Canberra’s Lobby Restaurant will be the place to be tonight as John Howard hosts a cocktail party to celebrate 50 years of television in this country.

It looks set to be a great backslapping affair. Normally in commercial TV, executives from each of the networks would be stabbing each other in the back at functions like this, but tonight will be a love-in.

The Howard Government has given the commercial networks everything they wanted: digital TV is confused, there’s no definite turn-off date, sports anti-siphoning remains in place and yesterday the Media Minister, Senator Helen Coonan gave the commercials a birthday present. The Minister’s statement gushed:

The Government will allocate two currently unassigned channels of television broadcasting spectrum nationally for new digital services for Australian consumers… The first channel will allow new free-to-air; in-home digital services and the second channel could be used for a wider range of services, including mobile television services…

And buried towards the bottom of the release:

In addition to these new digital services I am announcing today, consumers will be able to access improved multichannels from the two national broadcasters – ABC and SBS. The commercial broadcasters will also be permitted to provide a High Definition multichannel from 2007 and a Standard Definition multichannel from 2009

A lovely present. At a Sydney function for one commercial network last night, there was stunned amazement at the change of heart. One senior executive was openly astonished at the switch.

Non-broadcast media companies with lots of content like Fairfax or News or those with ambitions like Telstra will want to bid for either licence. They will just have to choose which one promises the greatest long term growth. But this will depend on the content restrictions: maybe someone can conjure up a new way of networking news stories.

But not so for the commercial TV industry. They will be able to provide content for Licence A and bid for Licence B. They get it both ways.

That’s why the industry is stunned at its good fortune: it can grab a big share of the content on both channels if it is serious, open up new income streams and continue to keep a big foot in the existing revenue streams.

No wonder Fairfax and News Ltd don’t like it, nor does Foxtel. But if they want to play they will have to dance with the FTA Networks.

So happy birthday commercial TV, bid high and bid often.