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Thursday, 5 April 2001
Page: 26536

Mr BROUGH (Minister for Employment Services) (11:10 AM) —I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2001 makes a number of relatively minor but important amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Radiocommunications Act 1992.

These amendments relate to:

· high definition television programming;

· the allocation of additional commercial television licences in underserviced remote or regional markets; and

· antisiphoning arrangements to facilitate the coverage of certain sporting events on pay television.

There are also some technical amendments to certain provisions relating to datacasting services.

Currently the Broadcasting Services Act requires that any HDTV programming must be exactly the same as standard definition television programming. There is no flexibility to allow some limited differences between HDTV and SDTV programs, as there is between SDTV and analog programs.

The bill will enable the Australian Broadcasting Authority to grant an exemption authorising broadcasters to `time shift' HDTV programs—that is, to show the HDTV version of a program at a different time to when the SDTV/analog versions are shown. The exemption could be provided for up to one year, with the ability to apply for renewal. This would enable good quality HDTV to be demonstrated during the day. Retailers can use this material to show consumers the benefits of HDTV receivers at a point of purchase.

To ensure that this measure does not encourage broadcasters to create HDTV material not available in SDTV format, broadcasters will be required to show these HDTV programs in SDTV within seven days prior to or after the HDTV version is shown. However, if these different HDTV programs are repeated within the week they are shown, only one showing will count towards the HDTV quota.

The bill will also allow broadcasters to provide different advertising in the HDTV version of a television service in the first two years of digital television broadcasting. This will provide time for broadcasters to make the necessary investment and put in place the necessary equipment to provide the same range of HDTV local advertising as they provide in SDTV.

These changes increase the flexibility of the digital television framework with respect to HDTV without undermining the integrity of the simulcast and HDTV quota rules.

Section 38B of the Broadcasting Services Act provides a mechanism for the incumbent broadcasters in licence areas where there are only two commercial services to seek a licence to provide a third service in digital mode. The act currently provides that the broadcasters may, within a specified period:

· jointly seek the licence;

· apply alone if the other declines to seek the licence; or

· in the absence of an agreement, bid for the licence at auction.

The current provisions require both broadcasters to indicate their intention in a joint statement to the ABA. If either broadcaster refuses to respond, the other is unable to proceed to allocation of the licence. This means that the individual broadcasters are in a position to prevent the allocation of a licence for a third service in these underserviced areas through non-participation in the joint election process for a third licence.

The bill amends the act to ensure that a third licence can be allocated under section 38B, by enabling the existing licensees to apply either jointly or separately.

In addition, section 73A provides an exemption from the normal control provisions which limit a broadcaster to owning only one licence in a licence area where the broadcaster has been allocated a section 38B licence to provide a third digital service in the same licence area. However, in a limited number of cases involving overlapping licence areas section 73A does not provide an exemption from the control provisions for all licensees.

The bill amends section 73A of the act to ensure that an incumbent broadcaster allocated an additional licence under section 38B would not be in breach of the control provisions in these situations.

The bill also provides for the introduction of automatic six-week delisting of events under the antisiphoning regime. The objective of the parliament in establishing the antisiphoning regime was to prevent subscription broadcasting licensees from acquiring the exclusive rights to broadcast important events that should be freely available to the public.

The Broadcasting Services Act does, however, give the minister discretion to remove an event from the antisiphoning list. The minister is able to delist events where, for example, free-to-air broadcasters have had an opportunity to acquire the right to televise an event, but none of them has acquired the right within a reasonable time.

In practice, events on the antisiphoning list are unlikely to be delisted until it can be demonstrated that free-to-air broadcasters have declined offers to obtain the rights. It follows that pay TV operators cannot finalise their own program arrangements until the outcome of negotiations for free-to-air rights is known and the subsequent delisting has been authorised. This can limit the ability of pay TV operators to schedule and promote forthcoming events.

Under the current antisiphoning provisions, events are automatically delisted one week after the event has been held. This ensures that pay TV operators may provide secondary coverage of listed events without restriction.

The government's public policy objective of making available certain major sporting events free to the general public would not be served by removal of the antisiphoning provisions of the act at this time. Currently, there are a total of 1.2 million subscribers to Australia's major pay TV services. This compares with six million homes that are reached by free-to-air television.

However, there is scope for amendment to the existing antisiphoning regime to assist pay TV operators to gain prompt access to broadcasting rights, where free-to-air broadcasters have had a reasonable opportunity to acquire these rights. This is not intended to affect the availability of major sporting events to the general public.

The bill, therefore, provides for listed events to be automatically delisted six weeks before commencement. Automatic delisting six weeks before the event will maximise the time free-to-air broadcasters have to negotiate rights, while providing an adequate time prior to the event for subscription services to acquire and promote the event.

If free-to-air broadcasters oppose the delisting of an event and can successfully demonstrate to the minister that they have not had a reasonable opportunity to acquire the free-to-air broadcasting rights before that date, the minister may override the automatic delisting by publishing a declaration that the event continues to be listed.

This bill provides for enhancements to the simulcast regime for HDTV in Australia in the light of experience, for improvements to the arrangements for the provision of a third commercial television service in currently underserviced regional and remote areas and for the introduction of more streamlined delisting procedures under the antisiphoning regime.

The government remains committed to ensuring the transition from analog to digital broadcasting is as smooth as possible for viewers. This bill allows broadcasters sufficient scope to demonstrate the appeal of HDTV, and allows viewers to make informed choices about digital television products during the simulcast period.

The implementation of automatic delisting of events six weeks before they are to occur will streamline the administration of the antisiphoning regime. It directly addresses the problems identified by pay TV operators with the current delisting scheme, while protecting access by free-to-air broadcasters to broadcasting rights for listed events and, thus, does not diminish opportunities for the public to enjoy free-to-air coverage of listed events.

I commend the bill to the House and I present the explanatory memorandum to the bill.

Debate (on motion by Mr Swan) adjourned.