The regular reviews of the Free To Air TV networks’ performance under the anti-siphoning regulations has been stopped by the Australian Communications and Media Authority on the instructions of that once ferocious critic, Senator Stephen Conroy, the Broadband and Media Minister.

In fact, not only will there be no six monthly update, there won’t be any annual reviews of the list, according to Senator Conroy in the question and answers below.

The Pay TV industry, specifically Foxtel, won’t like that, and the Free To Air TV sector, spearheaded by Labor veteran, Wayne Goss (the former Queensland Premier), will be overjoyed. No more form filling and they can do what they like with all the sports that have grabbed for the anti-siphoning list.

But will PBL Media/Nine Network be able to come up with the money to pay for some of the future rights, such as the Winter and Summer Olympics and then the Rugby World Cups, or will it get more help than planned from partner Foxtel? if that was to happen, more sport would end up on Pay TV, despite being on the anti-siphoning list.

The Senate estimates grilling last week of ACMA elicited the news of the review’s demise in this exchange involving Senator Nick Minchin, the Liberal party powerbroker from South Australia, Chris Chapman, the head of ACMA and Senator Conroy.

MINCHIN: That is all I had on that issue. Could I just quickly refer to ACMA’s responsibility with respect to the antisiphoning list. As I understand it, you are required to provide reports to the minister, on the basis of no less than once every six months, on your assessment of the monitoring of the use of the rights under the antisiphoning list, how those rights are used, and whether unused or partially used rights are offered to other broadcasters including pay TV. Is that an accurate description of your current role and responsibilities?

CHAPMAN: It is not, because on 28 August of this year the minister revoked the previous minister’s direction on the need for the ACMA to provide periodic reports, so we have discontinued that reporting function.

MINCHIN:That was a revocation of the requirement?

CHAPMAN: That is correct.

MINCHIN: It does not mean you cannot still continue to provide them; just that apparently you are not required to provide them any longer?

CHAPMAN: If we are not required to provide them and, given the resource constraints we spoke about before the break, I am not going to dedicate resources to it.

MINCHIN: Could you then remind us, Minister, why you revoked that requirement? What was the public policy objective you were seeking to achieve by the revocation of…

CONROY: We have a stated commitment to reduce red tape and regulation, particularly those imposed unnecessarily and arbitrarily by the previous government. The business community has complained long and loud about the amount of irrelevant paper that is being collected due to government regulations, and we have a drive to reduce the amount of red tape and regulation that basically serves no purpose. The issue of what is being shown and when has been well canvassed. It changes little, and it serves no purpose to have an ongoing number of officers of ACMA wasting their time collating this information. It is certainly of no benefit to the businesses that have been wasting their resources supplying the information, so we are quite comfortable at abolishing one of the many pieces of red tape that the former government wrapped the business community up in.

MINCHIN: So you find it of no value whatsoever to know how these rights are being used and whether unused or partially used rights are offered to other broadcasters, including pay TV? You do not wish to know that?

CONROY: Most of the rights—and we are only talking about 14 sports, notwithstanding some of the claims about 1,400 — 12 categories. The rights do not change on a weekly basis. They are usually three-four- or five-year contracts, so they are in place. I have noticed that, whenever the free to airs fail to produce something live to air, usually there is public commentary on it. I do not see any value in maintaining that. It is an administrative burden for both ACMA and the organisations who have to supply the information for no net gain in public information.

MINCHIN: You do not think, in the context of what I understand is the current view of the antisiphoning arrangements — which expire, what, at the end of 2010 — that this is useful information in relation to that review?

CONROY: My experience with the antisiphoning list — and I have followed it both at a viewer level and a policy level for many years now — is that there is little science involved in the list. I am personally very familiar with how the list works.

MINCHIN: As someone who was in cabinet for nine years, I will not comment on that.

CONROY: I am very familiar with how the list operates and I do not need a regular quarterly, six monthly or annual update from ACMA.

BIRMINGHAM: Can I take it from that, Minister, that you are not intending to inject any science into the review?

CONROY: What I am suggesting is that there has been little science involved in the past. I have been engaged with the stakeholders in the sector on this matter from before the election and I continue to be actively engaged. We will go through a process with the review next year which will throw up all the usual debates and all the usual science that is claimed.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey