Coonan prepares to deliver DTV doctrine

By James Wells

SYDNEY: The Federal Government is expected to announce the long-awaited changes to digital television, datacasting and free to air multi-channel programming in Sydney today.

Federal Communications Minister, Senator Helen Coonan, will hold a press conference at 1.00pm today where she is expected to restrict free to air commercial television networks from multi channel programming and delay switching off the analog television transmission by two years until 2010.

Consumer electronics manufacturers and retailers are expected to benefit from the introduction of the new legislation, which is expected to endorse the use of datacasting to broadcast television on handheld devices including mobile phones. Macquarie Bank’s publicly listed company, Broadcast Australia, is expected to be the main beneficiary from any increase in datacasting.

Multi-channeling, which has been heavily supported by consumer electronics companies including Panasonic and Sony, is expected to be delayed until consumer adoption of digital television increases from its current level of 15 per cent.

Multi-channeling, which is currently accessible from a digital set top box, is only available to be broadcast by the two non-commercial channels – ABC and SBS. The concern among many commercial television broadcasters was the likely fragmentation of their advertising revenue across a series of new channels.

Postponing the introduction of multi-channeling also protects the fledgling Pay-TV operator, Foxtel, which is 50 per cent owned by the Federal Government controlled Telstra and 25 per cent owned by James Packer’s PBL and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Other key aspects of the legislation include relaxing the cross-media ownership rules and foreign ownership restrictions of major media companies in the newspaper, television and radio industries which is expected to result in a series of mergers and acquisitions.

The current media ownership rules, which were introduced by the Labor Hawke government in 1987, have meant that for almost 20 years single companies have been able to own just one kind of media in the print, radio or TV in any single market. Current foreign ownership limits an overseas company to 15 per cent of a television station or 25 per cent of a mass circulation newspaper. There are no limits on radio ownership.

Senator Coonan is expected to remove these barriers and enable any company, regardless of foreign ownership to be able to purchase two radio stations, a television station and a mass circulation newspaper in the same market.

Conditions are expected to be placed on such ownership with at least five commercial media companies in the major cities and four in regional markets.

The industry and the public are expected to have one month of consultation following the release of the document today.

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