The pay television sector has made a comprehensive and pointed challenge to the ABC and SBS and their claims on the public purse.

In one of more than 2400 submissions to the Federal Government’s review of public broadcasting released last Friday, the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association protests that it supports public broadcasting — while taking a hit at almost every aspect of the ABC’s vision for the future.

ASTRA argues that the ABC and SBS should receive government money for new channels only in cases where there is a clear market failure and contends there is no evidence of market failure in news reporting, children’s content, education or overseas content. After all, there is Skynews, A-Pac and a big handful of pay television channels devoted to children’s content.

Even if there is a market failure, ASTRA says, then the money to address it should not go straight to the ABC and SBS. The required services should be put out to tender.

Likewise spectrum. If that is available, it too should be put out to competitive auction, not given to the public broadcasters.

ASTRA goes on to argue that the ABC should not be allowed to raise money by selling its content, whether in DVD format or online, in competition to pay television.

Finally, it criticises the ABC and SBS for being “increasingly aggressive” in demanding “hold back” clauses in production contracts to block programming being made available to subscription television.

This is a nice reverse on the arguments one hears within the ABC from those opposed to outsourcing. It is usually claimed that outsourcing leads to taxpayer’s money being used to fund content that will be on-sold to pay television once the ABC’s season is over. ASTRA has a very different take. It suggests the ABC and SBS should make content available to them more quickly, as part of the public broadcasters’ commitment to distribute material as widely as possible.

The ASTRA submission directly challenges almost every leg of the ABC’s funding pitch and claims to relevance. ABC Managing Director Mark Scott has used words like “market failure” at every opportunity to press his claim for government money for children’s content, investigative journalism and more Australian content.

It is increasingly clear that in the battle for continued relevance in broadcasting, the main antagonists are pay television and the public broadcasters. Both embrace multichanneling, which the commercial free to air networks cannot do.

Both aspire to provide high quality specialised content to niche audiences.

This is the context for the recent stoush over Foxtel’s public affairs channel A-pac, which I have reported on before.

What continued claim does the ABC and SBS have on the public purse? The answers are, on a reading of the submissions: the ability to reach all Australians; the ability to innovate and take risks free from commercial pressure; and a commitment to Australian content.

Peter Fray

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