Australia is slowly moving closer to pay TV.

Down Under versions of the Entertainment Sports Network and Video Jukebox may come by 1993-94, after the federal government awards a pay TV license next October. The licensee will be allowed to offer four channels.

Pay TV is already generating considerable debate here, with free-to-air commercial networks arguing for delays.

As Sen. Graham Richardson, federal minister for transport and communications, noted in a recent television interview, some argue that the technology is changing and Australia should wait for more advanced systems. Others argue for delay until the country develops its own equipment and programs. The government has not decided whether to extend Australia's strong local-content programming rules to pay TV.

Arguments against delay include the fact the government has an arrangement with Optus Communications to use six transponders on an Optus satellite for pay TV purposes.

Optus, which is 24.5 percent owned by America's Bell South and 24.5 percent by Cable and Wireless of Britain, won the right to provide long-distance telephone service as well as satellite services when it bought Aussat for $600 million on Jan. 31. The satellite transponders to transmit programs are expected to be available by the mid-1993.

Of 124 companies or individuals that have expressed interest, Optus officials expect only two or three consortia to bid for the license. Viewers will likely have the choice of channels for movies, news, and sports, and a fourth channel with more local content. Wayne Nowland, Optus's product manager for new business opportunities, plans to ask Senator Richardson to allow more channels. Richardson recently returned from a fact-finding tour of TV companies in the United States and Britain.

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