There are a number of things that have been missed or underplayed in the reporting of Coonan’s media reforms:

1. She suggests two dates from which the restrictions on cross media
ownership might be lifted. The first is next year. The second is
whenever the analogue television signal is switched off – which will be
between 2010 and 2012. There is an ocean of difference between the two
in terms of what outcomes are likely. By 2010-2012 we will be looking
at a very different media world. High speed broadband will be nearly
ubiquitous, providing television-type services beyond the reach of the
regulators. Independent web-based reportage might have had a chance to
get off the ground and mature. New digital players will be better
established, and Coonan hasn’t ruled out a fourth commercial television
licence at this stage, either. Given the make up of the Senate, the
political cycle, and the undeniable power of media convergence, those
concerned about diversity might be smart to accept the government’s
thrust but campaign hard for the later of Coonan’s suggested dates.

2. The Government will take over the power to allocate new commercial
free-to-air television licenses from the Australian Communications and
Media Authority. This is a huge transfer of power from a statutory
authority to the government of the day. There is no clear public
interest justification, and a lot of reasons to worry.

3. The potential of the two new digital datacasting
services, to be let out “as soon as practicable” next year, should not
be underestimated. All that distinguishes datacasting from television
is government restrictions. The existing free to air television
networks are nervous for good reason, and Coonan has barred them from
snapping up the new services. She is nicely non-specific on what she
will allow the new players to do.

4. Thank heavens the ABC and SBS have been freed from the genre
restrictions that have restricted them from multichannelling. The genre
restrictions were introduced in 1998 to protect free to air television.
Bob Brown said at the time “Kerry Packer couldn’t have written the
legislation better himself.” Multi-channelling is a natural future for
public broadcasters, who can embrace audience fragmentation without
worrying about “eyeballs” for advertisers. The ABC multi-channels will
be rich with material from the archives, and the the ABC’s news and
current affairs muscle will be exploited.The only minuses for the
moguls are here.

5. All eyes should be on Graeme Samuel, head of the Australian
Competition and Consumer Commission, who will carry the can and feel
the political heat for trying to reign in the moguls. Samuel has said
that his focus will be on control of content, rather than on control of
the media platforms that deliver it – and that this will be sufficient
to protect diversity. What precisely does he mean? He has spoken mostly
about sport and advertising, but how might these principles apply to
control of news and information?

6. All of Coonan’s work will be of diminishing relevance. As Michael Sainsbury points out,
Australia is the only country trying to regulate next generation
television services, and it isn’t likely to work for long. All Coonan
may achieve is giving Pay TV a little bit of breathing space, and
helping print media organisations make a leap across the chasm in to
the future. Most of the growth in media is in the unregulated
platforms.

Peter Fray

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