James Warburton: Keeping TV free, fresh and growing

Seven West Media's managing director and chief executive officer James Warburton examines the importance of free-to-air TV in the Australian media's growing landscape.

The Morrison Government’s Green Paper [Modernising Television Regulation In Australia] on media reform and modernising television regulation  is an important step forward in bringing Australia’s vibrant and exciting media sector into the modern age.

The past year has highlighted that Australians rely on trusted sources of news and local content more than ever to keep them informed in times of uncertainty, and to be entertained alongside loved ones with moments that matter. Broadcast media is essential to our lifestyle and society and ensuring a thriving and healthy local media sector that can evolve and innovate into the future is critical to ensuring the livelihoods of thousands of Australians working in our media industry today.

The Green Paper is an important conversation starter that the media industry needs and it recognises the future of Australian TV companies is across multiple screens, channels and platforms.

Our industry’s access to allocated frequency – or broadcast spectrum – is necessary for Australian broadcast networks to sustain, grow and deliver essential public interest content to millions of viewers and families every day.

However, the green paper proposes a new broadcast licencing scheme that could see broadcasters surrender spectrum in exchange for spectrum tax relief – a measure which would prevent the broadcast industry innovating in the future.

Yes, the future of TV needs to be discussed and planned, but this proposal is like asking Australia’s major telcos to roll-back their 5G services and prevent future network upgrades.

At the same time, the focus of the green paper on the broadcast future of TV fails to address how Australians will engage with free-to-air TV content in an online world.

Delivering our content via spectrum will remain at the heart of our business model for the foreseeable future, but in addition to this is the digital growth engine. It isn’t an either/or proposition. Increasingly, the content of the free-to-air networks will be distributed through different technologies and found on various screen types and sizes in response to how Australians are viewing their content. Put simply, the regulatory environment needs to reflect this so that our content remains freely accessible to all Australians.

The free-to-air TV business model is a balance of delivering compelling local and international content that connects with audiences and advertisers in a competitive landscape, while operating in a regulatory framework to deliver the public policy goals of a strong national voice and sense of identity, achieved through news and current affairs, entertainment programming and sport.

While commercial free-to-air TV delivers most of its services using spectrum, online distribution is becoming more important to generate sustainable industry growth. At Seven, we will work with the government towards a spectrum release. But we are asking the government to ensure Australians continue to have access to all our multi-channels. Those channels entertain millions of Australians daily and are integral to our business model and the funding of our content.

Rather than stripping our sector of profitability, we want to ensure that our services are easily found in the online environment through regulated prominence; ensure the anti-siphoning list which ensures key sports are free to all Australians, is protected; incorporate the online environment; and ensure that internet service providers don’t charge content providers for access to the NBN.

Why should the government take an interest in the new digital landscape of free-to-air TV? The answer is simple: the commercial free-to-air TV industry is mandated by the Government to broadcast our content for free, to broadcast predominantly Australian content, and to fund our content through advertising.

These stringent requirements ensure that free-to-air TV remains a conduit through which Australians can remain informed about issues that affect them and continue to remain engaged with Australian stories, entertainment and sport for free. There are no substitutes in the online world for the significant public policy objectives that the Australian commercial free-to-air networks provide.

The government must also protect free access to key Australian sporting events and competitions for all consumers. AFL fans should be able to watch Seven’s AFL home and away games through our linear broadcast channels and Seven’s equivalent online service 7Plus. The free access to important Australian sports through online delivery is not guaranteed by the anti-siphoning list. As it’s drafted now, the list only ensures sports that are seen by Australians linear TV broadcast are free. With dominant, international online giants increasingly buying up sports rights globally, it doesn’t make sense.

Regulatory reform in the media sector is always welcome and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher should be applauded for taking a leadership position. But in its current form, the green paper does not adequately account for the future-proofing already being undertaken by the industry. It needs to, otherwise at a time when locally produced, trusted content is needed more than ever, we risk an Australia where free-to-air TV is unable to provide the services relied upon by so many.

James Warburton is the managing director and chief executive officer of Seven West Media.

Coverage of mainstream media submissions on the Green Paper will be in tomorrow’s Mumbrella newsletter. 


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