John Howard and his Communications Minister Helen Coonan are leaving no group untouched as they attempt to bribe voters. And with the election slipping away, Howard and Coonan have slithered up to the ABC audience and dangled $80 million for a new children’s digital channel.

As bribes go it is pretty outrageous. The Government wouldn’t give the ABC the money to fund its children’s channel several years ago and it had to close. Now it is offering to fund a new digital channel to broadcast 15 hours of commercial-free material a day — including $36 million for the commissioning of new programs for children.

Communications Minister Helen Coonan says the channel is an alternative approach to banning junk food advertising. “Those parents who feel concerned about the way in which their children are bombarded with commercials and advertisements for toys and come-ons for junk food will be able to have an ad-free alternative,” she said.

The reality is that the ABC is being asked to carry children’s programming that the commercial networks should be carrying, ad free.

The media regulator, ACMA, is reviewing the regulations covering Children’s broadcasts on TV and said in its annual report, released 10 days ago, that it expects to report in the March quarter of 2008.

So there’s Mr Howard and his tame Media Minister anticipating this review by offering the ABC and its audience a big bribe to do something that it may or may not want to do.

Why? Well the ABC already broadcasts all its children’s programming without an ad on its main FTA channel. How setting up a special digital channel (which could reach 30% of the TV audience at the moment), is going to improve on the situation is impossible to measure.

It’s a poorly thought-out bit of pork barrelling, with the suspicious subtext of excusing the commercial networks from carrying ad free programming (junk food and soft drinks).

As many people can access free to air digital broadcasts now as can access digital broadcasts on pay TV.

Will any Federal Government force Foxtel and its children’s channels like Nickelodeon to broadcast to children without junk food and other questionable ads?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey