Friday, November 28, 2014

You'd think the networks owned the airwaves

You'd think our commercial networks owned the airwaves.

When Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull cut back the ABC and SBS last week he also gave notice of a minor rule change that sent them into convulsions.

Henceforth, the SBS would be able to broadcast up to 10 minutes of advertising each peak hour instead of the usual five.

The networks acted as if he had attacked their right to exist.

"This government was elected as being pro-business," thundered Seven Network chief executive Tim Worner. "It shouldn't be making decisions that harm Australian businesses."

"I am surprised the government is prepared to compete against and inflict damage on Australian commercial broadcasters," wailed Nine's David Gyngell.

What was proposed was "directly at odds with the government's claim that Australia is open for business," said Free TV Australia chair Harold Mitchell.

What was proposed was competition.

Australian television networks don't believe they are like other businesses. Banks have to put up with competitors muscling in on their turf, supermarket chains have had to cede ground to Aldi, carmakers have had to compete or go under, but the spoiled children of Australian industry want to be forever protected from competition on the airwaves as everything changes around them.

The biggest change is that broadcast spectrum has become incredibly valuable for mobile communications. Yet the networks sit on it.

Another is that much less spectrum is needed to broadcast a TV program than before.

Yet the networks sit on it. During the switch to digital in the 1990s, rather than broadcasting what they had before using much less spectrum (the whole point of the exercise) they said they needed more spectrum in order to broadcast in full high definition. That way it couldn't be used by anyone that might want to start a competing network. They produced dodgy-looking research saying Australians didn't want extra channels - they wanted the same channels in high definition.

Prime Minister John Howard bought their line against the recommendations of his advisers.

The Office of Asset Sales labelled it "a de facto further grant of a valuable public asset to existing commercial interests".

His department said there were "better ways of introducing digital television than by granting seven megahertz of spectrum to each of the five free-to-air broadcasters at no cost when a standard definition service of a higher quality than the current service could be provided with around two megahertz".

They were given it on the condition that they could only use it for broadcasting their existing channels in high definition.

When after some years it became apparent that Australians weren't going to switch to digital if all they got was the same channels (invalidating the networks' dodgy looking research) the networks said they could better use the excess spectrum for extra channels themselves.

Each still maintains a token commitment to high definition on one of its channels (it's actually degraded high definition to make way for the extra channels) but no one much notices. Much of the time those channels don't carry high definition content. The spectrum is wasted, but no one else has it. That's how the networks think.

And the minister is on to them.

He has already picked on the easiest target. The poorly watched community channels in Melbourne, Geelong, Sydney, Brisbane Adelaide and Perth will be kicked off their spectrum at the end of 2015. They'll have to use the internet. After the freed-up spectrum is used to test new technologies it'll be made available to the highest bidders, almost certainly mobile phone and data companies.

The next step will be grabbing back spectrum from the ABC and SBS. That's fairly easy - cut their budgets, let them use a new compression technology called MPEG-4 that halves the amount of spectrum they need and tell them they can save on transmission costs and give the other half back.

The commercial networks require more subtle handling. The minister has launched an inquiry - the spectrum review -  to work out how to "maximise the economic and social return from spectrum". Its preferred approach is auctions, with the winning bidders limited to 15 years at a time and the department given the right to take the spectrum off them (with compensation) if it's not fully used.

The treasury describes spectrum as a scarce resource in its submission. It says it should be allocated to the highest value uses.

"To be clear, this includes both commercial and non-commercial applications," it says - making a pointed reference to two of the biggest hogs of spectrum, our armed forces and our police and emergency services.

Defence will, at the very least, have to justify what it needs and hand some back. Police and emergency services might be able to hand back a lot with the proviso that in a real emergency they get it to use it again, with the mobile communications company that has bought it agreeing to degrade its service to give emergency services priority.

And the networks. Turnbull will probably get it off them by being nice. Using new compression technology, they will need only half as much and be able to sell the excess to someone who wants it more. It's far more than they deserve, but at least their spectrum will be better used.

It'd make a nice little earner for whoever buys Channel Ten and a really good earner if the new owner sold the lot and closed the station down.

Mobile communication is increasingly important to us. Network television is not.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald