Australia’s commercial TV Networks are trying to have their cake and eat it as well with the industry facing its strongest ad market for almost three years and a highly lucrative, big spending federal election campaign approaching.

The industry’s lobby group, Free TV Australia, has, very quietly, sought public comment on a plan to add an extra minute of advertising to prime time, from 6pm to midnight, seven days a week in the campaign.

That would see the amount of advertising rise from 13 to 14 minutes an hour during the campaign, from 6pm to midnight. That’s an extra six minutes of political ads a night per network.

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In the current tight and boom-like conditions, that would deliver more than a million dollars a week extra for the networks and possibly over two million each a week during the campaign, depending on the rate deals and the programs selected.

And the networks would not have to forgo other ads to achieve an average 13 minutes an hour, across the six hours of prime time, as they’ve had to do in the past.

Free TV Australia posted the request for public comment quietly on its website last Friday and didn’t send it out through the normal email advisory. What FTA and the networks want to do is to amend the part of the TV Code of Practice covering advertising limits.

The proposed amendment is to clarify the operation of the existing Code provision permitting additional time for the broadcast of political advertising during election periods.

The current provision in the Code allows stations to schedule an extra minute of political advertising between 6pm and midnight during election periods (clause 5.7.2).

However, in practice, the operation of this clause has been limited by a general Code requirement to average non-program matter across the 6pm to midnight period (clause 5.6).

The effect is that broadcasters can not make effective use of the additional minute in election periods as this may breach the averaging requirements.

This often means that there is difficulty meeting all requests for political advertising time during election periods. This may disadvantage smaller political parties and organisations wishing to participate in the public debate.

The closing date for public comment is 5pm on Friday 24 August and submissions may be sent to Free TV Australia.

That’s just two weeks, so they want to get the change in place in case there’s an early poll.

But the commercial TV industry is currently enjoying a near boom with ad revenues and volumes up by 6% top 8% and they will probably firm to 8% plus with the election campaign and Christmas spending by big advertisers.

If adopted, it will allow the networks to accept more political advertising, up to 42 minutes a week for each of the trio, or over two hours a week extra.

And despite the talk about there being problems for smaller parties and other groups in advertising in prime time, the reality of the matter is that money talks and the ALP, Liberals and National parties will have the budgets to take advantage of this extra minute, as well as maintain their existing ad spends.

It might mean during the campaign we could see up to five minutes of political ads in prime time, in each hour, if the parties can afford it. And the advertising will be concentrated in the high rate, highly watched Zone 1 prime time of 6pm to 10.30pm.

It’s going to not only deliver a multi-million dollar boost to the three networks, all of whom have significant foreign shareholders and control, but it will help one, the Nine Network, more than others as its 75% foreign shareholder struggles with what is now clearly an over-priced purchase.

At the same time the Howard Government has given the networks a significant number of advantages in recent months with its new media laws, so it somehow seems appropriate that the networks do the right thing by the major parties and change the rules, at this late moment, to allow more political ads during the campaign.

The networks can do this because the Code is part of the self regulatory code, overseen by ACMA. So long as public comment is sought, ACMA cannot intervene, so the extra minute is a fait acccompli!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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