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In Australia, the medium is the mess age.

In Australia, The Medium Is The Mess Age

Deregulation of the broadcasting industry is a hot topic in Australia and was hotly discussed in Sydney last month.

Organized by the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, this third annual conference was held at the Hilton International and featured seven speakers including: Moses Znaimer from Toronto's City TV, Sherrie Marshall, an FCC commissioner from Washington; Kim Bearley, Australia's Minister of Communications and Robert Campbell from the Seven Network, among others. About 130 delegates paid some A$700 each to attend the two-day conference. Among the delegate list was Grundy Organization's Ian Holmes, ABC's Michael Dunn and Ten Network's Gary Rice. The opening address was delivered by minister Bearley, who explained the reasons for reviewing "the fundamental of the regulatory structure." He said, "Preservation of the status quo is not an option."

FCC Commissioner Sherrie Marshall introduced America's "third phase of broadcasting regulation." She called it "reality test" regulation. "This scheme asks of the regulator diligent attention to the competitive facts and the crafting of regulation that is attuned to these facts." It was made clear that, in the U.S., regulation tends to help the underdog (see Cable Acts of 1974 and 1984) without affecting the major players. And when the underdog itself becomes large, regulation is introduced to favor emerging competition.

Later, professor Daniel Brenner, director of the Communications Law Program at UCLA Law School, tried to make Australians feel better by pointing out that Americans, too, like "massive debt of media companies," and "as a Nation [the U.S.] is committed to a free press, not a fair press." He also spoke about the "split personality of America's regulatory system. Our broadcasters operate as fierce competitors in a free market while residing in a framework that considers them public trustees."

Brenner also deplored the "pork bellies" effect that resulted from the elimination of the anti-traffic rule (buying and immediately reselling broadcast licenses.)

Australian media consultant Des Foster referred to a statement of Minister Bearley about "maximizing the diversity of the choice in services, where |supported' by diversity of ownership," as garbage. Said Foster: "It would not be garbage if it were a simple truth that diversity of ownership guarantees diversity of programs. But the cold reality is that it doesn't. The reality is that in almost all cases common ownership will produce the greater diversity of programs." He then concluded with a plea for "wide-ranging discretionary powers" for the Broadcasting Tribunal. Earlier he had found "the great weakness of the Australian Parliament is that it doesn't even take into account the wishes and preferences of the community concerned."

Quotes from Americans and references to the American broadcast system were made by various Australian speakers throughout the conference, which was also open to debate. To some, however the American presence was annoying. Wrote the Sun-Herald: "It came as a surprise to Sydney TV executives when the ABT sent a United Airlines ticket to Sherrie Marshall, [an FCC] commissioner, to attend a seminar on deregulation." This was Marshall's first visit to Australia.

The most interesting presentation came from City TV president Moses Znaimer who, after annoying his neighbors with his chatting and restlessness for the whole morning session, proceeded to deliver an emotional and well-received presentation in favor of deregulation. Znaimer's speech was introduced by a 15-minute video of his Toronto station, which he called a "TV factory without studios."

Seven Network's CEO Robert Campbell criticized the government for reducing the permissible levels of foreign investment (now at 20 per cent) and cutting off a critical source of finance. He also warned that increased competition caused by granting new commercial television licenses would lead to a drop in standards.

This prompted City TV's Znaimer to be quoted as saying that Australian television is old fashioned and behind the times. Earlier, Znaimer made clear that he'd like to expand his City TV original concept in other parts of the world.

On a final note, some confusion arose on the topic of Australian content. According to Campbell, the current requirement is 35 per cent, to reach 55 per cent in a five-year period. However, Peter Westerway, ABT's acting chairman, said that the content requirement is only 20 per cent. In a brief interview with Video Age, he also indicated some frustration over a lack of Australian programs in the U.S. and the need for less regulation.
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Title Annotation:Australia
Publication:Video Age International
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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