This discussion paper outlines the Australian government's next stage of proposed media reforms, to better support the Australian media industry and enhance the range and quality of services and content available to all Australians.
The government has extended the submission period to Sunday, 23 May 2021 (previously Sunday, 7 March 2021).
The business model for free-to-air television in Australia is increasingly challenged. The trend is clear over the last decade. Viewer numbers are down sharply; in turn so is advertising revenue. This is mainly due to intense competition from large, usually overseas-based, internet services. These include social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube as well as Subscription Video-on-Demand (SVOD) services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+.
This is a significant problem for the three metropolitan commercial television networks. The regional television broadcasters arguably face even greater challenges.
While the metropolitan networks have mitigated some of their losses with advertising revenue earned from their internet-delivered Broadcast Video-on-Demand (BVOD) platforms (7plus, 9Now and 10 Play), the regional broadcasters do not have their own BVOD platforms and hence they do not have this additional source of revenue. In addition, the regional broadcasters are losing viewers to the BVOD platforms of the metropolitan networks which can be viewed over the internet in regional areas.
Why this is a public policy problem
That the business model of free-to-air television networks is increasingly challenged is certainly a problem for the owners of these networks. It is also a public policy problem, for several reasons.
First, many Australians rely on free-to-air television. If a service was withdrawn because a broadcaster ceased to be financially viable, this would cause harm to consumers. Older Australians, the less affluent and those in regional and remote areas are less likely to use alternatives to free-to-air television, such as subscription television and SVOD services. They would be disproportionately affected by the withdrawal of a service.
Second, our existing public policy framework relies heavily on free-to-air television to meet public policy objectives. One such policy objective is the wide availability of news services—both for items of national importance, and items of local significance such as those carried on the local news services of regional television networks.
Another objective is making Australian stories available on our television screens. The free-to-air networks face a requirement that 55 per cent of their content must be Australian, with additional sub-quota requirements across Australian children’s, documentary and drama content.
If we fail to act, meeting these objectives will be even harder as the trends of the past decade accelerate. It is likely that revenue for free-to-air television broadcasters will continue to shrink. Some providers may collapse.
The financial pressure on broadcasters will have knock-on effects for the production of Australian content. The volume, variety and quality of Australian content available is likely to decline; audiences will have access to fewer Australian voices and stories.
This green paper sets out a potential plan for reform
This green paper sets out a potential plan for reform of the media regulatory framework in Australia, as the basis for consultation with stakeholders. The objectives of the plan are to:
- support the free-to-air television sector to move to a sustainable operating model, in both metropolitan and regional Australia;
- reduce the regulatory imbalance between free-to-air television and internet-based competitors;
- secure a new funding source to support Australian news and Australian content; and
- sustain the continued delivery of news and other Australian content across different platforms that Australians view.
To achieve these objectives the plan includes proposals to:
- offer free-to-air television broadcasters a path to a lower cost model using less radio frequency spectrum;
- further reduce regulatory obligations on free-to-air television businesses;
- establish new funds to support the provision of more regional news and more Australian drama, documentary and children’s content, with those funds capitalised with a share of the expected proceeds from reallocating spectrum which will no longer be required by the free-to-air television sector;
- legislate to set clear expectations of SVOD and advertising video-on-demand (AVOD) businesses about their investment in Australian programming; to monitor performance against those expectations; and to implement formal regulatory requirements if those expectations are not met; and
- legislate to codify the role of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in commissioning and providing new Australian programming, consistent with the arrangements in place (or proposed) for other sectors of the Australian media industry.