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Oz signals change in cable rules

Gov't stops retransmissions by pay TVers without permission

SYDNEY — Australia’s struggling feevee sector was fuming Tuesday night after the conservative federal government vowed to change its rules.

The government said it would ban pay TV operators from retransmitting terrestrial signals without payment to, or permission from, Oz’s three commercial nets and two pubcasters.

“Pay TV operators are currently using intellectual property, which belongs to others, without paying,” said federal attorney-general Daryl Williams. “This is unfair and the government’s decision will rectify this.”

“Under the new rules, pay TV operators will have to reach an agreement with free-to-air broadcasters to retransmit their signal,” explained federal arts and communications minister Senator Richard Alston, saying the changes rectified “an anomaly” that allowed “pay TV operators to retransmit free-to-air TV or radio signals without seeking the consent of the originating broadcaster.”

The retransmission issue has long been a point of dissent between the terrestrials and cablers, including Rupert Murdoch’s Foxtel and Cable & Wireless’ Optus.

The networks, via the Federation of Australian Commercial TV Stations (FACTS), lobbied the former Labor government to close copyright law loopholes permitting the unauthorized transmissions. But Labor felt it had little chance of overhauling the vagaries of antiquated copyright laws before the 1996 federal election.

So, FACTS took the matter to court several times, but lost to the cablers, who say the retransmission is merely for the convenience of subscribers.

“The decision will make it difficult for consumers to switch between free-to-air and cable services, possibly requiring them to have two remote controls,” seethed Foxtel chief exec Tom Mockeridge and Optus feevee topper Don Hagans in a statement.

“The government’s approach to this decision is totally contrary to practice in the rest of the world, where the norm is that cable operators are required by law to carry free-to-air signals to ensure that the networks are not disadvantaged and to ensure good reception for TV viewers.”

“Australia’s free-to-air broadcasters remain one of the last areas of the economy to be cosseted by unfair legislation protecting them from competition,” they added.

Oz feevee operators, who have collectively lost an estimated $2.5 billion, needed another expense like a hole in the head. Their profitability and takeup rates have been affected by legislation preventing them from showing major sports events before terrestrial webs, constant lawsuits and punishingly expensive programming deals, while regulators have repeatedly nixed their attempts to rationalize the unwieldy five carriers.

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