While the government’s decision to again put to tender its international television service is a seen as a “win for Rupert”, the government has thrown a bone to the ABC by extending the forthcoming contract to ten years. In its current form, the contract has twice been let for five years.

Putting together the tender for the service is a substantial task that involves taking several people “offline” for several months, a cost the ABC would prefer not to have to bear. Nonetheless, it will do so knowing its main competitor, Sky News, hasn’t got a hope in hell of winning the tender, and they won’t have to do it again until 2020.

Running even a barebones international television service is expensive, and Sky will require a subsidy or mates’ rates from its owners, Seven, Nine and News Corporation to be faintly competitive. The fact that the ABC has now been running the service for a decade, and succeeded in having its contract renewed by the Howard government in the face of fierce lobbying by News Ltd in 2006, guarantees it has the contract, currently worth $20m per annum, sewn up.

Nonetheless, delusions run deep in News Ltd, and few run deeper than the idea that Sky is in with a chance of knocking off the ABC.

The current version of the service is the creation of Alexander Downer, who convinced the Howard cabinet of the need to undo some of the damage done to Radio Australia in the 1997 budget by reviving the faltering Australia Television service about to be closed by Kerry Stokes. Having been coaxed by the government into tendering, the ABC set about establishing a solid, if small-scale, international television service, driven by the great work of the late John Doherty who was tireless in efforts to get the service onto platforms throughout India, Asia and the Pacific.

But even at that stage, the proliferation of cable TV in the region meant the chances of even a lavishly-funded service wielding the influence of a CNN were remote; the spread of new media has since rendered a TV-based service even less relevant — DFAT officials thought in 2005 they could buy more influence for Australia in the region with $20m per annum than via a television news service and they’d be even more correct today. The ABC’s Mark Scott has tried to argue that there is evidence for the network’s effectiveness, and it may well be an effective complement to Radio Australia in Pacific nations, but you’ll look in vain through the DFAT annual report for hard evidence of the impact of the network beyond the number of homes and countries it’s available in.

There was always a sneaking suspicion among officials that politicians wanted an international TV service so they could turn on something Australian in their hotel rooms while on regional visits. In an age of proliferating media platforms, that remains about the most compelling reason for funding an international television network.

*Bernard Keane worked on the 2000 international television tender process in the Department of Communications.