At a luncheon of the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) yesterday, communications minister Senator Helen Coonan released her long-awaited proposal for changes to Australian media ownership laws.
Titled Meeting the digital challenge: reforming Australia’s media in the digital age, the discussion paper contains few surprises for media professionals, who have long anticipated a package of measures aimed at slowly bringing Australia’s moribund media sector into the digital age, without scaring the powerful media moguls by opening their industry to the kind of competition which is a fundamental tenet of the free market and applies to all other business.
The plan, which is open for discussion for a month, contains some proposals that may, finally, bring Australia up to speed with the rest of the digitised world. However, after years of stifling media innovation due to their fear of competition, it seems, at first glance, that Australia’s media moguls have succeeded once again in dictating their terms for reform to a compliant government.
Key points contained in the discussion paper include:
The extension of the analogue switchover deadline from 2010 to 2012.
Removal of genre restrictions preventing the ABC and SBS multi-channelling the best of their programming via their new digital systems, with the exception of sport, which remains restricted until the removal of anti-siphoning legislation.
The abolition of current cross-media ownership laws and the introduction of new diversity quotas, which will mandate a minimum of five media players in capital cities and four in regional / rural areas. (Currently, there are 12 media players in the Sydney market, and an average of five to seven in regional areas).
The release of two new digital TV channels in 2007, for what Coonan described as “innovative” programming, on the condition that content does not mirror “traditional television services”.
Confirmation that the government will not consider issuing a fourth commercial television licence.
The abolition of current media-specific foreign ownership rules and the introduction of government control over future foreign ownership bids, which will be referred to the Treasurer for approval.
An undertaking to review anti-siphoning legislation, which prevents pay television from securing rights for sporting competitions where free to air (FTA) channels are in competition.
The further reduction of the power of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), as the government takes control of the decision-making power for the allocation of new commercial FTA television licences delivered outside BSB spectrum. This follows the decision to merge the Australian Communications Authority and the Australian Broadcasting Authority to create ACMA on1 July 2005.
The discussion paper is open for submissions until the 18th of April. The Centre for Policy Development is currently evaluating the paper and will post an analysis on the site next week. Over the next month, we invite readers and subscribers to email thoughts, comments and contributions for submission to DCITA to firstname.lastname@example.org