responsible for all this, and he's the one who ought to be explaining just how we got into this situation and how we ought to get out of it.

PRU GOWARD: And how would you characterise it?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, I think it's very disappointing; it's obviously learning on the job for the ABC; but the end result is a very sad outcome for Australia.

PRU GOWARD: Richard Alston, is there any way you think the experience of pay TV in the ABC could be used, I mean, for example, without satellite service?

RICHARD ALSTON: Well, that's what I would be exploring. Clearly that's a hand-to-mouth operation at the moment. It's already been subject to one review - $5.4 million was probably never going to be enough, and now it's drawing on its own internal resources. But I'd like to see a lot more attention given to its future, and I think probably we'll have to call it quits on pay.

PRU GOWARD: Richard Alston, thank you for your time.