Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Impact of Convergence Review on Australian Television Industry


Abstract

The final report of the Convergence Review was published recently with many points of contention. While many pundits believe that the television is a dying media and will be over taken by the IPTV and the internet, there has been overwhelming number of research which proves otherwise. The television industry is in fact the medium of choice for Australians and therefore, this paper saw it necessary to analyse the impact that the proposals contained within the review will have on the industry. While it does seem that the television industry will have to meet higher standards, thus favouring its consumers, the paper found it difficult to measure the financial impact on the industry. This is because the review did not specify important information, especially in terms of the exact costs and percentage expenditures required by the industry. Therefore, while the review posts a win for consumers it remains to be seen what will happen once the proposals get implemented in 2013.


Introduction

By 2020, digital television (DTV) will replace analogue broadcasts in Australia. Up till now television (TV) signals have been analogue waves, broadcast from towers and received by home antennas to be displayed on analogue TVs. This form of broadcasting limited the number of channels viewers could watch while taking up a lot of bandwidth. However, with digital technology, TV signals and other information are broadcast more efficiently and with better quality picture and sound. Television stations can also broadcast over more channels using the same bandwidth. However, with the advent of convergence and especially with the internet’s prevalence in Australians’ lives, the Department of Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy saw the need to review out-dated media regulation and thus embarked on the mission of the Convergence Review. The review which took about a year to compile, published its final proposals in the middle of 2012. There are many points of contention with the review and this paper decided to focus especially on the television industry in Australia. This is because television, despite contrary belief, is still the medium of choice among Australians.
In a research done by Think TV, a marketing representative of Free TV Australia, it found that TV pays back more than any other medium, in terms of returns on investments (ROI) and that the sales effect of a TV advertisement continues to be strong for up to about two years, while the effects of other media on sales fade quickly. It also found that when advertisers pull back on advertising on TV, brands may take up to six years to recover their market position (Clift, 2011). According to research firm Ovum, digital terrestrial TV would reach about 5.894 million households in Australia, with an additional 823,000 accessing mainstream TV via satellite, by 2015. Pay TV will also reach 2.175 million households, while IPTV services are expected to grow impressively; from just 90,000 now to 342,000 in 2015 and that figure is still only a fraction of the reach which free-to-air TV will have (Kidman, 2012). Therefore, it is important to understand how the proposals in the review will impact this dominant medium.  Hence, this paper will now pick out proposed regulatory changes in the Convergence Review to critically analyse its impact on the dominant television industry.

Convergence Review: Proposed Changes Affecting Television in Australia

Content Service Enterprises

Due to the increasingly convergent nature of media, the review coined the term “Content Service Enterprises” (CSE) to describe media organisations, including print, broadcast and online entities. However, only those CSEs which earn annual revenue of $A50m, generated from professionally produced content, and with a monthly viewer numbers of 500,000, will face the proposed regulations. This means that organisations such as Telstra, Apple, Google and its YouTube web video off-shoot will may be classified as a CSE (Australasian Business Intelligence, 2012). This new classification will not affect the delivery of digital television in any way as television is an industry that has always been regulated and will continue to be while it exists. The new content rules may also make Google re-think the introduction of Google TV into Australia as it will be subject to the CSE regulations as soon as it meets the set threshold (Turner, 2012). Hence, this could prevent Australians from enjoying a brand new technology, which goes against the spirit of introducing the National Broadband Network (NBN) and to decrease the digital divide.
As IPTV will soon become prevalent in Australia following the NBN rollout, this will also present a threat for free-to-air and pay TV broadcasters. This is due to the fact that IPTV services can escape classification as a “broadcasting service” if it is distributed via the internet or provided on-demand on a point-to-point basis. Thus, it does not need a licence under the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), unless is provided over a proprietary network and not on-demand. But that is unlikely to be the case. In fact, IPTV is just like watching traditional TV, except it is delivered over broadband rather than through an antenna or cable. So, it is unclear why it bears less regulation than broadcasters who have to carry the burden of regulations such as content quotas and advertising standards. This would most certainly create an uneven playing field for traditional broadcasters (Bradshaw, 2012).

Content

Content Standards

Under the new content standards, the review proposed that once a particular content has been classified, it would apply uniformly regardless of the platform it is delivered on. However, the review made an exception that:
 “Content providers that are not of sufficient size and scope to qualify as content service enterprises should also be able to opt in to content standards or develop their own codes”
It is unclear why the review made such an exception. Does this mean that say a horror movie classified as “PG13” – Parental guidance advised for viewers under the age of 13, could be classified as something completely different just because it is being streamed on YouTube?  Another scenario may hold true as well where a young viewer who watches an episode of Simpsons for instance, may not register the variations in content standards when he watches it on free-to-air channels, on a PG (Parental Guidance advised) rated episode on Pay TV or downloaded through Apple TV (Kidman, 2012).

The Push for more Australian Content

One of the major highlights of the convergence review is to increase locally produced television content by regulating the amount of Australian made programs aired on their networks (Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, 2012). The review proposes that television broadcasters would keep their current 55 per cent quota for Australian content while increasing the quota for drama, documentary and children’s content by 50 per cent. At the moment, these quotas will not include content shown on digital multi-channels. One of the main reasons why the government has to step in to regulate Australian made content is because, producing locally made content is more expensive than buying content from overseas. Therefore, without regulation, there would no incentive for broadcasters to air locally made programmes. Indeed, in the final report of the review, Price Waterhouse and Coopers (PwC)  concluded in its analysis that without existing Australian content requirements, documentaries would plunge by 50 per cent, drama by a staggering 90 per cent and children's content would simply not exist.
This is especially true for children’s programmes, since most of its children’s programming is currently only from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and hence lacks variety.  A research into the health of children’s television in Australia found these quotas to be the utmost important. 
“The research confirmed the centrality of the CTS (Children’s Television Standards) to the production of children’s television in Australia. In an environment in which Australian adult drama production has been declining, and financing children’s television has been becoming more difficult, the CTS quotas mean the production of children’s television plays a significant role in the overall health of Australia’s production industry.” (Blumenau, 2011)
Therefore, the review was justified in raising the quotas for children’s programmes, although, one may argue that Australian children's content simply does not pay, particularly when there is no junk food advertising (McCreadie, 2012).
In the current state of almost non-existent content regulation, the free-to-air networks' digital multi-channels, have carried next to no Australian content, with the exception of Neighbours (McCreadie, 2012). Not surprisingly, with the exception of Channel 31, which airs only locally made programmes, both free-to-air and subscription television were opposed to the raise in quotas. Julie Flynn, chief executive of Free TV, the industry’s umbrella body, said: local content quotas
“Should not be increased and they should be more flexible than they are”, in light of the convergence of television and digital platforms. (Holgate, 2012)
James Warburton, chief executive of the Ten Network (Ten), also criticised local content rules for not allowing local programs broadcast on the FTA digital channels to count for the quotas. He wrote in an opinion piece for The Australian Financial Review,
“Unfortunately the Australian Content Standard, which sets out the local content rules, was framed well before digital multi-channels arrived.” (Warburton, 2012)
He was particularly referring to Ten’s longest running and successful drama series, “Neighbours,” which airs on its free-to-air channel which would have met the quota requirements if it was counted towards it. Despite these criticisms, a news article by the Sydney Morning Herald, reported that Pay TV has upped their local content spending significantly.  However, it was pointed out that most of their investment was put towards expensive sports rights instead of spreading them between the different genres. Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy, quickly responded by saying at least 10 per cent of total programming expenditure needs to be put towards drama (Strachan, 2012).
While it is common knowledge that producing local content is costly, the paper found that the three commercial free-to-air televisions have no reasons to complain, bringing in top dollars with a combined annual revenue of between $3.5 billion and $4 billion, while earning more than $2 billion in the second half of last year from advertising alone. They also received a licence fee rebate of $250 million in the past few years and $53.5 million from the government to move off the spectrum they had already agreed to vacate.  With figures like these, it is only justifiable that the review has pushed for more Australian content over the television (McCreadie, 2012).
The convergence review also proposed further expenditures by the television industry to support the push for more Australian content. The review proposed a uniform content scheme which will require CSEs to invest a certain percentage of their revenue from Australian drama, documentary and children’s programs. Alternatively, they may also choose to contribute a percentage of its revenue to a ‘converged content production fund’ for reinvestment in traditional and innovative Australian content. In order to better support content production, the review also prosed a raise of the Producer Offset from 20 per cent to 40 per cent. Finally, it also recommended the creation of a converged content production fund, which will get direct funding from the government and may include spectrum license fees from broadcasting services and contributions from content service enterprises under the uniform content scheme. These proposed expenditures caused the current shadow minister for communications and broadband, Malcolm Turnbull, to lash out at the review and claimed that the requirements would impose an additional financial burden on enterprises which in many cases are struggling to remain profitable and viable (Turnbull, 2012). But is the television industry really struggling while research has shown that it is still the medium of choice for consumers and advertisers alike? Or, could it be that when the review finally discloses what the said percentages of contributions are that it would prove to be costly for the industry? This is yet to be unravelled in a few months.
Interestingly, this paper could not find the implications that these local content requirements would have in terms of quality of programs produced. One can only assume that pressurising digital television broadcasters as such could possibly force them to produce and air low quality programs in an attempt to meet the standards. For instance, do Australians really want locally produced television programs similar to the “Jerry Springer” show? The review seems to have failed to define what “quality” programming means and this only provides broadcasters a loophole through which they can cut costs while meeting the standards of the review. There is also another question that the review has failed to answer - Will the content standards stifle the development of emerging content service initiatives, even where those initiatives are housed within larger organisations that qualify as CSEs (Corrs Chambers Westgarth, 2012)?  This is yet another important question that the review will need to consider before implementing the changes.

New Standards Body

The final review proposed the establishment of two separate bodies – the first, a statutory regulator which will replace the current Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and secondly, an industry-led body which will oversee journalistic news and commentary across all platforms in the media and communications sector. 

Communications Regulator

The review recommends that the new regulator would –
“Be independent and operate at arm's length from the Government. Significantly, ministerial control of the regulator would be only through disallowable legislative instruments, not general directions.”
This regulator would take the form of a statutory corporation which will be managed by a board which will have the full powers to act within the limits of the law. It will be interesting, to see the persons who will be appointed to the “independent” board. Despite its “arm’s length” operation from the government, it would still be, according to the review –
“Held accountable for its decisions under existing parliamentary, judicial and administrative arrangements; for example, disallowance by Parliament, merits review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and judicial review…”
With the exception of news and commentary, the regulator would be responsible for all compliance matters relating to media content standards. This automatically begs the question – What would be classified as news and commentary? Does anyone who uploads a YouTube video discussing current affairs become subject to regulation, if suppose YouTube were to meet the CSE requirements?
The new regulator would also define the thresholds for CSEs, administer ownership rules, and ensure Australian and local content obligations are applied. With regards to the above, Free TV Australia addressed some concerns in their submission to DBCDE. Firstly, they wanted the review to give a clearer indication as to the relationship between the new regulator and the DBCDE in terms of policy making and also the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in terms of competition rules. Secondly, Free TV refers to the statement in the review which says the new regulator would not be subject to:
“Unreasonable procedural requirements”
In its report, it wanted the review to explain how it will guarantee that there will indeed be procedural fairness, since the review failed to provide details (Free TV Australia Limited, 2012).
The regulator would also be required to set technical standards which will assist users in managing access to content, such as parental locks or age-verification systems. However it is yet to provide more details. While many details of this new regulator are yet to be revealed, it is difficult to determine the impact of this new regulator on TV in Australia.

News Standards Body

The new standards body would oversee all news and commentary on television and thus:
“Would administer a self-regulatory media code aimed at promoting standards, adjudicating complaints, and providing timely remedies”
However, once again the review failed to specify its reach of the regulation. For instance, would it regulate news and commentary content from overseas news agencies such as British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Fox news, which currently air on free view and if so, how? Does that mean it would monitor news content and engage in censorship?
Because news and commentary play a vital role in any democracy, it is critical that journalistic standards in fairness, accuracy and transparency be applied regardless of the delivery platform. However, it is unclear as to how the news standards board would go about implementing its powers.

Broadcasting Spectrum

One of the benefits that the switchover to digital TV provides is the release of TV spectrum so they may be allocated for next generation mobile broadband services. This will also allow TV stations to broadcast on more than one channel using the same bandwidth. After the switchover, there will be 126 megahertz (MHz) of spectrum, in the 694-820 MHz range, available for use. This is what the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) refers to as the “digital dividend.” Of the 126 MHz, the 700 MHz is the most coveted of all. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which specifies the approved services to be used by certain radio frequency bands worldwide, allocated the 700 MHz band primarily for broadcasting, even though the band could also be used for fixed wireless and mobile services (International telecommunications Union, 2012). Traditionally, the entire 700 MHz band was used for analogue TV broadcasting. But with the switchover, its availability means telecommunications corporations could fight for a slice of the bandwidth as well.
So, why is the 700 MHz bandwidth so popular in the first place? This is because it possesses excellent propagation characteristics, such as being able to penetrate buildings and walls easily, and it covers relatively large geographic areas without unacceptable deterioration of the signal. This means that lesser base stations would be needed to serve a large area, thus providing for an efficient use of wireless networks (Marius, 2012). Therefore, it seems likely that most of this bandwidth will be snatched up by telecommunication companies. Indeed, in a report prepared in 2009, by Spectrum Value Partners for the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA, an association of mobile operators, handset manufacturers, retail outlets, network equipment suppliers and other suppliers to the industry), it indicated that Australia’s economy would be boosted by up to ten billion Australian dollars if at least 120MHz of useable spectrum from the digital dividend were allocated to mobile broadband uses (Access Economics Pty Limited, 2010).
In the final review, existing holders of commercial broadcasting licences would have their apparatus licences replaced by spectrum licences planned for the supply of broadcasting services.  The broadcasting licence fees would be replaced by annual spectrum access fees based on the value of the spectrum as planned for broadcasting use. However, this fails to answer an important question – How will the television industry, which will spend a substantial amount on spectrum be protected against inroads made by content service providers who avoid the use of such spectrum (Corrs Chambers Westgarth, 2012)?

Conclusion

In a survey done by Deloitte, of more than 2000 Australian consumers, with 63 per cent, TV was by far the most popular choice for entertainment, followed by the internet at 47 per cent and listening to music at 30 per cent (Davie, 2012). Hence, this paper decided to focus on the impact of the Convergence Review on television because contrary to popular belief, television is still the dominant media for Australians. Therefore, any changes made to the way it functions will impact Australian viewers directly. This paper chose to critically examine the proposed changes that would most impact the television industry, mainly the impact of the new regulators, the coinage of the term CSE, the content regulations and its associated financial contributions and finally the financial impact of spectrum licensing. The paper did not touch on media ownership as the ownership landscape in the television industry will not be as impacted as much as radio or internet will be. While there are many aspects of the review that were unclear, especially in terms of the actual figures associated with expenditures and also detailed ways in which the regulations will be implemented, the paper still managed to speculate on the various possible implications it would have on the television industry. One on hand, proponents of the review claim that the television industry will in fact be doing well despite facing competition from other media platforms and therefore, their expenditures are justified. On the other hand, there are major television networks which have expressed unhappiness with having to contribute to funds and licencing and to produce more Australian content, claiming that they are struggling to survive. Until the review comes into implementation it will not be possible to discuss the review’s impact in financial terms. The review is set to be implemented in three stages; however, no specific deadlines have been set by the DBCDE as yet.


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