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Thursday, 8 September 1983
Page: 560

Mr O'NEIL(12.06) —It would be very rare for me to agree with the honourable member for Maranoa (Mr Ian Cameron). However, as I have a large rural electorate I agree that there are many areas within my electorate and his that do not have adequate radio and television coverage. We certainly want to see that. It was quite remiss of the previous Government which for seven years promised radio and television in my electorate to never fulfil that promise. Prior to the 1977 election Senator Don Jessop, that great and wonderful Liberal senator, promised television services on the west coast of South Australia within 12 months. The people on the west coast are still waiting. That is typical of the sort of care that the Liberal and national parties had for the country people. It is good to see that we now have a very constructive and positive Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy).

I wish to speak to the Television Stations Licence Fees Amendment Bill and the Broadcasting Stations Licence Fees Amendment Bill which together will raise extra revenue of some $2.4m in 1983-84. All except $400,000 of this revenue will come from television stations. Of these, 15 stations are metropolitan, one is in a provincial city. Only one radio station is affected. Since fee scales were set in 1964 television has increasingly become a secure and significant growth industry. In 1981 ceilings were applied to limit the maximum percentage of gross earnings required to be paid in fees. These Bills raise those ceilings as well as applying a slight increase in rates. It is well to reflect that if the 1981 ceiling had not been applied the biggest earners in the electronic media industry would now be paying much more in fees without any increase in rates. It is also worthy of consideration that, in an era when Australian manufacturing industry is facing not only a general economic slump but also a crisis in the very structure of its future and when the resources industry has seen the predicted minerals boom appear on the distant horizon and vanish without even saying hello a lot of emphasis in the future will swing to new fields of investment and profitability.

The entertainment and information industries, riding the wave of rapid technological change, are poised to take full advantage from their advertising revenue of any opportunities opening up for a bigger slice of the consumer spending cake. Their share is not inconsiderable now-I refer particularly to the television industry. In 1980-81 the 15 metropolitan commercial television stations averaged gross earnings of $27.35m. Radio station earnings were less spectacular with an average of $3.1m between 29 metropolitan stations. Country stations in both categories were the poor relations. The 35 television stations grossed an average $2.97m representing a differential of 9.2 per cent between them and their big city counterparts. Ninety-seven country radio stations averaged $644,000-a differential of 4.85 per cent. The marginally increased revenue will come from enterprises which not only have the greatest capacity to afford it but also would appear to have excellent potential for expansion when the first domestic communications satellite goes into operation in 1985-86.

It would be a brave man who would dare to predict with any certainty just how much more tenaciously and comprehensively the commercial audio-visual communications media will increase its influence over or its contribution to our everyday home lives, depending on which way we look at it. It will probably be a combination of both. One thing is certain. The advent of the domestic satellite will bring many remote areas into closer touch with the world outside, and in many very worthwhile ways. I certainly commend this. The Minister for Communications has indicated that there may be some kind of trade-off between added costs of fee increases and the production and showing of Australian films and television programs. If wider coverage causes profits and fees to soar in future years, such a proposition might be taken up to the benefit of many Australians on the fringes of the industry as well as those who are served by it . In order to do this, of course, there is a minimum requirement of size and capacity. Independent country television stations-in themselves representing an admirable concept in the fostering of regional interests and enterprises-are nevertheless in the weakest position of all to take advantage of any aspect of the satellite revolution. They could, in fact, be facing ultimate absorption into some kind of new pattern of ownership, control and supply of material. In what form they find their survival may, in the long term, depend on their own adaptability.

One thing seems certain, that is, that the present pattern of zoning protection for regional stations will need to be radically revised if they are to remain a viable part of our way of life outside the capital cities. In my electorate of Grey, there has been a lot of public pressure for many years for liberalisation of the zoning regulations so that viewers can have the alternative of at least one metropolitan commercial station added to their reception of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and local commercial station programs without going to the expense of a 16-metre antenna tower for the sake of doubtful results. They have grown used to being told that there is no way advertising revenue can be shared out equitably to meet their desires, even should a metropolitan station find the added expense an economic proposition. Given the machinery to beam metropolitan programs to the far corners of the outback, zoning may go by the board. Depending on what regulatory means are found to preserve regional identity, local stations may eventually be faced with a last ditch choice of 'if you can't beat them, join them'.

Like other forms of technological change, the advent of the satellite will carry no technical compulsion for even large stations to change their ways but the economic imperative will start a chain reaction. Network arrangements far more rigid than the present informal occasional program swapping and sharing will emerge. The elements of ownership and control these may contain will also depend on what regulation measures are brought in. Whatever arrangement is made to share programming between metropolitan and country stations must bring with it a parallel agreement for advertising rights. Country stations may subscribe to a far wider choice of programs than at present and take them directly from the satellite still retaining their own advertising territories; or they may accept a parcel of national or capital city advertising to offset the cost of the metropolitan programs they use. This could prove to be their most profitable compromise. On the other hand, unless adequate safeguards appear, they could be forced by competition into becoming little more than relay stations for nationwide networks.

But the most potent threat to the existence of regional television will eventually come-perhaps within the next decade-from the very same piece of high technology that will be a communications boom to the people who live in outback communities or on outlying stations where at present they can receive no signals at all. This device is the Direct Broadcasting Service, which takes the form of a receive-only station that can be installed anywhere to take special programs directly from the satellite. Although the first wave will be limited in scope and expensive both to buy and to use, their cost and complication are predicted to reduce to average living room proportions.

I conclude in paying a compliment to the Minister for Communications. As a new member, I find him very approachable. Undoubtedly he has a very constructive and positive role and is obviously dedicated to his portfolio. I would like to thank him for the care and consideration he has given particularly to new members who represent country seats. Hopefully, in the not too distance future, country electorates such as mine of Grey will have very adequate and suitable radio and television programs and coverage as have electorates in metropolitan areas.