Regional broadcasters label proposed changes to TV licensing a ‘spectrum grab’ by government

Regional commercial TV networks have hit out at changes proposed by the government which would see broadcasters offered the choice to operate under cheaper broadcasting license in exchange for sacrificing radio frequency spectrum.

The proposal was outlined in last week’s media reform Green Paper, released by the Department of Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts and Minister Paul Fletcher.

The paper also proposed global video-on-demand services like Netflix, Amazon and Disney+ could be required to spend a certain amount on Australian content in the future.

Minister Paul Fletcher

Regional commercial networks have taken issue with the new licensing system proposed, which the Green Paper says is designed to reduce tax for broadcasters.

Currently, any holder of a commercial television broadcasting license must pay commercial broadcasting tax each year for each of their transmitters, with the Green Paper noting this costs metro networks between $9.5 and $12 million each year.

Under the proposed changes, license holders would be offered a “one-time” chance to transition to the new license, and holders of the new license would no longer have to pay the aforementioned tax for their use of spectrum.

In return, broadcasters would have to forfeit some of the radio frequency spectrum they use over a period of years. It’s not clear exactly how much spectrum this would equate to.

Minister Fletcher said the government would then use proceeds from the freed-up spectrum to “invest in Australian news and screen content”.

Broadcasters would also gain access to a ‘Public Interest News Gathering Trust’ to “support future television content delivery” for “regional news services”.

As noted in the Green Paper, the most likely use of this freed up spectrum would be mobile telecommunications.

“The reallocation of this valuable spectrum, which is a multibillion‐dollar public resource, would likely occur through a spectrum auction process that could generate significant proceeds,” it notes.

If enough networks took the government up on the offer, the government would force the ABC and SBS to also sacrifice spectrum, resulting in the combination the signals of different broadcasters into what are known as ‘multiplexes’, something the Green Paper says would not affect the average viewer.

But in an open letter signed by networks including WIN, Southern Cross Austereo, Prime, and Imparja Television, as well as Australian Community Media, the move has been labelled a “spectrum grab” which isn’t suited to regional commercial broadcasters.

They also claim a number of recommendations including a self-funding plan or regional commercial TV, presented to the Minister eighteen months ago, have been ignored.

Win and Prime are among the signatories

“The regional media sector has urged the minister to deliver critically-needed reforms. The minister’s proposal which was released to metropolitan press overnight, did not meaningfully consider any of the matters first raised by regional media companies with the Minister when he took office eighteen months ago,” the letter reads.

“The Fletcher plan is simply a grab for spectrum to bolster the Federal Government’s coffers.

“The notion that regional television broadcasters would surrender vital broadcast spectrum for access to a Public Interest News Gathering Trust, to which financial compensation has not been determined, is ill-considered and ignores the sector’s issues; being the government-owned NBN facilitating access to our heavily regulated and licensed markets by the unregulated digital platforms of the metropolitan TV networks and international tech media giants.”

When contacted by Mumbrella, Minister Fletcher said he is “very conscious of the challenges being faced by regional broadcasters, and am confident our media reform Green Paper outlines a process to help them respond to those challenges”.

He noted that the Green Paper has been presented to the public for submissions, and plans to have discussions with regional media between now and when submissions close.

“While the government believes that the measures proposed in this green paper would help regional commercial broadcasters be more sustainable, the process the government has announced today is also an opportunity for regional television broadcasters to put forward their own detailed proposals,” he said.

The Green Paper can be accessed in full here.


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