Foxtel has again dealt a devastating blow to the major core competence of the ABC, News and Public Affairs. Foxtel, Austar and Sky News, which is owned by PBL Media, the Seven Media Group and British Sky Broadcasting, announced recently the launch of the A-Span TV network.

A-Span will not only broadcast Federal and State parliamentary sessions, Question Time and parliamentary hearings but also speeches from the National Press Club, conferences and universities. Further, A-span will broadcast political proceedings from the US and the UK.

Foxtel and the Sky News joint venture already provide on Pay TV a 24 hour news service on eight screens including news, business, sport, weather, headlines, top stories, agenda and Sky UK. In addition Foxtel provides 24/7 international news with Fox News, CNN, BBC World News, CNBC and Bloomberg.

In comparison, the ABC broadcasts the Midday Report, 7.00pm News, 7.30 Report and a brief news headlines at 10.30pm. During the official ratings season the ABC also broadcasts Lateline and Lateline Business which makes a total of two and a half hours a day. The ABC is also broadcasting news programs on the second digital channel ABC2 from 6.00am to 10.00am.

The news output by the ABC is paltry in comparison to the Foxtel offering and far more expensive. Further, Sky News is not only available continuously in many forms but has achieved credibility with Australia’s leading television political commentator David Speers. The problem for Foxtel is that, as Rudd said, political junkies will love C-Span, but are there enough of us?

The audience for Sky News is limited as only 27% of homes have Pay TV, but Sky News reaches over 500,000 people each day and had a cume reach of non-duplicated viewers of nearly 2.5 million in November. Sky Business News and the major international news services Fox, CNN and BBC are not rated but would add to the total of people watching news on Pay TV. In comparison the nightly 7.00pm ABC News attracts an average audience of about one million viewers in the metro markets alone and a total daily reach of 1.5 million viewers.

The problem for the ABC is that they intended to provide an A-Span type continuous news channel on a digital channel in the future if they could get the funding from the government and here is a privately-funded competitor that does not need government funding. As over 40% of homes have digital TV, and in my estimate more likely already 50% of homes which will grow to 100% over the next four years, then the ABC would have the definite advantage of a larger potential audience.

However, if Foxtel could gain the use of an existing FTA digital channel, say from its shareholder PBL Media, or if it could convince the government to provide one of the channels reserved for the seemingly defunct Channel A or B licences, then Foxtel could swamp the ABC with news and public affairs programming. It would also provide a great cross-promotional FTA base for Foxtel to promote its subscription services.

In the early days of Pay TV the ABC should have gained a role as the provider of the 24 hour news service on Pay TV but they missed the opportunity and have suffered ever since. It looks as though the czar of Pay TV, Kim Williams, is aiming to outfox the ABC again.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey