Today’s revelation in the AFR (building on Malcolm Colless’s coverage last week) that Broadband and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has put on hold the launch of new digital channels A and B looks like another win for the free-to-air networks. New FreeTV Australia chairman Wayne Goss was in Canberra last week and looks to have secured the delay – and more likely elimination – of one of the few remaining threats to the free-to-air TV oligopoly.
David Crowe today also revealed that Conroy felt that subscription television no longer needed public policy “holidays” in relation to local content and advertising. Subscription television services are subject to lighter local content obligations than free-to-air networks, but it is unclear what “holiday” the industry has in relation to advertising: pay-TV was banned from advertising for many years and are still subject to limitations on the amount of advertising revenue it can access.
Conroy’s comments will alarm Foxtel and subscription broadcasting industry peak body ASTRA, particularly as Conroy has refused to implement his stated commitment to a “use it or lose it” approach to anti-siphoning, and in fact has talked about strengthening the list.
Foxtel and co will argue – correctly – that any regulatory “holidays” are vastly offset by the imposition of the outrageous anti-competitive rort that is the anti-siphoning scheme, which restricts sports rights holders from selling their rights to the highest bidder, in favour of the free-to-air television networks. The only anti-siphoning reform Conroy – a devoted round-ball game fan – appears to be interested in is adding soccer to the list.
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The launch of Channels A and B – A was meant to be an in-home “narrowcasting” service, and B a mobile television service – was long delayed by a lack of spectrum in all major urban centres. However, as Helen Coonan has noted today, this could have been addressed by shifting community TV off Channel 31 (and preferably out of existence altogether, some of us think). There remained interference issues in congested areas like the Gold Coast (which is like a vast black hole for TV signals), but these already beset some existing free-to-air services and could have been worked around.
It is true that Channel A, with its tight regulatory requirements, seemed unlikely to attract massive interest, and B – for which, unlike A, the free-to-air networks would have been allowed to bid – faced a challenge from 3G mobile television services. However, the channels represented the last threat of additional diversity to the free-to-air oligopoly that has dominated Australian broadcasting policy for years. By sending them off to yet another review – there have already been plenty of those, and there’s even a spectrum allocation review going on right now – Conroy has shored up the free-to-airs’ position in an environment of declining audiences and “fragmenting eyeballs”.
The decision continues Conroy’s unfortunate habit of doing nothing on broadcasting policy while he races to get the Government’s broadband tender up and running. And on top of his attack on subscription television, it suggests Wayne Goss and the free-to-air networks have nothing to fear from this Government.
Full disclosure: Bernard Keane has worked in the Department of Communications on broadcasting policy.