Media regulation in Australia will be dramatically changed over the next year. Senator Helen Coonan announced the adoption of a new media framework on 13 July, including a substantial strengthening of media regulator ACMA‘s powers and the relaxation of cross-media ownership restrictions.

The reforms

The Government’s reforms include the following changes to current regulation of the media industry:

–facilitating the adoption of digital television and consumers’ switch to the new service;
–enabling new digital services on spare spectrum;
–permitting multichanneling;
— relaxing cross-media ownership restrictions (while ensuring that no fewer than five independent “voices” remain in metropolitan markets and four in regional markets);
–relaxing genre broadcast requirements for ABC and SBS channels;
–ensuring local content for television and radio broadcasters in regional markets;
–relaxing the anti-siphoning scheme (making more sports content available for broadcast on pay TV);
–clarifying that the ACCC will ensure compliance with competition law under the mergers procision of section 50 of the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth), and that ACMA will ensure broadcasting diversity and local content, including enforcing the cross-media ownership safeguards to retain a minimum number of media groups;
–removing existing foreign ownership restrictions, but continuing to treat the media industry as a “sensitive sector” ; and
–increasing ACMA’s powers to regulate the broadcasting sector, including giving the Authority powers to to seek civil penalties and injunctions and to accept enforceable undertakings from broadcasters.

Legislation to enact these reforms will be drafted during 2006, for commencement in 2007. The conversion to digital, previously scheduled to take place by the end of 2008, has been reset until 2010-2012.

Reactions to the announced reforms have been mixed. While publisher Fairfax viewed the changes as allowing opportunities for growth, broadcasting and publishing behemoth News Corp has accused the reforms of being poorly designed and biased towards free to air television broadcasters.

There has been substantial criticism of the reforms, including of a lack of details as to how the conversion to digital will take place.

Not surprisingly, there was extended coverage of the reforms, including here, here, and here.

Some implications

What does all of this mean?

The change in media ownership laws means that there may be a substantial shakeup in the industry. Some media companies, such as Fairfax (the publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald), may become takeover targets as a result of the relaxation of these rules.

And what about this month’s Big Brother controversy? ACMA has been given expanded enforcement powers, including the ability to impose fines, obtain injunctions, use court-enforceable undertakings and issue infringement notices. Whether the new legislation eliminates the loophole that meant Network Ten did not actually violate any laws has yet to be seen.

The changes also mean a great deal more work for ACMA, which will see its investigation and enforcement powers increase. Chris Chapman, the chairman of the Authority, has reportedly instructed his staff to complete investigations at a faster pace (within six months — in contrast to lengthier investigations of up to more than 12 months).