Canberra Paves the Way for Pay Television

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AT the same time Australians are moving to beam their programming into Asia, they're also moving to open up their own country to programming from the United States. The Australian government recently passed legislation to authorize three pay-TV licenses carrying a total of 10 channels. Australians should be able to watch their first programs next year.

They've waited a long time. The government has been wrangling over the issue for 15 years. For a time there was an outright ban on pay TV, despite several major reports urging its introduction.

The networks have been lobbying hard against the introduction of the new medium, saying that they would lose valuable programs.

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"Our concerns have been to make sure that pay TV can't get an unfair advantage over free-to-air TV in areas like access to programming," says Tony Brannigan, general manager of the Federation of Commercial Television Stations. The networks, he says, are concerned about getting into bidding wars over popular sporting events and movies. Movies represent 25 percent of programming in Australia, a higher percentage than in the US.

The government was concerned over whether commercial television networks should be allowed to own pay TV. "There was the perception that we have pretty powerful media groups," says Anne Davies, director of the Communications Law Center, affiliated with the University of New South Wales. "By owning pay TV as well they would get more powerful." The networks have since been allowed to bid for one of the three licenses.

Eventually the programming will be carried via satellite, but since the most advanced technology won't be ready for a few years, it will be carried via microwave signal until it's ready. Because of Australia's size and population distribution, a cable system is considered limited. So television viewing has been limited to five major Australian channels - three commercial and two owned by the government (the Australian Broadcasting Company and one multicultural station called SBS).

In the end, the government offered for sale two channels to ABC, four channels to a new media operator, and four channels to bidders from the existing commercial TV networks, newspapers, and telecommunications companies.

The legislation limits foreign ownership to 35 percent. US companies Continental Cablevision and Time-Warner are interested, as well as the French company Canal Plus.

The Minister for Transport and Communications, Sen. Bob Collins, said that 10 percent of the households will be using the services within five years. "We've always been very heavy consumers of technology ... and we've got one of the highest penetrations of television in the world," he remarked on a television show.

The programming is expected to be mainly sports, movies, and news. More sports programming is expected to please sports fans, some of whom stay up until 3 a.m. to watch cricket matches from England.

"It's fair to say you'll have more channels, I'm not sure you'll have programming enriched," says Ms. Davies. "It's slightly frightening for Australians nervous about American cultural dominance - there's no doubt that most of the programming will be American. [Satellite service] BSkyB in the UK is heavily weighed toward American sitcoms and movies." The legislation calls for 10 percent of the programming to be Australian-made.

Tight controls in the legislation reflect the concerns a growing number of Australians have over the violence in American movies. It bans anything X-rated, and R-rated material must be accompanied by a device for parental control. No R-rated movie can be shown until an Australian Broadcasting Authority survey on community attitudes about the subject is completed, and the film is deemed acceptable.

With Prime Minister Keating having recently persuaded the networks to move adults-only programming from 8:30 to 9:00 p.m., there is a current climate in favor of further regulation.

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