Feb 11, 2010

Free TV handouts: we don’t know the half of it

We've been seriously underestimating just how much money the free-to-air TV networks will be getting from taxpayers under the Government's outrageous licence fee rebates, reveal Glenn Dyer and Bernard Keane.

The competition regulator should step in and force Free TV Australia, the television broadcasting cartel lobbyist, to change its name. There's now no such thing. A Crikey analysis has shown that the promised licence fee rebates of 33% this year and 50% next year to the television networks will be much greater than previously thought. Rather than $250 million, the likely cost to taxpayers will be closer to half a billion dollars from the Rudd Government. Which means the free-to-air networks will cost us more than $20 a head for every Australian over the next 17 months. Based on likely growth in advertising revenue as the economy accelerates, big sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games and the advertising frenzy of a federal election, the rebate could conservatively yield about $240 million in 2010 and $300 million or more in 2011. Looked at another way, the roughly $500 million involved is 25% of the combined budgets of the ABC over the current and 2011 financial years.  Imagine the complaints from the television networks (and not to mention News Ltd, Fairfax and Foxtel) if the ABC got a budget increase of that scale. But this is effectively what Nine, Seven and Ten will be receiving. The Seven Network will share in about $187 million in the next 17 months, based on its December half year 38% share of television advertising revenues. The big beneficiary is Kerry Stokes and his family with whom, as The Australian noted yesterday, Kevin Rudd spent the night at Stokes’s Broome mansion.  Stokes owns 48% of the Seven Network Ltd, which in turn controls 50% of Seven Media Group, where the TV network in the five metropolitan markets and rural Queensland sits. About 47% of Seven Media Group is controlled by US buyout group, KKR, with a tiny stake held by Seven executives. The identity of the executives is unknown and the KKR investors are secret, but most are believed to be offshore.  They will all derive a benefit from the taxpayer in that the value of Seven Media Group will rise now that this extra money will roll in the door. Seven Media group was written down to nil value by Seven network a year ago. That is now a very obvious fiction. The millions coming from the Australian taxpayer to bolster the finances of the over-geared media group will ease any concerns bankers to the media group may have had about its finances, thereby relieving Seven Network and Stokes from having to tip in any money. Nine will get about $156 million, based on its ad share of a touch under 32% in the December half year. That will flow to PBL Media, controlled by CVC Asia, on behalf of unknown offshore investors, and executives including David Gyngell and Ian Law. As in the case of Seven Media Group, the licence fee rebate represents a direct transfer from taxpayers to the benefit of a small number of paid executives. Nine also shares its rebates with WIN, controlled by billionaire tax exile Bruce Gordon and his family.  Gordon has to spend six months of the year outside Australia because he doesn't want to pay Australian tax personally. Nine also controls the regional broadcaster NBN. These fees will help it finance the huge $250 million purchase price for NBN a few years ago. Ten is a listed company, 11.9% owned by Gordon as well, although Gordon doesn't have a board seat.  He will get the benefit of any increased dividend Ten pays as a result of these fees. It slashed dividends last year when it looked as though it could founder.  Ten shares its fees with its affiliate, Macquarie Media, which has also emerged from a near-death experience, this time by staying too long in the Macquarie Group orbit. Now it is free, but it has some struggling newspapers in the US that are a drain on finances. In each of the cases, the main networks, Seven, Nine and Ten, could claw back some of the rebates that end up at WIN, Seven affiliate Prime and Macquarie Media by way of higher affiliation fees. Those affiliation fees are a major source of easy money for the big networks. The rebates will be given with no strings attached -- not even a requirement that the money remain with the networks and not be returned to shareholders or sent overseas. Likewise with the struggling PBL Media: the extra money will help keep the bankers and their $3 billion-plus debt happy. That also means the value of the equity the executives have will rise as the viability of PBL Media improves. So it was no wonder Stokes, the younger, has hailed the rebate as an important outcome for the industry. "Not only does it help bring the Australian industry closer toward international peers, it recognises the growing investment in Australian content and the increasing need for quality local content in a digital environment," Stokes told a conference yesterday. Stokes said free-to-air television was facing a time of "unprecedented change", with competition from the internet and pay TV and the challenge of negotiating the switch over to digital television. "In this context, we welcome the recent government announcement to protect Australian content on commercial television," Stokes said. That is a load of self-interested, conflicted rubbish, just as the comments to The Oz by Free TV Australia chairman, former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss, are rubbish. According to Goss, "fees in Australia were much higher and completely out proportion to what they were in comparable countries". Free TV Australia CEO Julie Flynn said in the News Ltd tabloids this morning the rebates will enable the networks to keep their local content commitments. Both comments are simply spurious What others charge their broadcasters is simply immaterial to Australia. Our broadcasters do not compete with US, Canadian or UK broadcasters.  If spectrum licence fees were higher in the US, UK or Canada, then Australian broadcasters would be charged more for programming by the likes of CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox and ITV to recover the higher fees. You can argue that in fact our networks enjoy a programming subsidy because these foreign licence fees are lower than ours. When you throw in that it is taxpayers who provide much of the war chests for the major parties' electoral advertising campaigns, and it is taxpayers' stimulus package money that has kept the economy and big-advertising retailers afloat over the past 12 months, it is clear that so-called free-to-air  television networks are firmly fastened to the taxpayer teat. With Treasury fronting Estimates all day today, the Opposition should be demanding to know whether Treasury was consulted, and if so exactly what the hit on taxpayers will be from this sleazy Rudd handout.

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24 thoughts on “Free TV handouts: we don’t know the half of it

  1. David

    BH free to air TV has access to most of the major sports before Pay TV gets a look in. The purchase price is a battle between the 3 major free to air channels 7, 9 and 10. What is currently happening is the leftovers, the stuff the big 3 dont want goes to Fox. Rugby Union is one sport free to air are not interested in, A League soccer is another and that is Conroys sport of choice!!! Note during Olympic Games, 7 got most of the major sports featuring Australians and Fox picked up the lesser sports but at the beheast of 7.

    Scott the PM is giving the free to air networks nearly half a billion of tax payers money. Nothing justifies that, not even Rudds dishonest attempts to get himself elected and I am a true red Labor man. Frankly I have had a gutsful of him, not his Govt, not his party but him personally. He is giving the impression he is above all else, he is accountable to nobody, he is immersed in his own ego and magnificence. Someone in the Govt or the party better sort him out or they are doomed come election time, then God help us if Abbott and his rabble take over.

  2. Scott

    Do you really think it’s our money? For mine, what the government is saying to the TV networks is that we have been over charging you and we are throwing some money back. Besides the concept of a licence fee was just a pure revenue raiser for the Government in the first place. It’s not like they perform maintenance on the “air”. They are just giving permission to broadcast…bit like the corner store paying “protection” money to the mob. I’ll let you guess who is who.

  3. Malcolm Street

    Scott – the FTA networks are paying the government to maintain an artificial monopoly position when (with digital) there is no longer a shortage of spectrum. Yes, it’s a disgraceful situation.

    BH – the point is that the money is given with no strings attached. If it required eg a commitment to additional local content or higher quality current affairs coverage there might be some excuse for it.

  4. harrybelbarry

    This is the last straw Rudd, my vote will not go your way.Along with stuffing up anything Green and the Censorship filter?? that won’t work, rudd has turned into a MINI- Howard Rodent.

  5. Anthony

    What we really need is a bit of vision and leadership. This is 2010. Nobody should be expected to sit in front of a television only for the TV executives to decide what programs we watch and when we watch them, and then have the gall to fill the programs with constant interruptions for advertising. Get real!

    We should have legal immediate access to downloadable shows that can be piped straight to the TV. Let the ABC and SBS provide shows for free while other services can be subscription based.

    For this we need the NBN, but the way Rudd has become so unhinged lately, especially with his fanatical plans to censor/filter the internet, I don’t hold much confidence of seeing fibre to the home anytime in the near future.

    But, to sum up, yep, giving the free to air networks a big chunk of taxpayers money is a complete waste for what is basically a 1980s system of television – doomed to a certain death.

  6. Alexander Berkman

    It seems that people are beginning to realise that the 2 party monopoly politics in Australia always ends up in the same old same old – the top end of town being bankrolled by the struggling majority. it has been for a very very long time and certainly won’t change until we get rid of the ludicrous preferential voting system. “your vote counts” – yep and doesn’t really matter if you don’t vote for the uber right wing party of big business or the centre right party of big business because in the end they’ll get your vote anyway. Australian governments giving money to big media – who would have thunk it!?

  7. Steve Bruce

    If you add up the money already thrown at broadcasters over the past ten years to “assist” in the switch to digital, the amount spent or still to be spent on the various programs for digital conversion, on top of this licence fee rebate, and compare that to what the freed-up spectrum is likely to fetch, it’s quite possible Australia could be the first country to register a net loss from the digital dividend.

    Let’s see:
    – TV licence fee rebate – anywhere between $250-500 million

    – Satellite service @ $40 million per year for at least four years

    – Satellite subsidy scheme – $300 per household

    – Household Assistance Scheme – “at no cost to eligible households, supply, install and demonstrate a high definition set-top box specifically chosen to meet the needs of the elderly or those with a disability and conduct any cabling and antenna work where necessary” – eligible households being where at least one person is “a maximum rate Age Pension, Disability Support Pension, Carer payment, Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) service pension or the DVA income support supplement payment.” – this could run into the hundreds of millions…but probably the most worthy expenditure in this list…

    – The quaintly titled “Regional Equalisation Plan” whereby regional broadcasters have got a 50% rebate on their licence fees since 2000 for the costs of upgrading for digital broadcasting estimated at $260 million over 13 years back in 2000 – God knows what the real cost is now…and some of them still don’t give you all the multi-channels!

    – Plus the cost of all the slick ads and promotional material telling you about digital switchover and the bureaucratic machine that oversees it all…

    If the spectrum sell-off doesn’t yield over $1.5 billion we may as well have just stuck with analog!

  8. Gary Johnson

    Why are you all crying like stuck-pigs?….Rudd no different than Howard?..congratulations!!!..international financing has always owned both sides of the argument.

    (((((So the money goes from the tax payer to the broadcasters to the banks who originally lent them the money))))))

    Can anyone tell me that the Citigroups and Goldman Sachs etc etc who are the financial linch-pins to the networks, don’t have a say in what content gets broadcast?…of course they do, that’s why we get the dumbing-down shit we do on FTA .

  9. gef05

    “When a huge number of people cannot afford to instal ‘payTv’ they need the FTAs to be very very viable. It is the only entertainment many people have.”

    Complete and utter bullshit.

  10. Alexander Berkman

    @GEF05 – absolutely!

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