Astra says cutbacks won't boost local programming

The Australian government’s decision to slash license fees for commercial free-to-air networks has come under attack, with pay TV org Astra (Australian Subscription Television and Radio Assn.) calling the move “anti-competitive.”

Last week the government announced an $A250 million ($222 million) cut in the license fees to the Seven, Ten and Nine networks over the next two years, ostensibly to protect local programming. But the tax breaks come with no official obligation to put the money toward new programming, instead shares in the networks rallied as the cash was expected to head for the company’s bottom lines.

“Taxpayers are yet again being asked to subsidize the businesses of foreign-owned broadcasters to help them meet existing content obligations — it’s an outrageous affront to Australians,” said Astra topper Petra Buchanan. “Giving the old TV networks yet more protection just to maintain existing standards is the antithesis of modern media reform.”

Australian networks are required by law to show 55% of local programming, but this rule does not extend to digital channels launched in the past 12 months. Instead many of these have become a dumping ground for Stateside fare from the web’s output deals.

The fee reduction has also fueled an ongoing battle between feevee and free-to-air nets over the list of sports that are protected from being shown on pay TV.

“If the networks are to be propped up even further with tax breaks, there must be greater equity in other policy settings such as via a reduction in the world’s longest anti-siphoning list to one that includes only those events the networks actually broadcast,” Buchanan said.

Both Seven topper David Leckie and the broadband minister have defended the cuts, saying free-to-air produces the majority of local content, a fact that ignores feevee’s increase in quality productions in recent years. But their protests have done little to put a convincing case that this is just a cash gift to the webs, and the fact that it is an election year Down Under has only fueled the fire.

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