Why regional TV is trapped in Groundhog Day rerun

Sydney Morning Herald | Ian Audsley, Grant Blackley and Andrew Lancaster | 21 October 2016


If you have seen the film Groundhog Day, you will recall Bill Murray's character is a Pittsburgh weatherman, sent to a small town in Pennsylvania by his television network to cover the annual event for the news. Finding himself caught in a frustrating, seemingly endless time loop, Murray's character is trapped in a small country town, experiencing the same day over and over again.

This film resonates on a number of levels. First, it highlights the importance of covering regional news events. Secondly, all regional media organisations have been experiencing their own form of Groundhog Day for close to four years. While the film has a predictably positive Hollywood conclusion, the story arc for the future of regional media is less optimistic.

In recent years, regional media companies have made countless representations to both Coalition and Labor governments about the importance of preserving a vibrant regional media sector. Our Groundhog Day story has been consistent: we are trapped in an environment that means our capacity to continue to deliver services to regional Australians is steadily declining.

There are two key factors contributing to this: the laws under which we operate are redundant, and we are being saturated by the proliferation of internet-based media companies, many of which are global juggernauts who pay no tax and employ no staff in this country.

With the blessing of the current parliament, overseas and large Australian media companies are taking advantage of the outdated laws and the internet to reach our audiences.

Audiences we have served for more than 50 years. In addition to taxes, we pay hefty licence fees to the government for the honour of broadcasting into regional Australian homes every day and in return, we deliver local news and community services.

Vibrant local media is an undervalued asset that connects people with their community, keeping them informed of news and issues that affect their families, and it helps those communities to remain economically strong.

In contrast, internet-based media companies pay nothing for that privilege and sadly they give back very little – if anything – to regional communities.

Despite the fact that for years we have prosecuted the case for media reform on the basis that the current media laws are anachronistic and that the future of local news services is under threat, we find ourselves – for the second time this year – having to appear before a Senate inquiry into the Media Reform Bill to make our case again.

We are not averse to competition, but having to compete for audiences and advertising revenue with one hand tied behind our back is, to put it purely and simply, unfair and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to thrive.

Regional media is an integral part of the nation's tapestry and regional Australians deserve a voice. With job losses in our sector, including in regional newspapers, regional and rural Australia risks losing its voice.

Australians living beyond the capital cities deserve access to local news services and a platform on which to advertise their businesses and they deserve employment opportunities commensurate with their city-based counterparts.

Surely, the evidence is clear. The case has been made. We doubt there is a politician in Canberra who wants to say they presided over an outdated regulatory regime that held back regional media. The time has come when our Groundhog Day must end. Let's hope there is a happy ending.

Ian Audsley is chief executive of Prime Media Group. Grant Blackley is chief executive of Southern Cross Austereo. Andrew Lancaster is chief executive of WIN.