At some point in the last 15 years, access to television became an Australian human right that no government could afford to let go unprotected. The Howard government launched a television black spots program funded by the sale of Telstra, to help everyone who couldn’t get analog TV reception to get it. That cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

More recently the Rudd government launched a satellite-based regional black spots program for analog switch-off. That’s another $160 million.

Now no pensioner will be left without digital telly, courtesy of a $300 million household assistance program in tomorrow’s budget revealed in the weekend papers and confirmed by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. The government’s new approach of confirming budget yarns is welcome, so long as it isn’t a one-off occasioned by fears the goodies will be swamped by the cuts tomorrow night.

It’s not merely a handout to pensioners — yet another one — but another act of generosity to the commercial television networks — yet another one. The regional networks, which include billionaire Bruce Gordon’s WIN, have been the recipients of hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade to subsidise their digital conversion. The metropolitan networks were given full protection from competition, despite digital enabling extra channels. Why the broadcasters aren’t helping to subsidise this program — they’re stumping up to convert regional “self-help” black spot transmission sites to digital — is a mystery.

Except we know why. Since 2007 this government has already cut the licence fees by around $300 million over two years, not objected to an extra minute an hour for election advertising, and then acquiesced to changes in the Code of Practice that will boost profits by allowing networks to sell sponsored station ID spots and play-offs and play-ons to breaks. And don’t forget through Screen Australia the government subsidises the production of TV drama and documentaries to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year. They also receive continuing protection from the anti-siphoning list (recently extended to online), despite historically showing fewer than 25% of listed events.

Some of the press coverage referred to the importance of pensioners receiving emergency alerts via digital TV, a bizarre justification given radio, not TV, is the critical emergency medium. And mobile phones were the focus of improving warnings in inquiries into the Victorian bush fires and no doubt in the current Queensland floods inquiry. TV is an afterthought for emergency services these days.

What’s important, of course, even at a time of fiscal stringency, is the political imperative of ensuring pensioners aren’t left without television as analog signals switch off (called “switchover” in bureaucratic parlance, for fear someone might think “switch-off” is bad). For many people in these older age groups, TV is an essential part of their lives, enabling them to keep in touch with the outside world, to stave off loneliness and be entertained. And, really, of all the assistance for commercial TV, this is probably the least offensive. If we had to depend on the commercial TV networks to (properly) pay for the conversion of analogue to digital TV, pensioners would be the last assisted — a pension income means you’re not the right demographic for the networks to sell to advertisers.

But don’t you wish commercial TV networks put their money where their mouths are and contributed some of the lowered licence rebates towards the cost of this program?

If the government wanted to protect pensioners, it should have followed through the logic of the last 15 years and imposed a Universal Service Obligation on commercial TV broadcasters as there has been in telecommunications. That would have provided a coherent framework for what otherwise looks like a politically-motivated act of generosity to pensioners.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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