Free-to-air TV networks cautiously welcome proposed changes to prominence and anti-siphoning laws

The Albanese Government has delivered on its election promise to safeguard Australia’s local TV industry, introducing new legislation overnight that would see free-to-air broadcasters handed advantages for their apps on connected TV and their bids for coveted sports broadcast rights.

Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland is expected to introduce a bill to parliament this week that would require smart TV manufacturers to meet “minimum prominence requirements” that would ensure Australian broadcaster’s streaming apps, like 9Now and 10Play, appear first in searches on smart TVs.

The proposed legislative changes are intended to allow local players to compete with international juggernauts such as Netflix and Prime Video, which have historically paid to appear prominently on TV promotions and device home screens.

The bill also proposes updates to the Government’s anti-siphoning scheme, to give free-to-air networks priority when bidding for rights to significant sporting and cultural events like the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup. The minister has also outlined plans to extend the anti-siphoning list to include women’s and para sports.

Under the changes, digital streaming services would not be allowed to acquire the free-to-air rights to these events before commercial broadcasts Seven, Nine, Ten, and SBS have been given an opportunity.

The amendments come as international streamers have shown increased interest in obtaining the rights for major events, with the changes intended to restrict attempts from the likes of Optus Sport, Kayo Sports, and Paramount+ to outbid free-to-air networks and place events behind a paywall.

Local broadcasters will, however, be allowed to place some content behind their paywalled services should they buy all the rights to a particular competition.

Both proposed changes have been welcomed by Australia’s peak body for commercial free-to-air broadcasters, Free TV, however, the organisation said there were still “a few issues to be resolved with the Government’s proposed model”.

CEO Bridget Fair said: “Right now, Australian viewers are being steered in the direction of services that favour the commercial interests of big tech and TV manufacturers rather than being given access to the full set of free local television services that they want to watch.

“This legislation is an important step towards ensuring that people are not being served up incomplete viewing choices based on who has paid the most money to be in the line-up.”

Fair outlined that Free TV would “look forward to participating in the next stage of discussions”, asserting that while it was “important” that the Government has reaffirmed its commitment to live and free access to sporting events, the proposed expansion of the current anti-siphoning rules was incomplete.

“The expansion of the current anti-siphoning rules to apply to subscription streaming services is an important new measure,” Fair said.

“However there is still an element of analogue rules in a digital world, with the failure to include free streaming rights in the proposed model. Australians should be able to watch key sporting events whether they choose to access our services through terrestrial broadcast or online streaming.”

Seven West Media chief executive James Warburton reiterated Fair’s concerns, stating that “by not including the free digital rights, Australians who only access free TV services through the internet may be deprived of free iconic Australian sports”.

“We look forward to working constructively with the Government to ensure these reforms are truly modernising and take into account how Australians are watching and will be watching TV into the future,” he said.

SBS’ managing director, James Taylor said the introduction of this legislation is a “huge win for all Australians”.

“The passage of this legislation will allow Australian audiences to easily find free and local TV services on their connected TVs – including the national broadcasters,” he said. “SBS welcomes this development and will continue to engage constructively with the process as it progresses through parliament.”

A spokesperson from Ten said the network also supports the Government’s decision – but it is aware the “finer details” will need to be fully fleshed out.

“This will allow Australians to readily access local news, emergency information, sports and local content that reflects our lives and culture,” the spokesperson said.

“However, we’re keen to review the finer details of the legislation and will continue to work with the Government to make sure the prominence requirements are robust and in place as quickly as possible.”

Outside of the free-to-air networks, Foxtel Group raised concerns that restricting search and customisation functions on smart TVs would frustrate customers, and force the subscription TV service to rework its user interfaces.

“Research shows that one in two Australians with a smart TV don’t know how to change the layout of their apps. This needs to be considered along with the implications of changing a user interface we have invested millions in across both our Foxtel and soon-to-launch Hubbl operating systems,” said a Foxtel Group spokesperson, in a statement shared to Mumbrella.

Of the proposed updates to anti-siphoning laws, Foxtel was also skeptical.

“This could have been a great opportunity for the Government to bring anti-siphoning laws into the 21st century to reflect viewing habits of Australians today and to protect the future value of much-loved Australian sport,” said a spokesperson.

“The regime is already anti-competitive and clearly favours free-to-air broadcasters above Australians and above the needs of sporting bodies whose ability to invest in grassroots will be limited.

“Foxtel Group was advocating that truly iconic events of national significance could be streamed free via our free streaming platform that has been built and invested in locally and is used by more than a million Australians.

“The outcome adversely affects technology platforms like ours that have a greater capability to invest in world-class innovation to enhance the broadcast experience for Australians.”

Network 10’s spokesperson reiterated: “The Government’s decision to limit changes to the anti-siphoning legislation to just terrestrial TV rights, doesn’t reflect the reality of audiences today and is incongruent to their stance on prominence.

“Very soon half of all viewers will be using internet connected devices to watch their favourite sports so Australian TV networks should be given the first opportunity to broadcast sports on every platform so all Australians can watch beloved sports for free on any device.”

Australia’s anti-siphoning laws were established in at the beginning of the pay TV era, under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, to prevent pay TV services from purchasing the broadcast rights to events that the government believes should be televised free to the general public.

The law ensures Free TV members Nine, Ten, and Seven are given first preference on the rights to events on the anti-siphoning list, including the AFL, NRL, the Australian Open, and the Olympic Games.

In September this year, minister Rowland amended the scheme to include selected FIFA Women’s World Cup matches, including every tournament match played by the Matilda’s and the team’s qualifying matches played in Australia. The scheme has remained otherwise unchanged, with the interim sports code list handed down by Rowland in March providing no tangible changes.

Mumbrella has also approached Nine for comment.


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