Boy, that Stephen Conroy really hates pay-TV. He is shaping up as the biggest friend of the free-to-air networks in ages — and given the track record of both sides of politics, that is saying something.

Conroy has so far said exactly four things about broadcasting policy this year. First, there was a reheat of Helen Coonan’s digital switchover proposals. Then there was some cash for community radio. Then there was a slap at the subscription TV sector over their alleged regulatory holiday that he wanted to end.

And now it looks like he wants to further strengthen the anti-siphoning list in favour of the free-to-air networks.

The anti-siphoning list remains one of the great anti-competitive rorts in Australia. It punishes an arbitrarily-selected group of sports rights holders by preventing them from selling their property (rights to broadcast their sport) to the highest bidder, in favour of looking after one of our most powerful oligopolies, the free-to-air TV sector.

As Julie Flynn’s criticism of calls to regulate children’s television advertising yesterday showed, the commercial networks are usually no fans of regulation — except when they benefit from it. And they benefit massively from the anti-siphoning list.

The other parties that suffer from the anti-siphoning scheme are News Ltd, Telstra and PBL, who own either Foxtel or Foxtel’s main sports content provider, Premier Sports. None of them deserve an ounce of sympathy and all are guilty of their own media policy crimes and misdemeanours in other areas. But that doesn’t make the anti-siphoning rort good policy.

There’s a review of the rort scheduled for 2009. Conroy has indicated he wants to use it to remove the current restriction on free-to-air broadcasters showing anti-siphoning listed events on their digital channels. The free-to-airs would love nothing more than to shunt some of the listed events they carry off their main channels to make way for higher-rating programming, and have been pushing hard to remove the restriction that blocks them from doing so.

The Howard Government imposed the restriction as a sop to the pay-TV industry during the media reform debate in 2006 – but also out of concern that analog viewers would miss out on their footy.

You can bet that the free-to-airs don’t see the solution to this problem lying in removing events from the anti-siphoning list. Rather, they want both the anti-siphoning list and the freedom to stick events on their less-watched digital channels.

It looks like Stephen Conroy agrees with them. This is the bloke who declared last year he supported the concept of “use it or lose it” in anti-siphoning — that sports would be removed from the list if they weren’t broadcast — but hasn’t removed even events like the tennis grand slams where only a tiny percentage of the matches are ever shown. And he’s desperate to get more soccer onto the list because he’s a round ball but.

Conroy also flagged that the Government might consider giving financial incentives to sections of the community – think oldies and low-income households — to upgrade from analog to digital television. This will undoubtedly accelerate the shift to digital and enable switchover in 2013. But whether it’s a worthwhile use of scarce taxpayer resources should be strongly questioned — and hopefully will be by the Department of Finance. Television is not a human right, regardless of what advertisers might tell us. And set-top boxes these days cost next to nothing.

There’s a curious contradiction in that issue, too. The free-to-airs — WIN honourably excepted — have dragged their feet on promoting digital television for years. It’s in their interests to delay switchover — which will free up significant amounts of broadcasting spectrum — as long as possible.

The biggest promoters of television digitisation have been Austar and Foxtel, who have now completed their transition — and that of their subscribers — to digital. But Conroy seems intent on continuing to punish them by perpetuating and strengthening the anti-siphoning rort.

Still, the free-to-airs will be happy, and that’s the main thing.

Peter Fray

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