Oz digital plan shaken up

Trials abandoned, conversion jeopardized

SYDNEY — Australia’s digital TV conversion plan looked increasingly shaky Thursday after Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. joined rival Aussie newspaper publisher Fairfax in abandoning datacasting trials, saying the conservative government’s legislation made it impossible to establish commercially viable businesses.

“We have serious objections to the restrictive definition of datacasting,” said Fairfax topper Fred Hilmer, adding that the government ensured datacasting “must be devoid of the entertainment values essential to making these programs attractive to viewers.”

Datacasters are furious over severe restrictions on entertainment and news content and the power granted to the Australian Broadcasting Authority to block programs to which webs object.

Exacerbating the situation, the opposition Labor and Democrat parties say they’ll use their combined majority in the Senate to oppose key elements of the conservatives’ digital legislation.

The restrictions are an attempt to appease webs backed by Kerry Stokes, Kerry Packer and CanWest, which were awarded free access to digital spectrum while new TV networks have been banned until 2007. Thursday’s developments give credence to a recent report by the government’s Productivity Commission warning that Oz’s $1 billion digital conversion plan “is at serious risk of failure” as it “stifles competition and innovation.”

Entering the fray, former prime minister Paul Keating derided the conservatives’ digital policy as a “politically motivated attempt to buy off its media buddies to serve its own rather than the national interests” worth “around $3 billion to the taxpayers of Australia if it had been auctioned off.”

Keating’s remarks came as the Broadcasting Authority said it was reviewing key protections for Packer’s and Stokes’ nets– rules keeping subscription-driving sports events from feevee until first aired on terrestrial TV. Under proposed rules, webs not airing the sports will be obliged to offer them cheaply to pubcasters ABC and SBS.

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