Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006; Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006; Communications Legislation Amendment (Enforcement Powers) Bill 2006; Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2006

Second Reading

Debate resumed.

5:52 pm

Photo of Helen CoonanHelen Coonan (NSW, Liberal Party, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

I will now sum up on behalf of the government the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006, the Communications Legislation Amendment (Enforcement Powers) Bill 2006 and the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2006, and it gives me very great pleasure to do so. The media ownership bill implements the government’s longstanding commitment to reform Australia’s outdated media ownership laws while protecting the public interest in a diverse and vibrant media sector.

For 20 years, Australia has had a set of media control rules that imposed a significant restriction on how media markets and companies operate. This is based on an outdated containment philosophy which does not recognise the realities and pressures on the operations of modern media companies and how technology has transformed the way in which news, opinion and entertainment is delivered and consumed. The current set of media laws are based on a 20th century model of radio, free-to-air television and daily newspapers. Even in the late 1980s, it was clear the media landscape was accelerating towards the explosive changes that we have witnessed in the last decade. The consequences of these revolutionary changes are clear to the government, to consumers and to the media industry.

Pressures on our traditional media platforms are coming from all angles. If we want the services we know and value to be able to survive and compete and if we expect, for example, free-to-air broadcasters to continue to meet their 55 per cent Australian content obligations, we must free up some of the regulation and allow them to adapt and invest in a new digital environment while diversity continues to be protected. Without these changes the traditional media industry will continue to watch other less heavily regulated media platforms, such as the internet, encroach on their traditional businesses. They will not be able to move while new media simply eats their lunch.

Amending the ownership rules will let the media market operate more efficiently, benefiting industry and consumers alike by permitting greater competition and economies of scale and scope and investment in the services consumers expect and want. At the same time, the government remains firmly committed to protecting diversity—diversity not merely of ownership but also of content. The bill will remove broadcasting-specific restrictions on foreign investment in Australia’s media sector. However, the government’s foreign investment policy will ensure that all direct media investment and all portfolio investments over five per cent will be required to be notified to and approved by the Treasurer.

I note that during the debate Labor has reiterated the opposition position that it supports reform of the foreign investment restrictions on media but not reform of the cross-media rules. To my way of thinking, and to the government’s, this is an absurd position which would allow only new overseas investment in our media sector and prevent Australian media companies from competing. Clearly the opposition is only opposed to concentration of media ownership in Australia by the domestic industry and current players, and its plan for diversity is to allow only foreign companies to invest. That is not the government’s approach.

The bill relaxes the cross-media rules so that cross-media mergers in radio licence areas will be permitted, but subject to a number of significant safeguards on competition and diversity. Clearly any reform needs to protect diversity of ownership, and it can be done in a way that is less restrictive than the current regime. At least five separate media groups will be required to remain after any merger activity in mainland state capitals and four groups in licence areas elsewhere—including regional areas. Any media merger, including one that is not a cross-media merger, will not be permitted if it will reduce the number of media groups in a licence area below the minimum level.

The bill establishes a requirement for public disclosure, when a media outlet reports on the activities of a cross-held entity. The bill also establishes significant safeguards for diversity and local content in regional media in particular, including requirements for commercial television and radio, to maintain minimum levels of local content in regional areas and to have local content plans in the event of a merger or other trigger event.

Amendments to the bill, which will be debated during the committee stage, will further strengthen the protection of diversity both of ownership and of content. A two out of three rule will further strengthen the protection of diversity around Australia and ensure that undue concentration of the media is not permitted by preventing three-way mergers between commercial TV, commercial radio and an associated newspaper in a licence area. Additional local content requirements would ensure that legitimate community expectations in regional areas about amounts of local news and other programming are met. I will instruct the regulator, ACMA, to consider in their broader local content review, due for completion by 30 June 2007, that the specific issue of news and current affairs and any recommendation to mandate specific levels be addressed. Further, I will also instruct the regulator to consider the likely impacts of trigger events on small family-held licensees.

In combination with reforms to the digital broadcasting framework provided in the digital television bill currently being considered, and the reforms to ACMA’s enforcement powers, the bill will open up opportunities for a range of innovative new services for consumers while maintaining the existing services that the community already relies on and enjoys, including quality free-to-air television services. The proposed reforms will enable existing players to make the most of emerging digital technologies and give them the flexibility to structure their businesses to be globally competitive media companies and to continue to deliver quality services to their audiences.

It is consumers who will be the biggest winners from these reforms, with access to a range of new services, including several new digital channels and even more to come in the full transition to digital television. During the debate, Labor have queried why we need to consider the digital TV reforms in conjunction with ownership reforms. I must say that if that is not understood by now—that is, the important link between reform to the media sector and the challenges of transitioning to digital—I fear it will never be apparent to them.

This brings me now to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006. The digital television bill reforms several aspects of the digital television conversion framework and the commercial television broadcasting regulatory framework. In addition to the benefits that media ownership reform will bring, the digital television reforms will open up significant opportunities for new services. There will be two channels of currently unallocated spectrum made available for new in-home and other services, one option of which is mobile TV; the national broadcasters will be able to provide a broader range of content on their multichannels; and the free-to-air broadcasters will be permitted to provide an HD—that is, high-definition—multichannel from next year and a standard definition multichannel from 1 January 2009. Once we reach switch-over to a fully digitised broadcasting environment commencing in 2010-12 and a significant amount of additional spectrum is freed up, even more opportunities for new services will emerge.

In addition, the government will be introducing amendments during the committee stage which strengthen these reforms and ensure that digital services will be as widely available as possible. Amendments will also provide a framework for the allocation of the two new channels for new digital services as well as a range of new code- and standards-making powers for the Australian Communications and Media Authority, or ACMA.

The bill removes the current genre restrictions on multichannelling by national broadcasters and provides for the phase-in of multichannelling for commercial broadcasters—as I said, commencing with a high-definition television multichannel from next year. It will allow broadcasters to take advantage of the benefits of digital transmission to provide a range of new services which can drive consumer take-up of digital TV. The bill removes the existing high-definition TV quota at the end of the simulcast period. This will allow enough time for HDTV to establish itself in the market before allowing broadcasters to have much greater flexibility over the use of their spectrum.

The bill implements several changes to the licensing of future commercial television services. Consistent with the government’s election commitment, it modifies the power to allocate the new commercial television broadcasting licences within the broadcasting services bands such that ACMA cannot exercise this power unless a decision has been taken by the minister that such a licence should be allocated. The minister’s decision would be informed by a review. It similarly provides a power to the minister to veto an application made to ACMA for a new commercial television broadcasting licence outside the broadcasting services band under section 40 of the act on the basis that the allocation of the licence would be contrary to the public interest. It also provides that certain standard licence conditions and program standards for commercial television broadcasting licences will not apply to commercial television services operating outside the BSB and that certain tailored conditions and standards apply to these types of licences.

In relation to antisiphoning, the bill prohibits free-to-air broadcasters from premiering antisiphoning list events or parts of events not broadcast as part of a news or current affairs program on digital multichannels. This will ensure that valuable, listed events continue to be available to the widest possible free-to-air audiences, but it will not prevent broadcasters from showing on multichannels sport that is not on the antisiphoning list. This can be shown at any time and listed sports can be shown if they have already been or are simultaneously shown on the main channel. Importantly, the bill provides for a statutory review of the ongoing rationale for, and operation of, the antisiphoning scheme prior to 31 December 2009. The government has also announced that it will implement a ‘use it or lose it’ system for sport on the antisiphoning list from 1 January 2007.

Amendments will also be moved to this bill during the committee stage to provide a framework for the allocation of two nationwide channels for the new digital services—channel A and channel B. Channel A will be used for new in-home services and channel B may be used for a broader range of services. As I said, mobile TV is one which has been mentioned on many occasions, although this is but one option.

In response to recommendations of the Senate committee to enable diversity of content on the new digital services, the government will introduce amendments to establish access arrangements for channel B. Any person wishing to bid for the channel B licence will be required to submit an access undertaking to the ACCC in accordance with predetermined criteria to be eligible to bid. This arrangement will ensure that there are appropriate safeguards in place to prevent the licensee for channel B inappropriately restricting the marketplace for new emerging services such, for example, as mobile TV.

During the debate on the digital television bill some senators suggested that we should remove HDTV obligations and indeed scrap HDTV services altogether. The quota was introduced to provide some assurance that consumers who purchase HD compatible digital receiver equipment can be confident that some high-definition TV programming will be provided for them to enjoy, manufacturers have some level of certainty in making decisions about bringing consumer HDTV equipment to market and local production companies have potential markets for HDTV material in Australia. We believe that the advantage of having these assurances is ongoing.

Consistent with the staged approach for lifting multichannelling restrictions and the transitional nature of these reforms at switch-over, the government considers that the appropriate approach, which is the approach contained in the bill, is to remove the HDTV quota obligations at the same time as full multichannelling by commercial broadcasters is permitted. It will mean that from this time broadcasters will be free to choose the balance of standard-definition and high-definition services that they provide. This could be expected to be driven largely by viewer demand.

I want to say something about the availability of high-definition to remote licence areas, because it came up in some contributions made during the second reading debate. Some senators have raised concerns that these services will not be provided to remote broadcasting areas, such as those of areas of Western Australia outside Perth. I can confirm that this bill does not preclude the commercial broadcasters in remote areas providing high-definition services in the future should they wish to do so. The digital conversion model in remote Western Australia, which is currently the subject of a bill in the House of Representatives, currently provides for multichannelling of the two parent services and the third digital-only service with exemption from any high-definition requirements which might be applied in remote areas. The existing legislation also provides for regional broadcasters in certain circumstances to elect to multiplex their services with exemption from high-definition obligations. Amendments to the digital television bill make specific provision for commercial broadcasters to change this arrangement and commence high-definition broadcasts should they wish to do so.

To conclude my remarks, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006 introduces measures that will continue the smooth transition to digital television. The measures will provide new benefits for consumers while at the same time providing industry time to adjust to a new digital environment. The measures are closely linked to the changes contained in the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006, which implements the government’s longstanding policy to amend the current restricted and outdated media ownership framework. The far-reaching changes in the package are the product of extensive consultation, undertaken since 2005 by the government, involving the media industry, key stakeholders and of course the public. The government has sought to balance the views and needs of industry, consumers and other stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan that sets the foundations for a strong media industry in Australia ready to tackle the challenges posed by innovation and technological change in the sector.

I would particularly like to thank the members of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts for what I would call their outstanding work and recommendations, most of which I have accepted, and my other parliamentary colleagues who have taken a particularly close interest over a long period of time in the development of this complex package of reforms. So I do thank them for their support and for their interest in the development of these reforms that are now being considered. I think everyone has worked together very constructively. It has been very much a team effort to achieve a reform package which I am confident will enable Australia to move its media sector into the 21st century.

Question put:

That these bills be now read a second time.