Regional broadcasters 'optimistic' on media reform

The Australian Financial Review | Phillip Coorey | August 10 2015

Rural and regional Coalition MPs are urging Tony Abbott to rethink his refusal to leave media laws untouched and allow specific exemptions that would enable regional television networks to try and survive.

Following a meeting in Parliament on Monday between about 15 Coalition MPs and the chief executives of Prime Media, WIN Corp and Southern Cross, the MPs argued for an exemption from the rules that would allow the struggling networks to consider mergers and acquisitions with bigger metropolitan broadcasters.

Earlier this year, after being lobbied by Seven West Media's Kerry Stokes and News Corp, Mr Abbott blocked Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull's attempt to abolish the audience reach rule, which prevents TV licence holders broadcasting to more than 75 per cent of the population.

He also blocked abolishing the two-out-of-three rule, which supposedly limits the number of media platforms a company can own in a single market.

Both rules are considered obsolete in the internet and pay-TV era. Liberal Senator Dean Smith, who co-ordinated what was the fourth meeting of Coalition MPs and regional broadcasters, said he was hopeful of an exemption from both rules.

Prime chief executive officer Ian Audsley, who was at the meeting, said he was enthusiastic about having the government reconsider its position.

"It was great to see so many people earnestly engaged in the issue," he said. "I'm optimistic that they will consider the regional broadcasters separately to the metropolitan media." 

'HAMMER SOMETHING OUT'

One MP said there was a high degree of unanimity among rural and regional MPs that Mr Abbott must do something to preserve the stations' ability to deliver local news and content.

"It's how you do it without opening up the whole Pandora's Box."

The networks are running ads pleading for their future but last month Mr Abbott ruled out any change unless every media organisation agreed.

"The trouble with media reform is that all too often there's a question of picking one business interest against another business interest," he said.

"That's why I would urge all of those who would like to see change here to sit down and hammer out something which is good for everyone, hammer out something that has something for everyone, and once that's done obviously the government is prepared to look at it."

The regional broadcasters told the MPs that if the Prime Minister is looking for consensus they can offer it as they all favour the abolition of the reach rule and the and the "two-out-of three rule", which stops any one group owning more than two of a newspaper, commercial TV licence or radio licence in a major market.

REGIONAL TV 'UNIQUE'

It is believed that WIN chief executive Andrew Lancaster, who could not be reached for comment, pointed MPs to the $925 million NRL free-to-air and digital rights deal struck by its metropolitan affiliate Nine Entertainment Co on Monday.

Nine is already threatening to make WIN pay higher affiliate fees to carry its content and the digital part of the new deal means Nine will be free to stream NRL games over the internet into WIN's markets.

"We asked the MPs to consider the uniqueness of regional television," Mr Audsley said. "It has its own unique circumstances and issues and they should be considered separately to whatever is besetting metropolitan media companies.

"We don't just have international media companies coming over the top of us we also have domestic players at a time when we are chained to the past and our ability to reorganise in the most effective economic manner is hamstrung by outdated regulations."

Seven West Media chief executive Tim Worner says the regional broadcasters push is a "scare campaign" with an ulterior motive of making their assets more attractive for takeover bidders. Southern Cross Austereo chief executive Grant Blackley was also at the meeting.

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