Tv Business Faces More Changes In ’90s

After the tumultuous ’80s, the beleaguered Australian tv industry can expect no respite in the ’90s – a decade that will see even greater changes.

The Labor government is preparing a revised broadcasting bill which is not likely to be enacted before the next election which, according to current opinion polls, would see Labor defeated. The opposition Liberal Party is yet to announce a media policy, but it could hardly be more confusing and clumsy than the present government’s hodge-podge of regulations.

Regardless of who is in power, the need for a new media policy approach in Australia is too strong to ignore.

A cornerstone of the market has always been local production. Albeit bolstered by quota requirements, Australian content has nonetheless invariably equated with ratings. The networks, two of them in receivership and all three strapped for cash, are limiting spending.

Further, rising production costs have in many cases led to economies in production values. But the viewers, whose tastes have been honed by big budget American productions, want better quality, which is expensive. And there’s no syndication market where deficit financing can be recouped.

The obvious solution is to get partners to share costs and, in recent years, Australia has signed a number of co-production agreements with other nations. The problem is, under existing legislation, co-productions don’t count as Australian content so the webs aren’t keen on buying them. It’s a paradox that must be solved.

The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal needs a thorough over-hauling to give it the powers it needs to effectively oversee the industry. It has to administer an act that allows it no flexibility, which creates enormous problems when breaches are relatively minor or technical. A new “Australian Broadcasting Authority” with wider powers is being suggested as a replacement, and, given a new act, would eliminate the long, drawn-out license renewal hearings, or “Lawyers’ Retirement Fund Benefits,” as they’re known in the trade.

The federal cabinet’s refusal last month to sanction pay-tv is unfathomable, especially considering the excuses put forward.

Some ministers ostensibly opposed it on the grounds that the importation of new equipment would create a greater imbalance in the national debt. Others claimed concern that Australian sporting icons such as the Melbourne Cup horse race and Australian Rules football (widely popular in the southern states) would be siphoned away from free tv.

Both arguments are spurious if not downright fatuous and are giving the conspiracy theorists sleepless nights. “Who benefits?” they are asking. “There’s got to be more to it than that.”

British legislation exempted certain sporting fixtures, and the importation of foreign-made capital equipment would amount to only about $A15 million ($11.7 million) according to one putative pay-tv operator. If anything, politically motivated procrastination is cutting down on the lead time the Australian electronics industry could use to tool up to manufacture converters and descramblers locally.

On the other hand, says media expert Peter Rose, “When they’re ready to roll, it’ll have cost $A85 million ($66.3 million) for the first pay-tv subscriber to tune into the service.”

If dissenting government ministers are disguising covert protective support for the existing nets’ revenues (as has been suggested by more than one commentator), that, too, makes little sense because it is acknowledged that any subscription-tv service would carry no advertising for at least five years.

Media analyst Peter Cox wrote in his report for Communications Minister Kim Beazley’s unsuccessful submission to Cabinet: “There appears to be little substitution effect from network television to pay-tv in the U.S. It is mostly incremental advertising increasing the size of the whole television market.”

Yet, it is a fact the U.S. experience has seen viewers opting for pay-tv rather than for the networks, with the concomitant slippage in audience reach being reflected in reduced advertising revenues for the webs. In Australia, that particular conundrum looks like it will be academic for some years.

In any case, in the words of ABT acting-chairman Peter West-away, “Pay-tv is already here. It’s called homevideo.”

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