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Mobile TV faces a future of endless reruns, by David Humphries - 29th September 2006
(Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

AUSTRALIANS would end up with repackaged reruns of Dancing with the Stars and Australian Idol on so-called mobile television if existing TV operators secured licences, Fairfax Media says.

The company's NSW managing director, James Hooke, urged the Senate yesterday to reject the Federal Government's legislation on media ownership, unless existing operators were denied the new channel B digital-spectrum licences.

"It's cheaper for them [the free-to-air television industry and Foxtel] to repackage Dancing with the Stars, Australian Idol for mobile [telephone] television than it would be for anyone else to create content," Mr Hooke told a Senate investigation into the legislation.

The packing of 31 witnesses into just two days of hearings, and the consequent squeeze on time for testimony and questions, prompted protests yesterday from Labor senators. But the legislation's difficulties go far beyond the Opposition.

Apart from concern on the Government's back bench, three Coalition senators on the inquiry have voiced concerns about diversity of news sources. Some expressed disquiet yesterday about whether the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission would have the power to block market abuse. The Prime Minister, John Howard, yesterday said "a decision as to whether we modify the bill" would await the inquiry's conclusions. Mr Hooke said the proposed law would fail to promote diversity if "the greatest delivery of new television spectrum in 50 years" remained available to existing operators. Allowing them to dominate the channel B auctions would permit "diversity of device, not of content", Mr Hooke said. "For them the marginal cost of adjusting their content to send it through digital television, through mobile television, will be the lowest," said Mr Hooke, representing Fairfax Media, publisher of the Herald.

And yet there was "no scenario in which free-to-air or Foxtel would not be the highest bidder" for mobile licences, Mr Hooke said.

"They need to stop the fragmentation of [their] audience, and they need to put their foothold on this spectrum to stop that happening."

Channel 7's Bridget Godwin, however, said channel B was aimed at "new and innovative services" and "we should be offered the opportunity to participate" because "we have something valuable to offer".

The network's regulatory and business affairs manager was critical of Australia's slow take-up of digital TV. Britain began its conversion four years ago - two years later than Australia - but had achieved penetration of 75 per cent, compared with Australia's 17 per cent. Telstra's regulatory deputy director, Jane Van Beelen, said mobile television presented "significant opportunities distinct from and complementary to traditional broadcasting". She said it would encourage new broadcast entrants, but rules had to apply equally to all. Challenged on whether his submission was motivated by self-interest rather than national interest, Mr Hooke was quizzed on whether the exclusion of existing TV broadcasters would leave Fairfax a clear run at channel B.

"Sadly, that's not the case," he said. He said the field would be open to newspaper groups such as APN and Rural Press, to international producers such as Viacom and Disney, and internet players.

He said Fairfax wanted to expand its media ownership, but was lukewarm towards existing television interests. "Our current perspective is free-to-air television faces interesting times and the share price of free-to-air is over-priced," he said.

"Our chairman [Ron Walker] is on the record as saying our interest in free-to-air has diminished as the viewership has diminished."

The federal Communications Department admitted one proprietor could control all media outlets in a regional centre under the laws.

The department's acting general manager of content and media, Dr Simon Pelling, conceded that one proprietor could take over a local television station, newspaper and radio station in an area with six media outlets.

with AAP


Scrap digital TV laws, says Fairfax - 28th September 2006
(Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

Executives for media company Fairfax have told a Senate committee that proposed laws governing the roll-out of new digital television services must be scrapped to allow new players to enter the market.

The company has also criticised the quality of broadband internet services in Australia, warning the current network is archaic and is severely limiting the services that media companies can provide.

The committee is reviewing a package of laws introduced this month by the Government, which are billed as the greatest shake-up of Australia's media ownership rules in 20 years.

But rural MPs from all sides of government fear the package will damage media diversity in regional areas.

As part of the package the Government will create two new digital stations, A and B, with A restricted to simple datacasting and B geared towards new gadgets such as mobile telephones.

There are no restrictions on who can bid for licence B, but Fairfax wants Foxtel and free-to-air stations barred from controlling the licence to allow new players to enter the market.

"What is being created here is the greatest delivery of new television spectrum in 50 years, and new entrants will not be encouraged because the people who will have the vested interest in bidding the highest price for this are the incumbents already in free-to-air television," Fairfax managing director NSW James Hooke told the inquiry.

"The mere fact that someone will be able to see Dancing with the Stars on a mobile telephone device, we don't think is diversity."

"If there is no restriction on the bidding for licence B and free-to-air television is enabled to bid there will be no diversity from that new spectrum," Mr Hooke said.

Mr Hooke said if free-to-air stations or Foxtel won the licence for B they would simply repackage existing content for broadcast to mobile phones.

He said the restrictions as to what channel A could broadcast made the licence financially unviable.

Mr Hooke said Fairfax's interest in acquiring a free-to-air television station had "diminished".

"Free-to-air television faces some interesting times and ... the share price of it is overpriced for what we think would provide a return for our shareholders," Mr Hooke said.

Mr Hooke said Fairfax was very disappointed with broadband services as they now stood, as the poor quality limited new services the company could provide online.

"Our ability to provide content people want is diminished ... it's partly diminished by the frustration that people have while they're on their 56k modem dial-up waiting for a video image to download - they go slowly mad in the process," Mr Hooke said.



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