In television land, they’re calling it the battle of the Kims — but the umpire is minister for communications Stephen Conroy, and he is about to give the nod to one side.

Yesterday, Foxtel chief Kim Williams made a stirring speech arguing for deregulation of the Australian television industry, asserting that the current arrangements favouring free-to-air broadcasters were the equivalent of trying to stop the advance of the steam engine in the industrial revolution.

Meanwhile, the ABC’s director of television and the chair of Freeview, Kim Dalton, made a speech arguing the exactly contrary case — that regulation to protect Australian content should be extended to cover mobile devices and services delivered on the internet, or else we will see lowest denominator cheap overseas content destroying our national identity.

The two Kims identified the same conundrums, but came up with diametrically different approaches. Both talked about the coming of the National Broadband Network as a transforming event, meaning that soon there will be as many television channels and content providers as the market can support. The era of protection represented by a limited number of broadcasting licences is over.

But while Williams wants more or less a let-it-rip approach — even suggesting that funding for Australian content to be made available on a contestable basis, rather than given to public broadcasters — Dalton wants government action to protect and nurture “cultural infrastructure” as well as technological infrastructure.

For the detail and more commentary on the two speeches, see my blog here and here.

I understand that today, Conroy will weigh in to this debate, smiling on the arguments of one Kim and frowning at the other. Conroy is due to give a speech in which he will indicate that he, like Dalton, believes the threats to Australian culture posed by lowest common denominator cheap content justify more, rather than less government regulation.

Conroy will also announce firm dates for the beginning of digital switch off — but there will be few surprises there.

Conroy’s speech falls outside Crikey’s deadlines, unfortunately, but I will try to update on my blog later today.

Meanwhile, perhaps more interesting than the disagreements between the two Kims is the areas of agreement. Both suggest that the money reaped from the sale of the television spectrum freed up by the switch to digital should be spent on commissioning Australian content.

This is the first time that both have said the same thing. It is a suggestion likely to find favour in government.

Williams wants Foxtel to be able to compete with the ABC and other providers for this money. Government regulation, he says, should be minimal, and technology and provider neutral.

Meanwhile, Dalton makes a plea for government policy that is not only about communications infrastructure, but also about content.

Is it too much to hope, in all this, that Conroy might be groping towards a media policy (rather than just a broadband policy)?

Watch this space.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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