By Matthew Henry

SYDNEY: The federal government has delivered its long awaited changes to the Australian media landscape including proposals that could finally drive take-up of digital TV, such as free-to-air multi-channeling and new digital-only content.

Under the plan unveiled today by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Helen Coonan, commercial free-to-air networks would be able to provide an extra standard definition digital TV channel from 2009, and full multi-channeling after the digital switch-over date, loosely scheduled for 2010 to 2012.

The government also plans to remove the high definition simulcast requirement before switch-over, which would allow the networks to broadcast different programs on their high definition channel, in effect creating another multi-channel per network.

If passed in the Senate, the legislation could provide a boost in retail sales of digital TV products like set top boxes and integrated digital TVs due to the new incentives for consumers to make the switch to digital, such as up to six extra free-to-air digital-only TV channels if the commercial broadcasters use their full multi-channeling capability.

“It is consumers who will be the biggest winners, with access to a range of new services, potentially including several new channels, and even more to come in the transition to digital television,” said Senator Coonan.

“Today’s announcement is just the first step in reforming the media industry, with details of the Digital Action Plan to drive take-up of digital television, and the details for the allocation of the new digital channels, to be released later this year.”

However, in a possibly damaging development for consumer electronics companies promoting high definition TVs and equipment, the government has only guaranteed a continuation of the 1040 hours mandatory annual quota of high definition broadcasting up until the switch-over date. After this time, free-to-air broadcasters will be able to decide whether they continue with HD or use their spectrum for more multi-channeling.

Senator Coonan’s proposals could be helpful for fledgling DVB-H digital TV services for mobile phones, with spectrum on two digital channels to be opened for new services which could include mobile TV and datacasting.

Today’s policy announcement is a win for the Seven Network, which has consistently lobbied the federal government to remove commercial multi-channel restrictions. But the proposals are a blow to Channel Nine owner and Foxtel stakeholder, Publishing & Broadcasting Limited, as well as Channel Ten, which have both fiercely opposed free-to-air multi-channeling in the past.

The announcement also contains the government’s contentious plans for deregulation of media ownership, including a relaxation of the cross-media and foreign media ownership restrictions.

Legislation to implement the new media framework will be developed this year and is expected to be implemented in 2007.