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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 2832

Mr ORGAN (11:11 AM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Anti-Siphoning) Bill 2004. Although it may be seen as a minor technical amendment, the bill has implications for what sports Australians are able to see on their television screens. The bill basically amends section 115(1AA) of the Broadcasting Services Act and extends the automatic delisting period from 1,008 hours, or six weeks, prior to the start of a sporting event to 2,016 hours, or 12 weeks, prior to its start.

According to ASTRA, the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association, representing the pay TV sector, this amendment will basically assist operators in the management of their business—for example, in extending the cut-off from six weeks to 12 weeks, or three months, they will now have more time to appropriately publicise events they have acquired via their program magazines and other sources. ASTRA strongly believe that the present six-week cut-off is too short a time period in which to deal with items that become available from the list after not having been taken up by the free-to-air networks.

ASTRA cite licensee negotiations, sponsorship engagement, programming deadlines and publicity as some of the everyday issues facing them in such circumstances. I can accept these arguments and therefore support the amendment, along with the government and the opposition, especially in knowledge of the fact that television networks often have extensive lead times in their planning for the acquisition of programs—that is, they know a long time out, often many years, what programs they want to acquire. The extension of the cut-off from six weeks to 12 weeks is therefore reasonable. However, there are other issues associated with the cut-off, and the previous two speakers have talked about some of the problems with the antisiphoning issue generally. There are also problems with the antisiphoning list. These issues must be cause for concern and this parliament must ultimately address them.

With regard to the antisiphoning scheme, the then Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, in his second reading speech introducing this amendment bill, informed the House:

The scheme continues to protect the access of Australian viewers to events of national importance and cultural significance by giving priority to free-to-air television broadcasters in acquiring the broadcast rights to those events.

Unfortunately I cannot agree with the minister's statement, and recent events provide ample evidence of where events of national importance and cultural significance are not accessible to all Australians via the free-to-air networks. For example, as we heard from the previous two speakers, outrage was expressed across the nation recently when the Euro 2004 international soccer competition was not shown on SBS, a free-to-air service. SBS, known to many of us and many in the community as the `Soccer Broadcasting System', with people such as Les Murray and Johnny Warren at the helm, has for many years been a committed supporter of Australian soccer—through the good times and the bad, I might add.

Soccer is the most popular sport played in Australia at the moment. I understand that there are some 1.2 million participants, and there are a lot more supporters, including the families and friends of players. When it was revealed that SBS had not been able to secure rights to Euro 2004, it brought home to many Australians the harsh commercial realities of the antisiphoning system in modern-day sport. It raised with many of them the term `antisiphoning'. I suggest that a lot of people in the community do not know what we are talking about when we talk about antisiphoning. They might think it is something to do with stopping petrol sniffing or something like that. Euro 2004 was very educational. It informed the community about the list, about the term `antisiphoning' and about why they are seeing certain things and not others on TV. It informed them about why pay TV has certain sports and why, for example, the ABC now shows a lot of lawn bowls and other such niche market sports. I think it was useful, although it was not very well accepted by the general community.

Euro 2004 was an event that hundreds of thousands of Australians wanted to watch. Yet, as we have heard, it was only accessible on pay TV. Pay TV was overwhelmed by the support for Euro 2004. I understand extra measures were taken to get some screens up and running so that more Australians could see the competition, especially when Greece did so well—and we have such a high proportion of Greeks in our community at the moment. The basic reality is that less than a quarter of Australians have access to pay TV. At the time of the kerfuffle over the Euro soccer, SBS commentators raised the issue of discrimination against the poor and low-income earners who were unable to afford pay TV and who were missing out on the Euro 2004 telecast. This included people in my electorate of Cunningham. A friend of mine has three sons who play soccer, and they are soccer fans, but they could not afford pay TV. As a result, they were unable to see one of the world's best soccer tournaments—if not the best soccer tournament in the world.

This has really caused us to go back and look at statements from the minister, saying how events of national importance and cultural significance are given priority. Euro 2004 showed the failings and inherent faults of the antisiphoning system and the failings of the current legislation—and this amendment is just about one element of that. Despite all the rhetoric from the government, the reality is that the whole issue of TV rights to sport is driven by money, not by national importance and cultural significance. It could be argued, for example, that Euro 2004 was of national importance and cultural significance. As the member for Melbourne said, Labor is supporting the list based on its relationship with Australian teams and Australia's involvement. Euro 2004 may be cited as of national importance and cultural significance not because the Australian team was involved, which they were not, but because it meant something to a large section of the 1.2 million active participants in soccer in Australia and their families and friends.

We should be quite aware that money is driving the TV rights agenda. The overwhelming commercial realities of both pay TV and commercial free-to-air networks are going to drive this into the future. We should not have any illusions that in this place we can have a significant role in what is happening out there in the free market. We also have to consider the ABC and SBS—the poor cousins in this whole issue. If money and finances are driving this issue, the competing interests of pay TV and the commercial free-to-air networks—7, 9 and 10—and the interlinking between them are going to continue as time goes on. The previous speaker said that this is dynamic legislation, that there is a need for more tweaking of it and more consideration by this place of how it is going to best work to serve the interests of as many Australians as possible. We also have to remember that the actual sporting codes and organisations are looking to generate as much profit as possible from their product. As a result, the government's antisiphoning legislation is very vulnerable.

I have been informed by Free TV Australia that pay TV operator Fox Sports has acquired the rights to the 2005 Ashes cricket test to be played in the United Kingdom. If we go to section 5.1 of the antisiphoning list, which relates to cricket, we see that each test match involving the senior Australian representative team selected by Cricket Australia, whether played in Australia or overseas, is on the list. Therefore, the 2005 Ashes cricket test to be played in the United Kingdom is on the list, but operator Fox Sports has acquired the rights. According to Free TV Australia:

The Ashes have been only offered to free to air television in Australia on a non-exclusive basis, and as a result the event will only be available to pay TV subscribers.

And yet, as I said, it is on the list.

What is going on here? What will Australia's number one cricket fan, the Prime Minister, think of this? I am sure he has access to pay TV but, if he did not have access to pay TV, in all likelihood he would not be able to watch the Ashes test. The fact is that the vast majority—those 75 per cent—who do not have access to pay TV will at this stage not be able to watch the 2005 Ashes test. This seems to go against the list. The rights have been acquired. Does that mean that the free-to-air networks are now out of the loop and cannot get access to it? I do not know. They might have the rights, but are they able to use them? I do not know. There are lots of question about how the list is operating. Is the list operating, or is the whole system operating according to who has enough money to buy the rights?

I mentioned earlier how SBS and the ABC are the poor cousins in this instance. We know that SBS would dearly have loved to have the rights to Euro 2004. They basically could not afford it. We know that the ABC has not got the funding to get access to a lot of the sports that Australians want to see and that the ABC has been forced, due to funding constraints, to develop niche markets such as women's basketball and the national netball finals. So it is important that the ABC and SBS continue to have some involvement in the whole area of promoting Australian sport and providing sport to Australians, because the ABC is basically everywhere—it is the most common broadcaster. I think the government should give consideration to how the ABC and SBS are going to play a role in broadcasting sport to the Australian community over the next couple of decades. If we are going to go down this path of purely contracts and money driving it, the ABC and SBS will not have much left at all. As I said, they are the poor cousins, and the harsh reality of the market out there is that they will remain the poor cousins.

With the current legislation and the antisiphoning list et cetera, with the sports themselves wanting to maximise the money they are getting from their product, and with it costing more and more for elite sports to run elite sport, there is not doubt that a lot of money has to go in. Obviously, if it is coming in from the pay TV and the free-to-air stations and from sponsors et cetera, that is going to be what is driving it. Frankly, it seems to me that, at the end of the day, the community is going to miss out. We have seen how the community missed out with Euro 2004. A lot of people were not at all happy that they could not watch those games on TV. They would have loved to have sat up at 2 o'clock in the morning and watched some of those games.

As a result of all this argument, the community is missing out more and more. The antisiphoning monitoring report by ASTRA points out that channel 10, for example, failed to broadcast any Formula One or motor GP race live in May 2004. Here is something that is on the list that people out there want to see. I myself am a fan of motor sports, and I know that a lot of people out there who are fans of motor sports would expect—based on what has happened over the last decade or so—to be able to see the Grand Prix and the Motorcycle Grand Prix live.

We remember the days when Wayne Gardner, from Wollongong, was the world champion in the Motorcycle Grand Prix and how a lot of people were able to see that on free-to-air television. We remember the days when Alan Jones was a world champion Formula One Grand Prix driver. But now, in 2004, even though these races are on the list and Channel 10 has access to them, they are not being broadcast live. So we seem to be going backwards in many ways. I know this ASTRA antisiphoning list includes some of those other items on the list, such as the French Open, where there was a lot of angst in the community because, even though the free-to-air networks had these programs, they were not showing them. They were not giving the community access to them. So once again the community was missing out.

Frankly, this country is getting itself into a very complicated situation. As I said, for the networks, free-to-air television and pay TV money will generate a lot of what will happen in the future. But I think it is important that the government, if they can do anything, are able to protect community interests. If significant sporting events are happening, whether in Australia or around the world, at the top of the government's priorities should be working out how we are going to ensure that Australians who want to see these events can see them.

Pay TV has approximately 25 per cent of the market; 75 per cent of the market is free-to-air. If it ends up that pay TV has the money and is getting all the rights, even to those items on the antisiphoning list, that means that the government is faced with the situation where only those people who can afford pay TV will be able to enjoy some of those important sporting events. I frankly do not see that as the best way forward.

I think we need to reconsider this whole issue, reconsider the antisiphoning list. The government needs to sit down with both sides—with the pay TV operators and the free-to-air operators—and put it to them that, `At the end of the day, with some of these significant events, we want to make sure that they are available, so that all Australians who want to see them can see them.' Sure, it is not going to be every sport, and people have to realise that, but I think there is a real problem at the moment.

In summary, I support this amendment bill, but I look forward to further consideration of this matter over the coming months and years. I referred earlier to the fact that Foxtel has already acquired rights to an item on the list, namely the 2005 Ashes series. I feel that that loophole in the law needs to be addressed so that those rights are clearly available to the free-to-air networks for the three-month period so that they can get access to them. The Greens will be considering amendments along those lines in the Senate when this bill reaches the Senate.