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Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television and Datacasting) Bill 2000

ACTING CHAIR (Senator Mark Bishop) —Welcome, Mr Bell. The committee has before it submission No. 35, which it has authorised to be published. Do you wish to make any alterations or additions to your submission?

Mr Bell —No.

ACTING CHAIR —Would you like to make a brief opening statement, Mr Bell?

Mr Bell —Southern Cross Broadcasting (Australia) Ltd is the licensee of radio and television stations around Australia, including NWS Nine in Adelaide, Ten Capital in Canberra and southern New South Wales, Ten Victoria through regional Victoria, Southern Cross Television Tasmania, 3AW and Magic 693 in Melbourne and 6PR and 96FM in Perth.

Southern Cross Broadcasting put a submission to the Senate committee, in which we stated that the legislative scheme proposed by the bill in respect of the solus and two-service television markets should be retained. Southern Cross Broadcasting is aware that submissions have been made requesting that amendments relating to solus and two-station markets proposed by the bill be abandoned and that section 38A of the act be amended to remove the automatic entitlement to the grant of a second licence in solus markets. As pointed out, this would impact on one of our markets—that is, the Tasmanian market. In our submission we pointed out that the economy of Tasmania was not strong. It has had a stagnant local economy and a declining population for some time. We raised figures that were drawn from the Nixon report in which projections by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicated that Tasmania's population peaked at 473,590 in 1997 and is likely to fall to between 198,000 and 381,000 by 2051. In short, the market could not sustain a third independent commercial licence. To allow such a licence to be granted in this market would certainly see a significant reduction in local services and a reduction in employment.

The market is now well served, with new services delivered by the incumbents, WIN Television and Southern Cross Television. They provide a local, national and international news service to Launceston and the northern market of Tasmania and to Hobart and the southern market. A third licence in that market would substantially reduce the ability of the existing stations to provide those new services. It would probably mean that local news would not be presented in that market at all and that a national service—or, more likely, a Victorian news service—would be relayed into the market by both existing broadcasters. It makes sense that, under a digital structure and where it has been allowed for in section 38A, the incumbents be in a position to introduce a third service while retaining all the services that are currently in place. Although this would be costly and would certainly reduce the viability of the existing operators, it is preferable for the local community and for the broadcasters to reach a compromise where they would most likely introduce that third service. I am happy to take any questions.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Mr Bell, you have suggested that local news and local programming might be reduced in Tasmania. Is that related to increased competition if new entrants should come into the market or is that a consequence of the requirement to go down the path of captioning?

Mr Bell —Leaving captioning aside, this relates to a third independent service.

Senator MARK BISHOP —So you argue that there is not a sufficient advertising base to pay for a third independent?

Mr Bell —That is correct.

Senator MARK BISHOP —And if that were the case, you would seek to cut out essentially local costs—that is, news, current affairs and local programming?

Mr Bell —There would be no alternative.

Senator MARK BISHOP —I see that you have some diverse media interests. With respect to your interests in the bush, do they entitle you to access the regional equalisation plan?

Mr Bell —Yes.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Are you satisfied with that plan in terms of the conversion to digital?

Mr Bell —It is acceptable. It will by no means cover all of the costs that we will incur in implementing a digital platform.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Will it cover a significant amount of the costs?

Mr Bell —It will go better than halfway, I would think.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Have you done your costings on the conversion to digital as yet?

Mr Bell —There are various structures that we can create that allow us to trim our costs, rather than completely replicating the existing infrastructure. That would be forced upon us to some degree just simply to be able to afford the transition.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Have you communicated your plans yet to the government?

Mr Bell —Yes.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Is that a condition of accessing the fund?

Mr Bell —The implementation program has not been submitted.

Senator MARK BISHOP —When would you plan to do that?

Mr Bell —Some time in the next six months, hopefully.

Senator MARK BISHOP —The issue of captioning has been under discussion for a couple of days. Are the issues in the rural areas that you serve also (1) cost and (2) difficulty in accessing the skills base there for the stenocaptioning?

Mr Bell —That is correct. If it were forced upon us to provide a full captioning service, it would, firstly, be extremely expensive for us and, secondly, we probably could not acquire the skills to provide the steno service that would be required.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Surely you would be able to in Tasmania.

Mr Bell —We would suggest that it would not be easy.

Senator MARK BISHOP —Channel 9 in Adelaide?

Mr Bell —I have had some costings on the service there and we think that would be perhaps easier because of the size of the market, but it is a very costly exercise for us even in that market.

Senator MARK BISHOP —I do not doubt that it is a costly exercise. The skills required to—

Mr Bell —I think we can gain the skills.

Senator MARK BISHOP —In all your markets?

Mr Bell —You referred to Adelaide. Being a metropolitan market, it is obviously easier to find the stenographers.

Senator MARK BISHOP —You have Tasmania, Channel 9 Adelaide, networks in Western Australia—

Mr Bell —No, we do not. We have radio in Western Australia.

CHAIR —I think you said 6PR and 96FM.

Mr Bell —Yes, we have those two in Perth. They are radio stations. We have television stations in Canberra, Southern New South Wales and throughout regional Victoria as well as Tasmania.

Senator MARK BISHOP —So you are going to have problems in attracting the skilled labour in the regional areas?

Mr Bell —That would be right, and it would be so expensive that it would most likely bring about some reduction in our news service.

Senator BOURNE —I have one question following on from that. I notice you mention the electronic newsroom in your submission on captioning. If you decide to use that as a captioning service, do you know when you would be able to do that and how long it would take to start that service?

Mr Bell —The timing that we have thought about would be to coincide with the introduction of digital.

Senator BOURNE —In the regional areas it would be, say, 2004 or something like that?

Mr Bell —As we bring each market on board.

Senator BOURNE —Yes, online. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you for appearing, Mr Bell. That concludes your evidence. You fall into the category of a regional broadcaster, and we have heard from WIN and Prime as well.

Mr Bell —Might I just add that we fully support the submission that has been put forward by FACTS and by WIN Television.

CHAIR —We noticed in your introduction that you fully supported the submission of FACTS. Thank you very much.

[4.23 p.m.]