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Opening the door to the digital era: regulating Australia's future broadcast and new media industry

By David Flint - posted Monday, 15 January 2001

While we cannot predict the future with any confidence, the advent of a new technology, one which opens up a new broadcasting spectrum, necessarily requires public authorities to act. Some aspects of regulation will continue into the new digital area. This will be especially true of those rules enunciating ethical principles. Just because news or current affairs is being broadcast by radio or television, in analogue or digital, does not change those principles. For example, we would still expect news to be distinguishable from comment. We would still expect a proper respect for people's privacy.

At the very least, public authorities will have to legislate to enable broadcasters to migrate to the new spectrum with appropriate legal protection. It is universally agreed that digital transmission offers many advantages – improved reception, resolution and sound, and the ability to transmit more information than before. With compression, the digital spectrum can accommodate more services than analogue.

But what else can public authorities do?


It is relevant at this stage to recall that the public authorities can do three things about the market. First, they can seek to control the conduct of those in the market. Second, they can seek to change the structure of the market. Third, they can provide public participation in the market itself for some regulation to be effective. Unilateral action may not be sufficient. It may have to be through international co-operation and harmonisation. (Otherwise the dominant world power could become the effective de facto world regulator.)

Why should the public authorities act? For one reason only: the public benefit.

An assessment of the public benefit will no doubt include what are perceived to be desirable economic outcomes – about the structure of the market, competition, intellectual property law, foreign investment, employment, and in geographically larger countries, regional considerations.

Then there will be desirable social and economic outcomes. Above all, these will be concerned with policies to promote basic rights, especially freedom of speech and the press. There will be other concerns – consumer protection, and the advancement of the nation’s culture.

For example, it is common in many countries to specify a minimum number of hours of local content. Technology allows or will soon allow the streaming of TV broadcasts through the Internet. Would it be fair to impose those restrictions on domestic broadcasters if foreign broadcasters were to gain significant ratings in the market? How likely the entrance of such broadcasters will be has yet to be seen, particularly where a domestic market is protected by language. Communities like to see news and entertainment that is about and involves that community. We have yet to see the extent to which streamed or satellite foreign broadcasts can conquer domestic markets. Certainly, dubbed foreign films have been successful in the world’s cinemas.

In any event, public authorities who wish to maintain local content will have to consider the range of options open to them. Mandatory broadcast requirements of local content by commercial broadcasters may no longer be viable. Only time will tell. But other options may need to be considered, for example, direct assistance to producers and public broadcasting.


The point of all this is that it is desirable that advisors and regulators attempt to sketch out all the most likely scenarios for the future, and then suggest policy options to achieve those outcomes which are believed to be of public benefit.

Introduction of Digital TV in Australia

Broadcasters began to transmit in digital mode in all mainland capital cities in Australia on 1 January 2001. With minor exceptions, other areas are to have digital TV by 1 January 2004. They are required to transmit in high definition within two years a minimum period of 20 hours each week.

Australian digital television is based on the European DVB set of technical standards, rather than the US ATSC system.

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This is an edited version of a paper given to the Broadcast 2001 convention at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre on 26 February 2001.

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About the Author

David Flint is a former chairman of the Australian Press Council and the Australian Broadcasting Authority, is author of The Twilight of the Elites, and Malice in Media Land, published by Freedom Publishing. His latest monograph is Her Majesty at 80: Impeccable Service in an Indispensable Office, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, Sydney, 2006

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