After a decade of dithering over digital television, the Australian government has announced comprehensive changes to cross-media ownership regulations and restrictions which have so far limited digital multichannel television. Critics say the proposals are not sufficiently radical.

New digital television channels will be introduced, but the deadline for digital switchover has been pushed back to between 2010 and 2012, although some still view this as optimistic.

Communications Minister Helen Coonan announced a the New Media Framework for Australia, intended to reform the media industry, providing consumer choice and a more competitive environment in the digital media age. The new media laws legislation will still need to pass a vote in the Senate.

“This package of reforms will allow the Australian media sector to move from the old analogue-based regime into the dynamic new world of digital content, where traditional media co-exist and compete with new delivery platforms,” said Senator Coonan.

The plans include a Digital Action Plan to drive the take-up of digital television services, two new digital channels for mobile or in-home services, and removing the requirement for high-definition programming to be a simulcast version of standard definition channels. They will also allow commercial free-to-air television stations to broadcast one additional standard definition channel from 2009, with full multichannel services by the time of digital switchover.

“The proposed reforms will enable existing players to make the most of emerging digital media technologies and give them the flexibility to structure their businesses to be globally competitive media companies,” Senator Coonan said. “But it is consumers who will be the biggest winners, with access to a range of new services, potentially including several new digital channels, and even more to come in the transition to digital television.”

Our correspondent in Sydney, media consultant Paul Budde, called the proposal “disappointing,” saying there is nothing in it to spearhead the digital media. “Believe me,” he said, “I have searched very hard for a reason to be excited when the media reform plans were launched”.

“Under the current policies it will be 2012 (but I believe 2015 is more likely) before new multichanneling, iTV and datacasting services will be introduced in Australia,” he said.

“By delaying the introduction of new digital media services the broadcasters will have a few more years in which to enjoy their commercial TV oligopoly.”

Digital Action Plan
The Australian government acknowledges that that has been insufficient digital take-up to meet the current switchover date of the end of 2008 in metropolitan areas. A Digital Action Plan is therefore being developed to drive digital take up, along the lines of similar initiatives in the UK, with a new switchover target between 2010 and 2012.

New Services
Two unassigned digital channels will be allocated throughout Australia, providing up to 30 new services, rather than a fourth commercial television network.

The government will legislate to enable commercial free-to-air television broadcasters to provide one additional standard definition channel from the beginning of 2009. From the beginning of 2007 it will also permit broadcasters to run a separate high-definition channel in advance of switchover, by removing the current requirement that HDTV services must be a simulcast of analogue and standard definition services. However, the current prohibition on full multichannel services will be retained for the present.

The current HDTV quota of at least 1040 hours a year of high definition programming will be retained, but after switchover broadcasters will be allowed to decide how to split their spectrum between standard and high-definition services.

Media ownership
There will also be relaxations in cross media and foreign ownership restrictions, which have been welcomed by many media companies.

However, they were criticised by News Corporation, which said: “We think it is a policy failure on a number of fronts that will short change consumers who are supposed to be the primary beneficiaries”.

A representative of Foxtel, which is 50% owned by Telstra, criticised the reforms, saying: “It’s just more of the same old protectionism for the free-to-air networks who have done nothing for digital roll-out in Australia and can’t be relied upon for the future”.

Commentators have observed that while protectionist policies may be of benefit to media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, they are also perhaps best-placed to succeed in a truly free market.

It seems that Australia could learn much from the digital television experience of the UK, where digital television is now in nearly 70% of homes, partly as a result of a careful balance of media regulation.

“By introducing such a policy in Australia, the government would have to face the wrath of the media barons,” notes media consultant Paul Budde. “That’s what the proposed new policy is all about — protecting them — not providing better TV services to Australians.”