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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 2830

Mr CIOBO (11:01 AM) —I am pleased to speak to the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Anti-Siphoning) Bill 2004. In terms of the core values within this bill, I believe it is doing the right thing by the community. The bill effectively amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to extend the time when a sporting event protected by the antisiphoning scheme may become available to pay TV operators. Currently, an event referred to as a listed event is automatically delisted 1,008 hours, or roughly six weeks, beforehand. This bill, if passed, will increase that lead-in time to 2,016 hours, or approximately 12 weeks.

It is interesting that I should be speaking at this juncture in the debate, after the shadow minister for communications, the member for Melbourne, and, I assume, before the Greens member, the member for Cunningham. Based on past comments from both of those speakers, in my view they approach this bill from two different perspectives. It is interesting that, as a government member, I should be wedged between the two of them.

From my perspective, many of the problems that this bill is seeking to address are problems that have been addressed by previous comments, both from the member for Melbourne and the member for Cunningham. I just heard the populist rhetoric from the member for Melbourne about the need to achieve a fine balance and the need to ensure that Australians have access via free-to-air TV to major sporting events. By the same token, the member for Melbourne does not want to see pay TV operators prevented from showing events that are on the antisiphoning list because they were cut out by the free-to-air broadcasters. I note that comments have previously been made by the member for Cunningham along the lines that this bill is there implicitly to benefit only pay TV operators. I think the actual comment was that if the government wants to get into bed with pay TV, then they should come out and say so, instead of pretending that changes in the legislation benefit viewers.

Despite strong comments on both sides, the reality is that this bill achieves a balance. Despite the shadow minister's comments in the chamber today—and I note that he is supporting this bill—about the need to achieve a balance, there are no concrete examples from the Australian Labor Party as to how they intend to do this. With this bill, the government is moving to ensure that we appropriately balance the competing demands that exist in the public domain. In particular, I believe many Australians have a very valid right to demand that the government ensures that free-to-air services of major sporting events are available. The reality is that approximately one in four households have subscribed to pay TV. In that light, there remains a valid rationale for ensuring that there is an antisiphoning list and that events placed on the antisiphoning list continue to remain on that list so that free-to-air broadcasters have the opportunity to have, I guess, the first right of negotiation to broadcast those events. But there is also some truth in the argument that it should be the case that, when events are purchased by free-to-air broadcasters, there should also be an opportunity for pay TV operators to be able to utilise those programs to fill a market need and a demand for those particular services.

This bill, I believe, although not perfect, certainly encapsulates those two competing demands and it does so through the delisting process and doubling that delisting period to 12 weeks. The effect of this is that it forces the hand of free-to-air broadcasters to lock in programming 12 weeks out from an event, thus providing an opportunity for pay TV operators, should they also choose to broadcast that event, to be able to engage sponsors, make programming decisions and ensure that those that are in fact subscribers to pay television have the opportunity to be able to enjoy the benefits on pay TV as well.

I would like to comment on the background to the antisiphoning scheme. Section 115 of the Broadcasting Services Act is the key legislative provision in what is known as the antisiphoning scheme. The scheme protects the access of Australian viewers to events of national importance and cultural significance on free-to-air television by preventing pay TV operators from siphoning off television coverage of those events before free-to-air broadcasters have had the opportunity to obtain the broadcasting rights. Section 115(1) provides that the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts:

... may, by notice published in the Gazette, specify an event, or events of a kind, the televising of which should, in the opinion of the Minister, be available free to the general public.

Section 115(1A) provides:

The Minister may ... amend a notice ... to specify an additional event, or events of a kind ...

This list is referred to as the `antisiphoning list'.

I note comments that the shadow minister made with regard to the type of events that should be contained on the antisiphoning list and I note that the government has moved—most recently on 11 May this year—to revise and revisit the issue of the antisiphoning list. In doing so we ensured that there were some events which were included and continued to be included whilst there were other events that were omitted from the revised list. This again shows that this is quite a dynamic piece of legislation in the sense of ensuring that it remains relevant to the demands of the Australian population and to the demands and competing interests that exist between subscription television and free-to-air television.

The minister on 11 May this year, when he revisited the antisiphoning list, specified events in the sports of horseracing, Australian rules football, rugby league football, rugby union football, cricket, soccer, tennis, netball, basketball, golf and motor sports. These were all specified on the list. One of the problems, though, is that, simply because an event is listed in the notice, it does not automatically mean that it will be televised on free-to-air television. It simply means that free-to-air broadcasters are entitled to acquire the rights to televise the event without having to compete with pay TV operators. Of course, in accordance with section 115 of the Broadcasting Services Act, the event will currently be delisted at 1,008 hours, or six weeks, before the event, in which case pay TV operators may apply for the rights to televise the event. There is provision under the act that an event does not automatically have to be delisted. The minister is able to exercise powers under subsections 115(1AA) and (1AB) to continue the specification of an event if he or she is satisfied that at least one commercial television broadcasting licensee or national broadcaster has not had a reasonable opportunity to acquire the right to televise the event.

The reason that the Howard government is increasing the delisting period of time is as I have outlined: the current six-week period—and this has been stated by the minister—has proved to be insufficient time for pay television operators to acquire the rights as well as finalise schedules, negotiate advertising contracts and promote the event. It is also worth noting that the operation of the antisiphoning scheme is such that, if a free-to-air broadcaster acquires the right to televise the listed event, it is not an exclusive right to broadcast the event. If the free-to-air broadcast will reach more than 50 per cent of the population, a pay TV operator may also acquire the right to broadcast the same event.

I note as well that the shadow minister raised the issue of UEFA Euro 2004. In fact, it is worth noting in this debate that in this particular context that event was not listed on the antisiphoning list. Rather, the problem that arose was that SBS was unable to compete with the pay TV operator that obtained the rights to broadcast that event. In this situation, it is also clear that there are competing interests and that it is not always the free-to-air broadcasters that cause problems.

From a local perspective the opposite is true. On the Gold Coast many concerns have been expressed at numerous times by many of my constituents who have contacted me about free-to-air broadcasters choosing not to broadcast AFL, and those constituents take as a godsend that they are able to access certain games through subscription television services. There is a very large ex-Victorian population on the Gold Coast these days, and with the success of the Brisbane Lions I am not surprised that the popularity of AFL is growing—but there will always be a demand for these types of services. So, as has been outlined by the shadow minister, there is a need to balance these competing objectives. This bill does that.

I am pleased that there is support from the Australian Labor Party for this bill. Contrary to the assertions that the member for Cunningham has made in the past, I do not believe this bill is an indication of the Howard government getting into bed with the pay TV operators; rather, we are simply trying to ensure that there is an appropriate balance between the demands. I do not deny that it is not a perfect balance, but in a very concrete way the bill does address the need to ensure that both consumers and free-to-air broadcasters, as well as subscription TV operators, deal with these cultural events—that is, Australian sporting events—as much as possible from a level playing field. I commend the bill to this chamber.