Australia has finalised controversial legislation restricting the number of TV channels in the digital era.
Legislation passed late yesterday (June 29) - the final instalment in the laws that will determine Australia's digital TV future - confirmed the three commercial incumbents' continuing monopoly of free-to-air services for at least five years. The only change was that national broadcasters ABC and SBS may now offer additional services.
The ruling also applies tight restrictions on new datacasters, making it impossible for computers to be merged into the TV set in Australia in the short term. And in what is seen as a concession to the pay TV sector, the incumbents cannot offer new channels, just enhancements of their existing services.
Greens Senator Bob Brown slammed the move for favouring existing commercial players such as Kerry Packer, majority owner of Australia's highest rating Nine Network. Earlier in the day, Brown called for the whole legislative package to be dumped so that the door could be opened for more players. He endorsed a call by Fred Hilmer, chief executive of leading publisher Fairfax, for a one-year review of media ownership aimed at reforming the industry.
The criticism comes after a week when the Coalition Government has been under attack in Parliament, accused of upholding the old power structures and putting emphasis on high-definition TV instead of a broader range of channels.
But industry observers argue that a lack of consensus from opposition parties meant that the main concession the government had to agree to was giving ABC and SBS some capacity to multi-channel. Both broadcasters have been banned from showing sport, drama or news on their new channels, and have no additional funding.
This week was seen as the deadline to pass the legislation in time for existing services to be offered in digital in urban areas on January 1. The broadcasters are being required to also simulcast in standard digital and analogue, and show 20 hours per week of HDTV within two years.