Complain all you want about Kevin Rudd’s review-heavy style, but when it comes to media policy, he leaves all his predecessors for dead.
Media policy used to be a laborious process. Ministers had to consult extensively with media moguls. All interests had to be catered for, to varying degrees. Discussion papers were issued so interest groups were given the illusion governments were interested in what they had to say. Prime Ministerial advisers would rip up carefully-prepared proposals from Communications Ministers. And that was before it went into the Senate and the horse-trading began. It went on for months. If you were actually involved in the process, it seemed more like decades.
Instead, this week Kevin Rudd unveiled the biggest shake-up in Australian media policy for a generation with, apparently, minimal consultation with the media sector. For one thing, the Government was restricted by probity requirements from discussing the outcome of its own tender process. The other is that this was a genuine bombshell that shocked industry observers.
This was possible partly because Kerry Packer died. Packer was always the mogul for governments to really fear. Rupert only has newspapers. Free-to-air networks have the 6pm news bulletins, which even today remain the most potent media influence on how Australians vote. And Kerry Stokes was less interested in treating his free-to-air licence as a fortress to be defended at all costs than the Packers. Perhaps he sensed that in time the fortress would become a prison — which is what has happened to the debt-laden private equity firms who rushed in the moment Helen Coonan got her media ownership changes through in 2006.
The implications and opportunities of a genuine Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) National Broabdband Network (NBN) will be being worked out for years to come. But the reason it dwarfs all other media policy changes of recent decades is that is establishes a whole new medium in every household. And it will be a national medium. Our entire media policy is based on the pre-internet media of region-based broadcast licensing and area-specific newspapers. And it was fundamentally shaped by the laws of spectrum physics, which is what made broadcast licences so valuable, and the exorbitant costs of establishing a major newspaper.
The NBN blows all that away.
It renders the debate about a fourth TV network — and other, silly constructs like datacasting — pointless. Free-to-air television licences will progressively become worthless. The only value free-to-air networks will retain will be their branding and their content contracts. The same logic applies to subscription television, although it is already in the same space as the NBN and therefore only faces the challenge of shifting delivery mechanisms rather than mindsets. Broadcasting will come to be seen as a waste of perfectly good spectrum that could be used for mobile and wireless devices. The new network won’t kill wireless but facilitate its supplementary status, since the cable infrastructure for in-fill transmission/reception equipment will be everywhere.
And all content creators will benefit. Not merely geeks uploading lame videos to YouTube, but owners of valuable content as well. The difference between television and online rights to major sporting events will vanish. For that matter, why would a major sport sell its rights at all? Why wouldn’t the AFL tender out the filming and production of its matches and simply sell its own content direct to consumers? Fans could pick and choose what matches they wanted rather than buy a whole subscription television channel to make sure they saw their team each week. It’s ironic that Stephen Conroy, the Minister who most loves the anti-siphoning list, has initiated its destruction.
In an excellent speech last night, the ABC’s Mark Scott teased out some other possibilities. He also spent some time on the regional implications of the Government’s announcement. Both sides of politics have presided over the progressive abandonment of regional communities by radio and television broadcasters, although Bruce Gordon’s WIN has done more than most to provide a reasonable local news service. Local commercial radio in most regional centres is now more or less an oxymoron. But on the upside, the ABC has partly filled in that space through the expansion of its Local Radio network (a long-term project, but Jonathan Shier must get some kudos for getting additional funding from the Howard Government for it) and the use of online to establish LR services as community content hubs. As Scott notes, a national broadband network will have major implications for regional media, bringing the same kind of threat to regional newspaper advertising that metro newspapers have been struggling with for years.
$43b will buy us a genuine media revolution. One that will sweep away mainstream media companies unless they transform themselves.
Into what? Ah, that’s the big question.