An inquiry into the competitive neutrality of the national broadcasters is set to commence shortly but the terms of reference, and the real purpose of the inquiry, remain a mystery.

According to Mitch Fifield’s Department of Communications, the review — first announced as part of the government’s deal with One Nation senators to pass media ownership reforms last year — will commence in the next couple of weeks and is expected to take around six months. It will be undertaken by an expert panel, but the terms of reference and format are still being finalised.

It’s understood the department has been looking for people with public broadcasting and commercial broadcasting backgrounds to provide the appearance of balance to the panel.

Last year, Fifield struggled to explain why the government hadn’t referred the issue to the Productivity Commission’s Competitive Neutrality Complaints Office. That’s a separate unit within the PC that handles complaints about publicly owned bodies having a competitive advantage over private sector bodies because of their government ownership — and particularly government-owned bodies undercutting private sector competitors on pricing. The ABC’s in-house production facilities have been the subject of previous competitive neutrality complaints about competing with private sector production facilities, but no breach was found.

The impetus for the inquiry came not from One Nation but from commercial broadcasters. And the ABC isn’t necessarily the main target.

In a submission to an inquiry into Australian and children’s content last year, Free TV Australia, which represents the commercial broadcasting oligopoly, called for a review of the roles of ABC and SBS, with the goal of forcing them to be the primary vehicles for meeting content obligations. And “the government should also ensure the national broadcasters are not undermining the health of the sector by using public funds to compete in mainstream content areas where audiences are already well served,” the oligopolists complained.

A few months earlier, the Nine Network — chaired by Fifield’s former boss, Peter Costello — had made its feelings clearer in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the film and TV industry (the committee site link is broken, but there’s a copy here). Nine called for a charter overhaul of the ABC and SBS and complained that “both the ABC and SBS appear to divert from their respective charters without any accountability.” But SBS was the real target of Nine. 

Of more concern are the recent activities of SBS. SBS will receive $814.2 million over the next three years from 2016-17 in government funding. Nine consistently finds itself in a competitive bidding process with SBS for programming. SBS’s content acquisitions appear to be based on chasing commercial ratings and revenue while not servicing its charter or target audience. This alone is a significant factor in driving up the cost of commercially attractive content while eating into commercial TV revenues.

The commercial broadcasters led a successful fight against government plans to dramatically increase the amount of time SBS TV could screen ads in prime time in 2015 and again in 2017. And they appear to have a case in relation to SBS TV, which in prime time is now virtually indistinguishable from commercial networks, with multicultural programming — supposedly the raison d’etre of SBS — confined to little-watched morning schedule, when there’s no live sport being broadcast. SBS Radio now shoulders nearly all of the burden of providing in-language services to Australia’s multicultural communities.

A genuine inquiry might be a precursor to a serious look at whether the government should continue to fund SBS TV at all, or confine it strictly to the broadcaster’s charter and get rid of advertising. But it’s unlikely that a government in as much strife as this one is interested in going there.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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