When Reform Has No Bang And Barely A Whimper

What a difference a year makes. One year ago, when Communications Minister Helen Coonan released the discussion paper which was to become the September 2006 media reform package, was also coincidently the same day that Apple’s iTunes service released its first movie for download – High School Musical, a movie apparently popular with the tween set. iTunes has now sold 50 million TV shows. Apple started shipping their Apple TV, a device which delivers content downloaded from the iTunes service to the family television, in March this year.

The frenzied media commentary which greeted YouTube’s sale to Google in October for $US1.65 billion wasn’t all hyperbole. YouTube only opened for business a year prior, and, due to its popularity, it now plays a central role in modern political campaigns, public relations, and is at the centre of debate about copyright online. No television program with aspirations of greatness can ignore the contradictory importance of YouTube – success on the online social video networking site can mean enormous popularity, but also copyright infringement on a massive scale.

YouTube and iTunes are merely two of the largest services. Video downloading services, in different shades of legality, have sprouted up rapidly over the last twelve months, and are injecting themselves into media consumption habits across the globe. In 2004, an American study found that in the United States, consumers spent roughly 10 per cent of their leisure time online. With the increase of applications and bandwidth since then, that number is no doubt higher.

There are few serious commentators on the media who doubt that in the near or at least foreseeable future, new media will be as popular, important and influential as the traditional print, radio and television triangle was in the second half of the 20th century.

On the one hand, change of this dramatic nature isn’t new. The history of media and technology is scattered with examples of disruptive, radical innovations.

Numerous technological innovations have altered the way we consume, produce and interact with media. The transition in the 1960s and 1970s of magazine printing from the older rotary press to offset lithography dramatically reduced the cost of printing, resulting in the proliferation of hundreds of specialty publications, in contrast with the previously rather limited selection.

The history of popular music was shaped by the potent combination of the use of the FM band by independent broadcasters, and the emerging competition from television in the 1950s. Vinyl recordings, tapes, CDs and MP3s – and the devices they are played on – have further altered our relationship with popular music, and the content of the music itself.

Similarly, entrepreneurs have altered patterns of media consumption with existing technologies with innovative new business models. Charles Dickens serialised his novels in popular magazines, changing the nature and structure of his stories, and creating new market opportunities to great effect. The practise of block booking, where film studios bundled multiple films together to sell to theatres, buttressed the Hollywood studio system, until it was prohibited by the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948.

The history of media is change, not continuity.

The dynamism of technological innovation couldn’t be better contrasted than by the narrow approach taken by governments to media law and regulation. It is a consequence of the inertia of the political process that major regulatory changes can be enacted perhaps once a decade. When policy is made and reform is pursued it must be forward-looking enough to facilitate unexpected changes in the industry it is trying to regulate. By this measure the government’s 2006 media law reforms were a regrettable failure – after ten years of promises to liberalise Australia’s media regulation, the package passed in Parliament in October had no bang, and barely a whimper.

Minor adjustments to ownership rules, the introduction of two crippled “non-traditional TV” licences, loop-hole closing in anti-siphoning regulations, another delay of switchover to digital television – it is only by force of habit that the package was referred to by commentators as “reform”. Where large regulatory decisions changes were made, they went in the opposite direction. Regional and rural radio licensees ended 2006 staring down the barrel of a draconian array of new regulatory controls, designed to keep rural politicians on the air, rather than increase any level of local “diversity”.

The federal government’s reluctance to pursue any meaningful reform after such a long build up is most unfortunate. The laws which govern Australia’s media are a fragmentary web of protectionism and restriction. It is hard to beat the Productivity Commission’s characterisation of a regulatory framework that “reflects a history of political, technical, industrial, economic and social compromises. This legacy of quid pro quos has created a policy framework that is inward looking, anti-competitive and restrictive”.

These regulations rest on an outdated conceptual framework. They assume that there is a fixed pie of media content and media outlets – there can only be so many television or radio stations, for instance. The regulatory framework then slices up that pie to a number of operators, and ensures they don’t get in each other’s way.

But this model is entirely unsuited to the contemporary media landscape. Gone are the days when our consumption of news and opinion was constrained by the number of printers in the town, or broadcasters with licenses. An infinite range of news and opinion can be now gathered at almost no cost from the Internet, produced by professionals and, increasingly, amateurs.

This new availability of sources requires us to look carefully at what we mean by “diversity”. The left-wing political critique of the 2006 reforms centred on the notion that a free market in media would necessarily result in media monopolies – Australians ruled over by omnipotent media moguls, rather than their democratically elected politicians. It’s true that the vast bulk of media consumed by Australians is still clustered around these “traditional” owners – Fairfax and News Limited have the lions share of online readership for Australian news sources.

But the measure of diversity should not be an analysis of what everybody is currently reading or watching, but what is available for their consumption, should they choose to investigate outside of the Murdoch, Packer and Stokes empires. We should not only include sources likeOn Line Opinion, but also the Washington PostPravda, and the Borehamwood & Elstree Times. Diversity is a question of available choice, not a question of how best to stop everybody reading Murdoch’s tabloids.

This question about what constitutes true diversity pervades the debate over ownership regulation. The reflections of former FCC chairman Michael Powell on a similar debate about reform in the United States could easily apply to Australia:

Here’s the truth: the ownership debate is about nothing but content … [The ownership rules] became a stalking horse for a debate about the role of media in our society. … It was really an invitation for people with particular viewpoints to push for a thumb on the scale, for content in a direction that people preferred.

Luckily, little the government does will alter the inevitable migration of our media consumption to the Internet. But retaining the byzantine regulations which we have inherited punishes consumers by both privileging and restricting the traditional media outlets which have, until recently, been protected from full exposure to the market.

There are a range of specific reforms that can be adopted. Governments could take convergence seriously and being to harmonise regulations across networks – the regulations that apply to radio broadcasting should apply to television broadcasting, which should also in turn apply to web broadcasting and podcasts. Similarly, the use of the electromagnetic spectrum should be determined by the market – who owns it, what technologies utilise it, how many television and radio stations are broadcast on it, and so on.

But the biggest change needed is philosophical. There is no legitimate role for government in the entertainment business. Consumers determine what they want to watch on television, listen to on the radio, or browse on the Internet. The sooner policy-makers acknowledge this simple fact, the better off our media will be.

Aunty Will Be Proud Of Maxine’s Candidacy

The Labor Party has decided that its secret weapon in John Howard’s increasingly contestable seat of Bennelong is Maxine McKew. It couldn’t have chosen a better candidate to attack the Prime Minster. After all, McKew has had years of experience doing exactly that at “our” ABC.

Indeed, the national broadcaster has certainly been a more reliable critic than the Labor Party, a fact Kevin Rudd now seems to appreciate. Even after having apparently stacked the ABC board with conservatives, the public broadcaster remains more effective at landing body blows on a conservative government than the ALP has been for most of Howard’s tenure. But it wouldn’t pay to get too excited about McKew.

Bennelong, which the Prime Minister has held since 1974, is demanding more attention. Howard has won the seat in 13 straight elections but his margin has been steadily declining. Since the Coalition’s victory in 1996, it has dropped from 10.1 percentage points to 4.3. The redistribution that moved Bennelong further into Sydney’s western suburbs has merely sped up the decay in support.

Bennelong is also supposedly peppered with “doctors’ wives”, a group of voters whose concerns align perfectly with the concerns aired nightly on Lateline. If they dominate the electorate as much as the ALP thinks they do, then merely writing “ABC journalist” on her resume should give McKew a landslide victory.

But presumably some of the people who have returned Howard for more than a dozen elections still live in Bennelong. And the recent migrants to move into Howard’s electorate may be more sympathetic to Labor than the Liberals, but they may also be more concerned with maintaining strong economic growth and employment than levels of arts funding.

So where is the evidence that McKew is a political genius who can topple one of the toughest political figures in Australian history?

The art of journalism does not necessarily translate well into the art of politics. Success on the television screen does not imply success pressing palms and hugging babies. But even as a media commentator her political judgment leaves a lot to be desired. This is, after all, the person who said in the days leading up to the 2004 election: “Yesterday [the day after then Labor leader Mark Latham’s launch of Medicare Gold] for the first time I got a real sense of the inevitability of the Latham ascension … Yesterday, I saw someone who, if he does not make it on October 9 [the date of the federal election] — and I think he may — he will make it. And he might make it within six months: it may not be a three-year full term that he has to wait … I think Latham’s time could be coming quite soon.”

The financial recklessness of Medicare Gold stood in opposition to everything Latham had stood for as an independent-thinking backbencher. The ALP was punished with one of its greatest electoral defeats.

Right now, McKew’s appeal to the voters of Bennelong is largely theoretical. She may warm the hearts of the latte Left, but since Paul Keating hired author Don Watson as his speechwriter, this has not necessarily been sound political strategy.

And rule No.1 of Australian politics is that one should never write off Howard. Giving him the kiss of death always amounts to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. In 2004, despite McKew’s confidence, Latham only strengthened the PM’s lead. In 2001, despite Kim Beazley’s seemingly strong position, Howard easily held government. In retrospect, it looks easy. Howard has won more “certain losses” than any other Australian politician. McKew needs more than her Lateline and The 7.30 Report credentials to unseat him.

This cannot help but reflect poorly on the ABC. One moment McKew is an impartial, objective journalist with no political interest except the truth, and the next moment she is a hungry political campaigner, determined to unseat the head of the government.

ABC host Virginia Trioli refuses to vote at elections. McKew has only just joined the ALP. Although ABC journalists may make these symbolic gestures to assure the tax-paying public that they maintain a balanced objectivity, history suggests otherwise. Barrie Cassidy, Kerry O’Brien, Mark Bannerman, Greg Turnbull, Alan Carpenter, Claire Martin, Mary Delahunty and Bob Carr, among others, have moved from the ABC to the Labor Party, probably to the benefit of both. Indeed, on ABC radio Sydney yesterday morning, former Greens candidate for Bennelong Andrew Wilkie may have jumped the gun when he said that “it’s great that Virginia [Trioli] is taking on Howard”. A slip of the tongue or a future Labor masterstroke?

The list of ABC journalists migrating into the Liberal Party is not nearly as illustrious. Peter Collins, a former NSW Liberal leader, and Pru Goward, candidate at next month’s NSW election, cut lonely figures against their former colleagues across the chamber.

The ALP is learning from its mistakes. What use is a celebrity candidate if they don’t contest the election? After parachuting Peter Garrett into the safe seat of Kingsford Smith with a whirlwind of publicity, he largely disappeared during the campaign. But putting McKew up against the seemingly impenetrable Howard, the ALP is signalling its confidence in McKew, and the Labor branches will respect her for it.

Perhaps this will translate into a stronger local campaign by the ALP; it needs any strength it can get.

Howard said yesterday that the McKew challenge will only provoke him to work harder in Bennelong. “When I get news like this it only steels my resolve to work even harder for the people I have had the privilege of representing for the last 30 years.”

Only a fool would think otherwise.

The other flurry of media mergers

With Hugh Tobin

The media is big business. Organisations such as Microsoft, Google, Apple and Yahoo! are rapidly manoeuvring themselves into competition with the traditional services. They exist in an unregulated online environment where innovation is rewarded and there is no limit to the acquisition power of companies.

In a short time, many Internet companies have grown to be even larger than the regulated traditional media players with which they compete. For instance, Fairfax’s market capitalisation of US$3.43 billion is dwarfed by Google’s US$139.1 billion. In the US market, Yahoo!’s market capitalisation is larger than CBS’s.

These companies are genuine competitors, and represent one of the greatest challenges to the incumbent leaders in the media industry since the introduction of broadcasting.

Like their traditional counterparts, the new media players have recently been undergoing dramatic structural and ownership changes. The big names — Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft — are buying up smaller entities which have developed recognisable and popular products, in order to integrate them into broad suites of products united under a single brand.

The quickest way to fortune in 2006 is to develop a Web product, build a strong and supportive user base, and sell out to Google.

The social networking video site YouTube, which gathered headlines around the world when it was acquired by Google for $2.2 billion in October 2006, is the most famous example, but it
is by no means alone.

A typical story in this era is Writely, a word-processor which runs within a browser, created by the Silicon Valley start-up Upstartle. At the time it was acquired by Google, in March 2006, it had only four employees. Google has since merged it with a spreadsheet program it developed independently, a product which most commentators believe signals a direct challenge to Microsoft’s dominating Office software suite.

Indeed, the often reported YouTube acquisition is just the tip of the iceberg. In the same month that Google acquired YouTube, it also acquired JotSpot, a collaborative document service, which will also integrate into its Office competitor.

In November, Yahoo acquired Bix, an advertising/contest service, MyBlogLog, a blogging aggregation tool, and KenetWorks, a service for mobile phones. Since 2002, Microsoft has bought 24 individual Web services, Yahoo! 25, including the bookmark-sharing Del.icio.us and the photo-sharing flickr, and Google has bought 27.

Online media is still in its early stages of development. But this ‘flurry’ of mergers and acquisitions seems to indicate that online media can now directly challenge incumbent broadcasters and traditional printers.

It was only in 1998 that NetFlix — a US subscription mail rental service which combined the two relatively new technologies of DVDs and the internet — was inaugurated. Bigpond Movies,
Telstra’s clone for the Australian market, is even younger.

But both of these services have already been made obsolete by offerings from Apple, Microsoft and Google — all released in 2006 — which provide films and television programmes for download or streaming at home. These services are an example of the competitive threats
that are now facing the traditional media.

But they also highlight the amazing benefits that increased competition brings for consumers.

Diversity — as far as it has any useful meaning — will survive any manner of media mergers or acquisitions, even in the unregulated online environment. It is now more useful to look at the media as an integrated market consisting of all the players mentioned above rather than the segregated silos of print, broadcasting and online which seems to dominate the analysis of the commentariat.

There is money to be made on the Internet, and there are serious businesses online. If only the traditional media were as dynamic.

How significant is online news?

The two opposing cases in the debate over ownership deregulation of the media can be quickly summed up. The first group argues that the case for deregulation is buttressed by the explosion of choice available on the Internet, and the second group counters that the influence of online media is exaggerated.

This second group commonly cites a series of polls indicating that the most commonly trafficked sites for domestic news are owned and operated by the proprietors of existing media businesses. Fairfax, News Limited, Channel 9 (in its ninemsn partnership with Microsoft) and the ABC top the list, with ‘new media’ sites such as crikey.com.au and Yahoo! News struggling to compete. Not only this, but fewer people than it is often assumed gather their news online—in one such survey, 75 per cent of people were either unable to name an online news source they visited, or did not do so.

The news revolution and the deregulation it inspires, is, argue the critics of reform, a myth. Of course, none of the data is surprising. In 2006, established media organisations can far easier produce news content, with their network of in-house journalists and associations with news services such as Reuters and Associated Press. Obviously not everybody is comfortable yet with browsing the Internet for their news; established patterns are hard to break.

But there are problems with these one-dimensional measurements of news site popularity. It is arguably more interesting that, in the 2005/2006 poll displayed on this page, in fifth and sixth position are Yahoo! and Crikey, archetypal Web start-ups. Bigpond comes in seventh—before the Internet, how many people could say they primarily sourced their news from Telstra?

Drawn from a series of interviews and extrapolated to the population at large, the polls also appear to underestimate the traffic at these sites. The 2005 poll reports 190,000 visitors to the Crikey Website per month. Crikey itself claims double that — 355,000 unique visitors to their Website, with 41,000 readers of the daily e-mail.

Internet statistics are an amazingly problematic enterprise. The differences between hits, page views, visits and unique visitors are arcane and technical, but can dramatically raise or lower sites in the rankings. Whether the user is on a home computer directly connected to the internet, or through a corporate network — which could mean that a couple of thousand employees only register as a single visitor—adds to the challenge. Whether you identify unique users by tracking their IP address, with a cookie, or by imposing a registration system on the site itself, further complicates the issue. Unfortunately, trying to ascertain traffic by interviewing consumers doesn’t really cut it.

The diffusion of knowledge about current affairs is not as linear as these surveys imply. As these metrics measure ‘news only’ sites, they ignore a large number of sources of news and opinion available both on and offline. Outlets which are not classified ‘news only’ are often rich with references to current events. Online services run by traditional proprietors are richer with content and opinion than their print or broadcast counterparts, and in many cases, by linking to other sources, encourage consumers to explore alternative outlets.

News consumption is shifting from a hit-driven culture to a niche culture, as consumers spread out across a suddenly massive array of media outlets available online.

By leaning on surveys such as these as a crutch, opponents of media deregulation miss the point. Media use has rapidly and irreversibly changed. Whether consumers visit Fairfax Digital or an obscure blog — or more likely, both — they have not just shifted format, but shifted their approach to news gathering.

The media is now more than ever intensely competitive — the ABC, ninemsn, News Limited and Fairfax aren’t resting, confident in their status as most popular news sites, but are instead being chased by hungry start-ups and competitors eating away at their bottom lines. Media regulation has to change to suit.

Media-Rule Horse Has Bolted

Communications Minister Helen Coonan’s attempts at policy reform have so far been conspicuous failures. Telstra’s fibre to the node network was scuttled by her requirement that Telstra build it and then give control over it to the regulator. And now what was already a timid “media reform” package has been watered down almost to the level of pointlessness.

The coalition’s proposed changes to media laws were obsolete on the day they were released. They were an attempt to deal policy into the frenzied technological change taking place in the unregulated parts of the media and telecommunications sector.

In March, the day the government released its media discussion paper, Apple released for download and purchase on its iTunes service High School Musical. The movie has been a huge success with the “tween” market (children between the ages of eight and 12). It cannot be seen at the cinemas, it’s available only on DVD and via the internet. Movie distributors had learnt the lesson from music distributors’ failure half a decade ago – consumers are migrating their entertainment onto the internet, and are happy to pay for the privilege.

This week we saw the final watering down of the media package and the sale of YouTube to Google – $US1.65 billion ($2.2 billion) for 67 employees and a website.

None of Apple, YouTube, Google or Microsoft made submissions or appeared at the Senate inquiry into the government’s media legislation. Telstra gave evidence only about the mobile television licence. These companies didn’t need to get involved in debates about old media. No reform package can stop the migration of consumers from traditional media into more exciting and more flexible formats.

Now, with the release of Telstra’s Next G network, the transition from old to new media is firmly under way. Certainly, the wireless network is slower than the scuttled fibre to the node network, but it doesn’t take much to happily stream a YouTube video onto a mobile phone. Next G speeds are already faster than those that many consumers have piped into their home, and are set to increase in speed tenfold.

When Prime Minister John Howard says media reform is only a second-order priority, he is more prescient than he realises. The creative storms of change will blow no matter what is in the Broadcasting Services Act.

The Holy Grail of modern communications has long been obvious: high-speed internet. If this is available on mobile devices, consumers can watch video from any service, read their email from any provider and browse any website with the same freedom they have in front of their computers at home. But Australia has a regulatory environment dramatically at odds with technological and cultural developments here and overseas.

What was the debate about? The “diversity” cry rings hollow – on the internet, an infinite array of content and opinion is available to anybody who cares to look. Online media services, still in their infancy, can deliver more diverse content than can be consumed in a lifetime.

But political debate about media ownership always ends up with politicians pontificating about the relative merits of media content. Genuine deregulation means that this decision would be made entirely by consumers. In a deregulated market, what people want on television or radio, people get.

By forcing local radio stations to broadcast a minimum of local content, the politicians say they know better than consumers what should be broadcast. It is an attempt to force consumers to pay for politicians’ public visibility – elsewhere this would be called corruption. By restricting the ability for stations to respond to consumer demand, the reform package condemns many independent broadcasters to failure.

Local media produces niche products that can be supplied by other vehicles. Whether product is supplied on the same radio transmitter as 50 years ago, or a podcast inaugurated 50 days ago, should be of no concern to legislators.

Outside the realm of government regulation, we have innovative, dynamic companies responsive to market demand. Within its reach, we have an industry being variously protected and attacked by flawed public policy and political manoeuvring. Unsurprisingly, audiences for unregulated new media are growing faster.

Traditional media still have a role. But when the government imposes new regulations and fails to strip away the old ones, that role is looking more and more perilous.

Opening statement to Commonwealth Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts inquiry into the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006

As well as being a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs, I am the editor of our magazine, the IPA Review. The Institute of Public Affairs is a public policy think tank based in Melbourne. It was founded in 1943. We believe in small government, private enterprise, the rule of law, representative democracy. It is our position that any media reform should be clearly and unambiguously directed towards liberalisation and deregulation. We say this because, in cases where there are many potential or actual suppliers of goods and services—which is clearly the case in media—markets are far more efficient providers than government bureaucracies.

Technological and commercial innovation have provided Australians with a multitude of choice in the information and entertainment content we consume, the way we receive it and display it and our capacity to store it for future consumption. Therefore, any regulatory rationale based on assumed scarcity of media content or delivery mechanisms is no longer valid.

The IPA welcomes changes to media ownership regulations. The removal of foreign ownership restrictions is long overdue. Similarly, the removal of cross-media ownership restrictions is welcome. After all, millions of Australians each day already access foreign owned media through the internet. This access does not seem to have harmed us and certainly has not reduced the output of Australian produced and managed media. However, we believe that the proposed reforms do not sufficiently tackle the problem. Given the wide variety of choice available to Australians, we feel there is no longer any convincing case to maintain media-specific competition and ownership regulations. Instead, the government could better rely on the general economy-wide merger and ownership regulations to ensure competition. The ownership of media assets is no more sensitive than the ownership of, say, railroad assets.

While we welcome the release of two new television stations, we regret the imposition of regulatory requirements on both A and B. There appears to be no justification for these restrictions. They merely represent the elite imposing its preferences on consumers, and government technocrats seeking to impose their preferences on the way technology develops. Unfortunately, these provisions illustrate clearly that the lesson has not been learned for centre of government failure in introducing new media technology. We strongly oppose the imposition of any regulation which attempts to enforce local content requirements, plans or anything else on regional or rural media services.

In conclusion, the government has been presented with an opportunity to genuinely reform this regressive regulatory framework that the Australian media has been burdened with for over a century. This reform package makes a few minor adjustments, however its practical effect is not as large as the public debate has made out. Furthermore, in many areas it represents a significant re-regulation of the sector. This does not mean that the reforms are without value. The removal of the cross-media ownership restriction, as absurd an ownership restriction as can be imagined, is welcome, as is foreign investment deregulation. Adjustments to the digital transition are long overdue. The package needs significant revision. However, the need for reform is clear and should not be abandoned. It is less bad than the status quo.

Only The Market Can Properly Reshape The Media

Robert Menzies despised television and stated privately that he hoped it would not be introduced during his government. Does Communications Minister Helen Coonan have a similar attitude towards the next radical media change?

Given the opportunity to robustly liberalise the regulatory environment that the Australian media has been subject to for over a century, the government has declined to act.

There are big entrenched media companies which have made large investment decisions based on the current framework, and the political reality is that genuine deregulation would have to be a slow and careful process. But instead of attempting to unwind our Byzantine media regulations, at whatever pace, the government’s media reforms do nothing more than add more rope.

For instance, the proposed auction of two additional swathes of spectrum should have been greeted with enthusiasm. Entrepreneurial companies which had won these new licences could have used them to deliver whatever services they perceived to be in demand.

Instead, the government has chosen to dictate to potential users the terms and conditions of their licences, terms and conditions which will not apply to existing users of broadcast spectrum. This “command and control” approach to economic management has been discredited in both theory and practise. It’s ill-suited to managing a limited and static array of services, and it’s doubly unsuited to manage the fast paced and high-risk communications and media industry.

It does, however, allow the government to claim credit, as the Communications Minister did this week, for any potential new services delivered within their strict framework. What Coonan fails to mention is the services that the government will not allow us to receive. To this end the government has invented two terms, “narrowcasting” and “datacasting”, defined not by what they can do, but what they cannot.

One of the channels to be auctioned is allowed to broadcast free-to-air, but not replicate traditional TV services. Why not?

The government is not a suitable body to predict the possibilities of and the demand for newer forms of media. Only a market unhindered by restriction is capable of doing so with any success.

Similar objections can be raised to the government’s proposal to replace one elaborate formula for media ownership restriction within a market with another elaborate formula. While touted as a grand liberalisation of ownership regulations, they are in fact, little more than minor adjustments. For advocates of genuine deregulation throughout the economy, this should be a disappointment.

Many critics of the reform proposals hinge their arguments upon the potential lessening of diversity that could be the result of consolidation within the industry.

It is absurd to argue that media diversity will decline without stringent checks on the ownership of broadcast media outlets. In no era in history has this been less true. While the internet has been justifiably praised in bringing alternative viewpoints and independent media outlets to the home, rapid technological improvements in seemingly mature industries like printing have increased in the last few decades the volume of magazines, newspapers and printed material manyfold.

Anybody who doubts that minority or niche voices will not get heard after genuine media reforms should consult the vast ethnic press, made possible by dramatically lower print production costs.

In fact, mergers between media organisations could have tangible benefits. A fully vertically integrated corporation, able to command world-wide news gathering and content production, may be able to produce a far better and diverse range of services.

The massive competitive pressure exerted upon existing media companies from the proliferating new media compels dramatic change, even in such seemingly dominant organisations as News Ltd. Rupert Murdoch’s recent acquisition of the social networking website MySpace is a case in point.

These gains are not guaranteed, however. The US market, after a rush of media consolidation in the 1990s as companies rushed to prepare for the digital era, has been beset by a series of failures and divestitures. AOL Time Warner has been shedding assets now that the financial gains expected from its highly publicised merger have not appeared. Viacom, Disney, Clear Channel, Knight-Ridder and many others have downsized or spun off companies in the last few years.

But these companies need the freedom to experiment, and fail, with new business models.

New media organisations are popular and influential, and will become more so. Governments of all stripes across the world are struggling to predict its significance. That is understandable – nobody has any inkling of how these changes will pan out.

But instead of indulging itself in public consultations and submission processes, commissioning reports and carefully releasing sections of the spectrum with highly prescriptive regulations, the government would be far better to leave the future of the Australian media up to the market.

There is no convincing reason why entrepreneurs, allowed to experiment with new technologies and business models, cannot amply deliver the services that Australian consumers demand now and into the future.

Submission to the Inquiry into the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 and related bills

Introduction: Reform to the regulatory framework of the Australian media should be unambiguously directed towards liberalisation of the sector. It is important to place the relatively recent, and highly publicised changes in production, distribution and consumption of media made possible by communications technology in a context of long term and continuous radical media change. Technological and commercial innovation have provided Australians with a multitude of choice over the content we consume, the way we receive and display it, and our capacity to store it for future consumption. Not only this, but the cost of production has rapidly dropped for seemingly mature industries like print, which has allowed niche and specialist publications to flourish. Never before have Australians had access to so much information packaged in so many formats.

Available in PDF here.

Market The Massage, Not Media Moguls

The release of submissions to Communications Minister Helen Coonan’s media reform proposals merely confirm a few truisms about the debate over media ownership in Australia: The public is deeply ambivalent about the spectre of ownership concentration. And few commentators and organisations are willing to break the cycle of protectionism and regulation that has characterised the sector for the past century.

Much of the debate about the removal of cross-media ownership rules, and their proposed replacement – a minimum number of owners in each market – has missed the point. Competition law, rightly or wrongly, governs the sector to protect against monopolistic practices. But ownership regulations relating to broadcasting go beyond that to encourage structural diversity.

Why do we fear, as Senator Coonan’s media reform paper put it, “excessive ownership concentration”? An aim of the broadcasting law is the promotion of opinion diversity.

Access to this is one of the foremost assumptions of a democratic society. It is widely believed that to ensure people are adequately informed about their choices in a democracy, they require a wide range of information.

Given the large influence the media has on our democratic process, legislators fear a media mogul could unduly manipulate public opinion for their personal ends. With ownership limits, the Government tries to encourage “diversity”.

Unfortunately, we have not come far from the views of Robert Menzies who feared that “the most intimate form of propaganda known to modern science” could be controlled by “people who do not belong to this country”.

Senator Coonan has his spirit. Menzies was no lover of the free market and his Toryism is still reflected in the backward attitudes of the Liberal Party to media ownership.

The Government’s media changes will probably remove restrictions on foreign investment and ease cross-media ownership restrictions. While these changes go a small way to liberalising the industry, they do not challenge the widely held belief that moguls manipulate public opinion, to the detriment of Australia’s democracy.

Compare our relatively objective media with the highly partisan media of the 19th century and before.

Objectivity has not arisen because of ownership restrictions or the best efforts of legislators. Instead, it is a response to market demands through changing technology.

In the early 20th century, many media proprietors realised there was a greater market for a news media without overt partisanship. Technology in this period, from cheaper printing presses to radio and television, enabled them to capture that market. The notion of journalistic objectivity has been the result of these changes and consumer demand.

More recent changes in market structure could be pushing our broadcast media the other way. We often desire objectivity in reporting, but also enjoy reading highly partisan blogs or opinionated columnists.

Today’s proprietors face an explosion of technologies. Some are well appreciated, such as blogs on the internet. But some are not often recognised for how significantly they have changed viewing habits, such as the video recorder.

Despite their well-publicised views on political issues, the moguls, including Rupert Murdoch, have comparatively little influence compared with the all-powerful newspaper tycoons such as William Randolph Hearst and Lord Beaverbrook, who operated without substantial competition. Murdoch is no Citizen Kane.

Radical change over the past 30 years has inundated media companies with competition. The high capital costs that encouraged the media to package objectivity are being replaced by the extraordinarily low costs of cheap printing and the internet.

As any first-year marketing student will predict, media companies, big and small, are attempting to respond to this highly competitive environment by differentiating their product from competitors.

One effective way is the careful, studied introduction of political viewpoints.

Any assessment or assertion of bias in a media organisation has to take into account this fact – more often than not, bias is an intentional technique to attract and retain an audience.

The internet gives people interested in political ideas more viewpoints than they would be able consume in a lifetime.

We live in an age of information and opinion abundance, rather than one where we need to be wary of the undue influence of media tycoons.

The reality is that no ownership regulation is going to prevent media organisations from chasing markets they consider to be profitable. Legislators should treat the media no differently than any other industry – neutral and respectful of the services they offer consumers.

It is unfortunate the Government, and many of the contributors to the media reform consultations, do not believe that.

Media regulations need massive, radical reform, not minor tweaking

The latest proposals for media reform do nothing but reinforce the corporatist approach that the government has taken towards the industry. Designed to entrench incumbents and ‘future-proof’ them against competition, references to dramatic changes in media brought about by information technology are mere wrapping around minor regulatory tweaks. The discussion paper released in March, Meeting the Digital Challenge: Reforming Australia’s media in the digital age, has been greeted by much press and industry as a bold reform agenda for the sector, but the reality is that the government’s proposals do not even scratch the surface of the reforms which are desperately needed.

The Government’s reforms do no justice to the massive, sweeping changes faced by media in Australia and around the world.

In this field, few commentators, regulators and policy-makers shy away from the term ‘revolution’. If the word was not just as uniformly applicable to so many other industries whose business models are under siege from cheap, ubiquitous, and steadily more powerful computing and communications technologies, then it would no doubt be appropriate. Few, areas of economic activity — if any — are immune.

The histories of media content, delivery, and technology have been histories where radical change is the norm, not the exception. The twentieth century saw dramatic changes in the format, delivery and content of a huge range of media, from the amateur radio and recorded sound of its first decade to the MP3 of its last. Numerous technological innovations have altered the way we consume, produce and interact with media. The transition of magazine printing from the older rotary press to offset lithography in the 1960s and 1970s dramatically reduced the cost of printing, resulting in the proliferation of hundreds of specialty publications, in contrast with the previously rather limited selection. The history of popular music was shaped by a potent combination of the use of the FM band by independent broadcasters and the emerging competition from television in the 1950s. Vinyl recordings, tapes, CDs and MP3s — and the devices they are played on — have further altered our relationship with popular music, and the content of the music itself.

To a degree, the regulatory environment which has evolved has reflected the constantly mutating forms of its target. Ever since the ill-conceived ‘sealed set’ radio scheme — where, after a government-business conference in 1923, licensed stations would sell receivers locked so that they could only tune into the licensee’s station — there has been little attempt to allow the market to determine the topography of the Australian media terrain. Originating with a progressive-era pact between government and business for an orderly and restricted radio network, similar frameworks have been adapted for each new technology as it entered the market.

As the 2000 Productivity Commission report into broadcasting services aptly stated, the Australian media ‘reflects a history of political, technical, industrial, economic and social compromises. This legacy of quid pro quos has created a policy framework that is inward looking, anti-competitive and restrictive’.

In praise of stupidity

Traditional media are commonly viewed through the traditional vertical ‘silo’ model—separate, distinct networks which do not interact. Content delivered over radio is distinct from content delivered at the news-stand, and both are distinct from content delivered over television. And the networks themselves are designed to deliver and interpret the specific content they were designed for. Radio is unsuited to being delivered over the television network. The resolution of a basic television signal is ill-suited for delivering text in bulk.

Australian regulation is built around this silo model. For instance, content requirements and quotas are platform-specific. Anti-siphoning regulations use business models as their determinant. And, most obviously, cross-media laws specifically regulate different networks — artificially restricting ownership and, implicitly, content sharing — in local markets.

‘Convergence’, the process by which multiple products — for instance, video, person-to-person communication and broadcast audio — are delivered over a single network (the Internet) has made this regulatory approach increasingly unsuitable. Instead, the Internet is governed by an ideal termed ‘end to end’ (or e2e). Writes Lawrence Lessig:

e2e says to build the network so the intelligence rests in the ends, and the network itself remains simple. Simple networks, smart applications. The reason for this design was simple. With e2e, innovation on the Internet didn’t depend upon the network. New content or new applications could run regardless of whether the network knew about them. New content or new applications would run because the network simply took packets of data and moved them along. The fundamental feature of this network design was neutrality among packets. The network was simple, or ‘stupid’ … and the consequence of stupidity, at least among computers, is the inability to discriminate. Innovators thus knew that if their ideas were wanted, the network would run them.

The neutrality of the Internet Protocol (IP), essentially just an agreement on how computers communicate with each other, has encouraged innovators to develop countless programs unimagined by the Internet’s architects. The ‘dumb pipe’ of the Internet, unlike the highly regulated silos of traditional media, just doesn’t know how to distinguish between any of these.

As the content is divorced from the infrastructure that provides it, the Internet is infinitely expandable. There is no theoretical limit upon how many devices can connect to the Internet, subject to realizable minor adjustments such as IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6.)

Stuck in the silos

But Meeting the Digital Challenge, despite its ambitious title, shuns any major realignment of media policy towards this new environment in favour of minor and insubstantial readjustments. Most clearly, the paper indicates a continual focus on what can only be described as a textbook example of government’s mis-regulating a new technology, digital television. Digital television is a perfect example of the poverty of the silo model of regulation, indeed, of regulation in the sector as a whole.

A new Digital Action Plan is intended to spur along take-up of digital television, and is likely to provide for a switchover period sometime between 2010–2012, having admitted that the previous deadline of 2008 was unrealistic.

Although the discussion paper is scornful of a ‘purely market based’ approach, it is the rejection of market processes that has left the transition bogged down in its technological quagmire. While ostensibly trying to encourage takeup of the new technology, content restrictions which force networks to simulcast the same content on both digital and analogue television remove the natural advantage that new forms of media have – the capacity to show something new. Instead, for most people, the investment in a set-top box or television capable of receiving the new signals will provide merely an increase in picture quality.

Digital television needs to add value for consumers, value above its ‘digital’ attribute — which is not inherently good in isolation. But instead of addressing this key issue, proposals for a Digital Action Plan focus on measures to stimulate take-up while most existing restrictions remain in place — including digital television awareness campaigns, compulsory labelling for analogue receivers, and financial assistance for those who cannot afford the new-fangled technology.

It is good that the ABC and SBS have been allowed to provide multi-channelling on their digital spectrum — why could not similar measures be taken for the far more popular commercial networks? It is unlikely that this relaxation will be sufficient to reverse the national apathy to a technology which the government bodies are so enthusiastic about.

The only reform is radical reform

But both government and regulators need to face the fact that, even if they get the switchover perfect from here on in, and the regulatory environment is at its theoretical most effective, digital television is unlikely ever to be the cornerstone of Australian media. That ship has long sailed.

It is not even appropriate to call media delivered over the Internet ‘next generation’ — new services such as Google Video and iTunes, delivering television and video content on demand for negligible cost, may be the thin end of the wedge, but they are fully functional and increasingly popular.

On the same day that Communications Minister Helen Coonan released the discussion paper, Apple’s iTunes — which had already sold 1 billion music files worldwide, and was offering television programmes such as Lost and Desperate Housewives — offered its first movie for purchase and download. The on-line retailing giant, Amazon, will soon offer movie downloads, and Google Video has been offering classic films since the start of the year. (And this is all before accounting for the massive, virtually unmeasurable peer-to-peer networks trading in current international television programmes and films.)

Unlike digital television, the advantages of these new services are clear – providing content free from quotas, timetables or geographic borders. Even in its infancy, the Internet commands significant ground in consumers’ entertainment choices. The low price of Internet usage obscures its significance as an entertainment competitor, but a recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper, ‘Valuing Consumer Products by the Time Spent Using Them: An Application to the Internet’, showed that, in the United States, around 10 per cent of all leisure time was spent on the Internet.

This is before on-demand television and film services have begun to take effect — most services have been launched in early 2006. Once it gains even the moderate popularity commanded by music downloading, and across a wider demographic, the real ‘digital challenge’ will become evident.

Therefore, whether the government recognizes it or not, the only regulatory framework that can fulfil the objectives of the Broadcasting Services Act — particularly, diversity of content and ownership, quality, competition and even development and reflection of Australian national character — is one that allows entrepreneurial investors to roll out high speed end-to-end networks free from government interference.

Rather than promoting services with dubious value, the government would do better to radically deregulate media industries to level the playing field across the sector — reducing distinctions between types of network, and recognizing that, regardless of whether the service traditionally delivers only sound, or only television, they now compete with a technology uniquely suited to delivering entertainment.

Any regulations which apply to one form of media should, by rights, apply to any other. Mismatched regulations artificially cripple legacy networks at the very moment that they need maximum flexibility to compete.

Regulations which restrict content need to be quickly reassessed. Australian and local content quotas, whatever their nationalistic intent, are meaningless on an end-to-end network — there is no way to measure 55 per cent of infinity, and even if there were, no mechanism by which Australian regulators could enforce it on a global entertainment service such as iTunes.

Anti-siphoning and anti-hoarding provisions have necessarily disadvantaged new media networks like pay television and digital television by providing incumbents with privileged access to ‘premium’ content. It is more worrying that, as the Chairman of the ACCC has intimated, premium content on so-called ‘third generation’ mobile networks and broadband services could be considered competition bottlenecks. Rather than further entrenching this regime by tweaking ‘loopholes’ as the discussion paper does, a forward-thinking media policy would look carefully at the rationale for anti-siphoning. Releasing popular content from restrictions such as these would encourage migration to new services far more than a top-down Digital Action Plan ever could.

Meeting the Digital Challenge allows for greater flexibility in foreign and cross-media ownership, but significant restrictions still remain. Even before the Internet became a significant challenge to the market share of traditional media, the regulated diversity of ownership is a strikingly indirect method of ensuring diversity of content — editorial or otherwise. As consumers migrate to an infinitely expandable network which allows for unlimited entrants in a global entertainment market, artificial restrictions on ownership in Australia make less sense. Media companies no longer face competition from a restricted set of similarly protected competitors, but from IT upstarts across the world. The sector, and consumers, could benefit from a radical liberalization of the market.

It is unfortunate that the Government has skipped the chance to push through radical reforms of the media sector, at a time when the need for such reform is evident. Forward-thinking deregulation is not a pipe-dream in this area—every newspaper across the country has emphasized the ‘revolutionary’ potential of the Internet—but what remains is for the Government to take the same leadership it has shown in other areas such as industrial relations, rather than to kowtow to the largely protectionist media industry.

Releasing popular content from restrictions would encourage migration to new services far more than a top-down Digital Action Plan ever could