Communications Minister at Broadcasting Summit

At this week’s Australian Broadcasting Summit, Communication Minister Daryl Williams gave the Keynote address by video-hook-up.

His topic, ‘Government perspectives and policies on the future of the Australian media,’ provided an indication of his thinking about communication policy now that he has been in the job for some months.

He confirmed that existing broadcasters would be key players in the transition to digital radio; that a merger of the ABA and ACA is still on the agenda; that complaints handling is still on the agenda for the ABC; and that the government seeks to balance the needs of the public with the interests of broadcasters.
He said:

On the “magic” of technology

Technology now gives us the capacity to receive a traffic update or a football score via our mobile phone, to shop in our lounge rooms through our televisions, to watch movies on our computer screens and to check digital displays on our bedside radios for weather reports.

Developments just over the horizon are bound to push our amazement threshold even higher, as the convergence of telecommunications, media and information technologies gives rise to even more sophisticated hybrids.

But it is becoming clear that the potential benefits of converging technologies will not be fully realised without a rich and diverse supply of content and information.

One way of ensuring that content and delivery platforms keep pace is, of course, for media businesses to diversify horizontally and vertically.
Such diversification can create efficiencies of scope and scale… While these potential benefits are significant, so are the risks…

On digital radio

As you know, the digitisation of radio is shaping up as another key agenda item for industry and for the Government.

And again, the Government has been conscious of the importance of getting it right first time.

To that end we established a Digital Radio Study Group in May last year, to look at issues such as available technologies, spectrum availability and possible regulation.

The Government will shortly be considering the Study Group’s report.
I anticipate that its findings will provide a basis for further consultation between the Government, the commercial radio industry and other stakeholders on an appropriate framework for taking digital radio forward.

There is no question that incumbent radio broadcasters, many of whom are represented here today, will play a critical role in any introduction of widely available terrestrial digital radio services.

The distinctive nature of our traditional radio sectors will need to be carefully factored into the development of any regulatory framework, as will the Government’s broader policy objectives.

I see that this afternoon’s radio stream is devoted almost exclusively to aspects of digital radio broadcasting and I would be most interested to know what issues emerge over the course of your discussions.

On digital TV

Australians are reasonably well positioned to make the most of the digital revolution.
Every second Australian household is connected to the Internet and a growing percentage of these have a higher bandwidth connection.
Digital television, while still in its early infancy, is a reality.

The digitisation of free-to-air and subscription television and, at some point, radio, will be a catalyst for change throughout the communications sector.

Digitisation opens the way for a greater number and a greater variety of services to be delivered via a single platform.

It creates the potential for a more direct, one-on-one relationship between a viewer and a broadcaster.

And it allows for links to be forged across industries, since identical content can be delivered in a range of platforms.

As yet, most of this potential remains just that – potential…

While the Government is keen to see the television industry, particularly the free-to-air sector, convert to digital, it also wants to minimise the potential for disruption.

Obviously, it is in no-one’s interest if digitisation, whatever its future promise, lessens the quality or stability of television services here and now.

The long, mandated simulcast period was just one of the arrangements we put in place to minimise the impact on existing analog services. Clearly these measures are transitional.

Of course, while the Government can do much to create a regulatory environment conducive to success, it will not be the architect of that success.
That will be the job of industry.

It is also important that industry players cooperate when it comes to teething problems.

Over the course of this year and the next, the Government will take stock of the digital regulatory framework, with statutory reviews of a number of elements falling due.

Issues which must be looked at include whether to allow the broadcast of content other than the digital simulcast of analog programs, including the contentious subject of multichannelling.

On the role of the national broadcasters

You will notice that I have concentrated my remarks this morning almost exclusively on the commercial side of broadcasting.
But of course commercial broadcasters are just part of the picture.

In the day-to-day battle for ratings, they compete against, and in most cases complement a growing community sector, with its 300 or so radio stations and with a growing number of television services in major markets and, of course, the national broadcasters.

Governments often have an ambiguous relationship with the national broadcasters.
But there is no denying that the ABC and SBS are among our most important and valuable cultural institutions.

Not only do they deliver programming in areas that are often not a priority for the commercial broadcasters; they are often to be found at the leading edge when it comes to technological and programming innovation.

Both the ABC and SBS recognised very early on the potential of the online environment…

High standards are expected, particularly in relation to news and current affairs.
An important aspect of this is the need to have rigorous complaints-handling processes, in which the public can have confidence.
The Government is continuing to discuss the handling of complaints with the national broadcasters.

The greatest challenge facing both national broadcasters, as for their commercial peers, remains the transition to digital.

In contrast to the situation faced by the BBC in the United Kingdom, the Australian Government does not see that the national broadcasters have a role at the ‘bleeding edge’ of digital, as a primary driver of change.

Digital conversion should be driven by commercial innovation and commercial returns.

That said, both the national broadcasters are part of the industry-wide transition and can exploit digital opportunities to better meet their Charter obligations and remain relevant to their audiences…

On the role of government

The emergence of new platforms and media services also creates opportunities and challenges for government… We want diverse, innovative, high-quality programming.
And we want programs that reflect Australia’s identity, character and cultural diversity…

The rub is that this is a dynamic industry and whatever regulatory framework we put in place needs to be flexible enough to accommodate that dynamism.

The challenge for the Government in a time of rapid technological change is to encourage industry to exploit emerging opportunities, while limiting the risk of disruptive market change.

Australians value media quality and diversity. We do not want to risk losing those qualities at a time of significant market change.
Our challenge is to find the balance…

Media regulation in this country is a delicate balancing act, as we weigh important public policy considerations, like Australian content, against the legitimate demands of industry to run their businesses as they see fit.

There is no doubt that the balancing act is made a little easier when industry is confident that the underlying business environment in which they operate is one where they can compete fairly and openly.

The Government has always believed that competition ought to be as vigorous as possible, to the extent that it is consistent with other Government policy objectives.
We believe that it is primarily competition that drives innovation and improvement, in broadcasting as elsewhere…

Media ownership

I imagine that over the course of the next two days a fair amount of discussion will be devoted to identifying areas of future growth and diversification. In this increasingly competitive and increasingly global market place, media operators must be given the freedom to grow.

Those who are unable to grow or who are unable to diversify will increasingly discover that they can only improve their bottom line by cost cutting.
Eventually, cost cutting puts pressure on quality.

If Australia’s media businesses are to position themselves more strongly in the globalised media market, they need access to the kind of capital that will allow them to grow and diversify.

Australia is not the only nation where this realisation is hitting home.
Internationally, pressure is growing for reform of the regulatory frameworks governing the media and communications sectors.
The United States and the United Kingdom have both recognised the need for reform.
Australia is not immune from the pressures facing media organisations in those countries.

The Government remains committed to reforming Australia’s media ownership laws.
The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002, again before the Senate, repeals media-specific limits on foreign ownership and allows exemptions to the cross-media rules, subject to editorial and diversity safeguards.

The Government’s repeal of foreign ownership restrictions will allow new players to enter the media market.

Similarly, the relaxing of cross-media ownership restrictions will increase the potential pool of media ownership by allowing greater flexibility in business structures and making the industry more attractive to potential investors…

The Government is well aware of the need to ensure continued diversity of news and opinion.

In particular, we believe broadcasters must be responsive to their viewers and must provide the local content and local news their viewers want and expect…

And it must be remembered that these new protections complement the existing and comprehensive competition provisions of the Trade Practices Act, and in particular, the merger provisions…

Possible ABA-ACA merger

With convergence of technologies driving significant and irreversible market changes, there is a need to revisit not only the regulations themselves, but the regulators.

As you are no doubt aware, the Government is examining the possible merits of merging the Australian Broadcasting Authority and the Australian Communications Authority…

While no decision has yet been reached, there is obviously a range of options to be examined…

These are exciting and challenging times for the industry, for the Government, and for those very important people without whom neither governments nor broadcasters would have jobs – the public.

A wide range of radio and television topics were discussed at the Summit – click below for conference program.