The signal is clear: do not adjust your sets

If you thought governments took too much notice of Kerry Packer when he was alive, you should take a look at what they want to do for him now that he’s dead.

KP couldn’t have come up with a better media policy if he’d written it himself.

The cross-media and foreign ownership laws that the Prime Minister has never liked are to be repealed. This will allow the number of major media proprietors in the big cities to fall by about half. It’s a policy being pursued despite 81% of Australians thinking that media ownership is already too concentrated, according to the 2003 Social Attitudes Survey.

While the relationship between ownership and content is complex, anyone who saw a copy of the Bulletin’s special issue ‘Kerry Packer: A Legendary Life 1937-2005′, will know that at times, it is still brazenly direct. Halve the number of owners and you will greatly reduce the diversity of outlook and viewpoints in the local media, especially on issues where the proprietors have a direct interest.

This part of the policy is not really about diversity and new opportunities at all. It is just about delivering on an old political commitment.

One might have expected that this change would at least provide a chance for some broader adjustments to exploit the possibilities of the changing media landscape. If the Government wants to free up incumbents ‘to embrace new ways of doing business’, surely it should be offering maximum flexibility in the way they and others can use the new-ish medium that the rest of the policy is about – digital TV. But when the policy gets to this, it is back to micro-management of uncertain technology.

There will be yet another Digital Action Plan, this time with a ‘roadmap’ to guide the process of switchover from analogue to digital. It will look at appropriate incentives to broadcasters and others. Clearly, giving the commercial TV stations the spectrum they wanted for digital TV, a $250 million subsidy to fund the infrastructure in country areas, and effectively outlawing further free-to-air competition while they did it, has not been enough. One might have expected questions to be asked about the dividend promised six years ago, before more incentives were contemplated.

The commercial networks will be allowed to transmit different programs on the high definition and standard definition streams they currently simulcast. That is a tiny, sensible step. But there is no good reason the incumbents should be able to effectively launch new channels if other players can’t do it as well using the other frequencies that are available.

On the question of new commercial TV licenses, the government is as firmly opposed as ever. Indeed, it is so worried that its shiny new converged regulator might actually grant some, that it is going to transfer the power to itself. Any commercial TV licenses will now be handed out not by an independent regulator, but by the Government. This will be the case even for ‘commercial TV’ program streams delivered over the internet.

When Australia lectures rogue states on the benefits of free trade, the rule of law, and regulatory transparency, one of the first things it talks about is the need for independent communications regulators. No-one wants TV or mobile phone licenses being granted by ministers. Down that road lies crony-ism and corruption.

Not any more. The same TV networks who told the Government to keep its hands off media content as part of an admirable campaign against new sedition laws, now want those same hands on any TV licenses . Of course, they figure they’ll have a good chance of convincing ministers in Canberra to stick with the policy in place in the big city markets since before decimal currency – No More TV Licenses. This, as we are warned that ‘current regulatory settings…risk becoming outdated’.

There will be some new services allowed from 1 January 2007. These will include subscription services and ‘niche narrowcasting’, interactive, short video and datacasting services. It’s still the ABT policy: Anything But Television. It is likely to generate more activity redrafting legal definitions in the Office of Parliamentary Counsel than creating new media businesses.

Digital free-to-air TV in Australia is now more than five years old. The networks were given a fantastic opportunity to deliver a new future. They did not do it. There is not, in Senator Coonan’s words, ‘a genuine risk that Australia will become a dinosaur of the analogue age’. We are living in that age. Now.

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