New Media Framework for Australia

by Peter Black from Queensland University of Technology

Last month, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Helen Coonan, announced significant media reform.

Senator Coonan said that "This package of reforms will allow the Australian media sector to move from the old analogue-based regime into the dynamic new world of digital content, where traditional media co-exist and compete with new delivery platforms". She also said that "The framework I am announcing today will open up opportunities for a range of innovative new services for consumers, while maintaining the existing services that the community already rely on and enjoy, including quality free-to-air television services".

There were a number of significant reforms included in the package. What follows is a summary of the key reforms.

1. Cross media ownership laws relaxed

Starting from next year, the existing cross media ownership restrictions will be relaxed to allow cross media transactions to proceed, subject to safeguards to ensure that no fewer than five independent media groups remain in metropolitan markets and four in regional markets.

Existing licence and reach limits, which provide that a person may control only one commercial television licence or two commercial radio licences in any licence area, and that a person may not control commercial television licences reaching an audience of more than 75 per cent of Australian population, will be retained.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will ensure the competition laws are fully complied with under the general mergers provisions of the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth), and ACMA will oversee safeguards to ensure diversity and local content, including ensuring transactions comply with the minimum number of media groups requirements.

2. Foreign media ownership restrictions removed

As of 2007, foreign media ownership restrictions will be effectively removed:
  • the current media-specific foreign ownership restrictions in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) will be removed; and
  • the current newspaper-specific foreign ownership restrictions in the Government’s Foreign Investment Policy under the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act 1975 (Cth) will be removed.

    However, the media will be retained as a "sensitive sector" under the Foreign Investment Policy and proposals by foreign interests to directly invest in the media sector, irrespective of size, will remain subject to prior approval by the Treasurer.

    3. Digital switchover date pushed back

    As there is insufficient digital take-up to meet the current switchover date of 31 December 2008 in metropolitan areas, this date will be reset with a new switchover target to commence in 2010-2012. To drive digital take-up, the Government will develop a Digital Action Plan (DAP). According to the Media Release:

    The DAP will require careful planning and close collaboration and cooperation from all stakeholders. It will identify the major tasks, processes and timeframes necessary to drive digital take-up and will consider whether a dedicated new body, such as the switchover organisation created in the UK, will best facilitate the steps required to achieve switchover. The DAP is under development and will be released later in 2006.

    4. New digital services for spare spectrum

    Rather than using the existing spare spectrum space for a fourth commercial television network, the Government will allocate two unassigned digital channels throughout Australia for new digital services. These channels have the potential to deliver a range of new and innovative services to consumers, which could include up to 30 channels under some uses, and would be an opportunity for industry to expand and respond to the challenges of the digital environment.

    More details on spectrum planning and the allocation or auction of these two new channels will be released sometime later this year.

    5. Restrictions on multichannelling

    Currently there are ten free digital television channels - 7, 9 and 10, plus those three simulcast in HDTV, ABC and ABC Digital and SBS and SBS Digital. It is proposed that from 1 January 2009, the commercial free to air broadcasters will be able to provide one standard definition (SDTV) multichannel. In advance of the digital switchover, it is proposed that from 1 January 2007, the requirement that HDTV services must be a simulcast of analogue and SDTV will be removed, allowing commercial free to air broadcasters to run one HDTV multichannel. The current prohibition on full multichannelling by commercial broadcasters will be retained until the end of the simulcast period. Restrictions on the types of programs permitted to be shown on ABC and SBS multichannels will be removed as soon as possible.

    Following digital switchover, it is envisioned that there could be up to 40 free to air digital channels with 7, 9, 10, ABC and SBS each broadcasting up to 8 channels.

    6. HDTV quotas to remain

    The current HDTV quota of at least 1040 programming hours per year will be retained until the end of the simulcast period. The Media Release says that "This is in recognition of the need to provide certainty for viewers and industry during the transition to digital but to provide that, after switchover, broadcasters will be permitted to choose how best to meet their audiences’ needs and structure the use of their spectrum between SDTV, HDTV and multichannelling."

    7. Changes to anti-siphoning scheme

    During the simulcast period all free to air broadcasters will be prohibited from televising an event on the anti-siphoning list on any digital channel other than their main SDTV channel unless the event has already been shown (or is simultaneously shown) on the main SDTV channel.
    Also, from 1 January 2007, the anti-siphoning list will incorporate a "use it or lose it" component to remove events from the list if, based on the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) monitoring of coverage, those events have not received adequate free to air coverage.

    8. Decision-making power over commerical television licenses to be given to Minister

    The Australian Government will legislate to transfer the decision-making power to allocate commercial television licences from the ACMA to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.
    The Government will not allocate new commercial television licences within broadcasting services band (BSB) spectrum between the end of the moratorium on new licences on 31 December 2006 and digital switchover. The allocation of new licences will be reviewed in accordance with the Digital Action Plan prior to the end of the simulcast period.

    Any applications that may be made for new free to air commercial television licences outside the BSB spectrum after the end of the moratorium will be assessed by the Minister to ensure new services are not contrary to the public interest. In the interests of not stifling the growth of new services by imposing unnecessary or burdensome constraints, any new licences in this area will be exempt from media ownership controls from the time the cross and foreign media ownership restrictions are relaxed.

    9. ACMA given greater enforcement powers

    The ACMA will be given a range of new enforcement powers:
  • new civil penalties for a range of breaches where only criminal sanctions are currently available, giving ACMA greater flexibility to address non-compliance;
  • the power to obtain injunctions where commercial broadcasting services are being provided without an appropriate licence;
  • able to accept enforceable undertakings from industry in relation to its role in regulating the broadcasting, datacasting and internet content industries; and
  • able to issue infringement notices for minor breaches of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (Cth) related to reporting requirements.

    Brief Commentary

    There is quite a bit in these "reforms" to warrant concern. The main issue is that these concerns have the real potential to further concentrate media ownership leading up to the delayed digital switchover. Less diversity means fewer voices in the mainstream media. And that is in no-one's interest.

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