Stuart Simson, one of the main authors of the 2000 Productivity Commission report on broadcasting that everyone has been quoting recently, had a dense but significant article in the Oz Media section yesterday.
Simson predicts, pessimistically, that on current policy settings it will be up to 25 years before the analogue television signal can be switched off. Coonan’s supposed date of 2010-2012 is sheer fantasy.
More optimistically he suggests that the competition regulator, ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel, will “try to limit the collateral damage to consumers from the Government’s policy to increase concentration.”
While he says this will be a difficult task, Simson suggests Samuel’s role might have the effect of splintering, rather than consolidating media ownership. Simson reminds everyone that Samuel has been talking about new definitions of markets for some time now. When considering whether or not competition has been reduced, Samuel will be looking at content, not just at the type of media platform.
So for example, competition in classified advertising could be reduced with the merger of an online presence and a newspaper. Or competition in the market for news and information could be reduced with just about any merger of news media organisations. Simson says that despite Government’s “pro-concentration media policy”, the ACCC might force the “splintering” of media ownership.
“This could occur through the break-up of existing media businesses, for example Fairfax, with individual assets spun off to new players such as private equity operators, specialist media funds, telcos, overseas media operators…or domestic operators in different geographic markets.”
This splintering may occur, Simson says, because of the new, broader definition of markets that Samuel has been signalling for more than a year now. Convergence may mean that newspapers, online and broadcasting may all be in the same marketplace for certain kinds of content, rather than the market being defined by the media platform.
It should be said what a fine piece of work the PC report was, and how well it stands up six years later. The most comprehensive and open-minded study of broadcasting ever conducted in this country, it recommended, among other things, that cross media ownership laws, while nearing the end of their usefulness, should be retained until the switch off of the analogue television signal enabled the opening up of the spectrum to new entrants.
Meanwhile, the Government should stop pussy-footing around, drop the protection of the existing free to air television stations and grant a fourth television licence, while getting on with the business of opening up the spectrum as much as possible as quickly as possible.
In other words, the PC report recommended close to the opposite of what the Government has done. One hopes Labor is paying the PC report close attention in its glacial move towards a new media policy.