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Technology poses questions on regulation, content
Launching the Morrison Government’s Green Paper on modernising media regulation late last year, my message was clear: technology is changing the media sector rapidly, and our regulatory framework needs to catch up.
Many provisions of the Broadcasting Services Act have remained largely unchanged for almost thirty years. They were written at a time when the only way to consume television was to watch one of the five channels broadcast by the handful of licensed broadcasters.
By contrast, today, in most Aussie homes the flat screen television is supplied by a high speed broadband connection, giving an abundance of choices.
Australians can choose between: more than twenty broadcast television channels; catch-up TV delivered over the internet by broadcasters (ABC iView, SBS On Demand, 10 play, 9Now and 7plus; Foxtel; internet delivered pay TV services like Fetch; YouTube; and streaming services like Stan, Netflix and Disney+.
As a result of these changing habits, between 2014 and 2019, the average primetime audience for linear free-to-air television declined at an annual rate of six per cent.
In addition, Australians are increasingly using third-party online platforms – including news aggregators, social media, and search engines – to get their news.
And just as Australian viewers can now access a variety of content across different platforms, with flexibility in how and when they consume that content, advertisers are able to reach audiences in new and innovative ways.
These developments have brought real consumer benefits and much greater choice. But they also raise some very real policy challenges.
Is our existing model to require the provision of Australian content on broadcast television the right one? Should there also be Australian content obligations for global streaming services which are generating significant revenue in Australia?
How can we ensure that free to air television remains able to provide important news, entertainment, sport and other content at no charge to viewers?
The aim of the Green Paper is to start a very important conversation amongst the many media sector participants and stakeholders, including broadcasters, content producers, television manufacturers, streamers – and of course consumers.
The strong response - with more than 100 submissions received – is pleasing. The submissions are being made available for public consumption on my Department’s website, and the Government will now consider them carefully.
Clearly, with so many parties making submissions, there will be a breadth of views and perspectives. On some issues, there is a sharp divide between different stakeholders.
But there are also areas of significant alignment – including in acknowledging the amount of change already seen, and in predictions that change will continue.
Already we have seen a reduction in television news services in parts of regional Australia, as the profitability of television broadcasting has come under pressure.
In 2020, when COVID caused advertising revenues to drop sharply, this trend accelerated.
The Morrison Government moved quickly to respond to the short term pressures from COVID. We temporarily waived the spectrum tax that broadcasters pay for the use of radiofrequency spectrum (a scarce and valuable public resource) ; and we implemented the $50 million Public Interest News Gathering program which provided direct support for regional newspapers, radio and television to help sustain these businesses through the COVID downturn.
Earlier this year we legislated the News Media Bargaining Code, designed to rectify the market imbalance between local news publishers and global online media platforms. Since that time, several deals have been announced, providing a new source of funding for journalism.
The ideas in the Green Paper, similarly, reflect the Morrison Government’s objective of supporting Australian media businesses to evolve their business models to remain competitive and sustainable in the face of rapid technological change and the intense competition this has stimulated.
That is why the Green Paper proposes giving broadcasters more flexible options in relation to the amount of spectrum they choose to use (and hence how much they are required to spend on spectrum tax and transmission costs).
It is why it suggests imposing Australian content requirements in a technology neutral way – so they are faced by businesses that use traditional broadcast technology as well as those that use newer streaming technology. And it is why the Green Paper proposes potential new institutional arrangements to support investment in journalism and in content.
When it comes to levelling the playing field between traditional media businesses and newer digital platforms, the Morrison Government has already taken significant steps.
But the Green Paper signals our willingness to do more. Now, with the benefit of detailed submissions from a wide range of interested parties, we can move into the next stage of thinking.
The goal is clear: technology-neutral regulation that underpins a vibrant and sustainable Australian media sector.
Versions of this article appeared online, and in print, in The Australian on 7 June 2021