Dr Rhonda Jolly
Digital television: the Household Assistance Scheme
This Budget extends the Household Assistance Scheme (HAS), which was announced in the 2009–10 Budget, to help certain households in Mildura, regional South Australia, Broken Hill, regional Victoria and eastern Queensland to convert to digital television.
People who are in receipt of Age Pensions, Disability Support Pensions, Carer Payments, Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) service pensions or DVA income support supplements across Australia will be eligible to receive a high definition (HD) set top box under the scheme. Six months before each designated region is due to switchover to digital television Centrelink will invite eligible households to opt in to the scheme. The households will then be eligible to receive, at no cost, the set top box plus installation by a qualified installer and a demonstration of the technology. So far the scheme’s allocation of $15.1 million has assisted over 38 000 households, this Budget provides a further $308.8 million to cover the period to December 2013 when it is expected that digital switchover will be completed.
Extension of the HAS scheme has proven to be controversial, with one commentator labeling it silly and asking why pensioners cannot pay for their own set top box and have their relatives install it. Gerry Harvey, from the retailer Harvey Norman, has claimed that his company could install the boxes more cheaply than the average cost of $350 allocated by the Government to accredited installers. The Opposition has also questioned the viability of the scheme and in response the Government released a statement on 11 May justifying its operation. Stephen Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, was adamant in this statement that claims that HAS would ‘risk lives and damage businesses’ were ‘misleading and based on incorrect information’. The Minister also challenged Gerry Harvey to bid for the contract to install the set top boxes, with one illustrator wryly implying (as shown in the cartoon below) that Harvey’s comments may not necessarily be followed up with action.  The Opposition Leader continued discussion of the issue in his budget reply speech commenting that the program should be called ‘building the entertainment revolution’ and later remarking on the difference in pricing between the Government’s allocation and the Harvey Norman claims. Senator Conroy responded by releasing a further statement on 13 May which revealed that HAS had been developed in consultation with Vision Australia and that it had been supported by a specialist consumer group. In addition, the accreditation and registration process for installations had been developed in consultation with television industry groups.
Gerry Harvey and the set top box saga
It is interesting that the HAS scheme has taken this long to spark debate. As pointed out in the Parliamentary Library’s review of the Budget in 2009–10, it is clear that a fundamental consideration in introducing this type of scheme is its cost. The Library brief noted the substantial cost of a similar scheme in Britain. Similarly, the United States found that providing a large number of people with set top boxes was extremely expensive.
The bottom line, however, is that without a scheme such as HAS, it is probable that a number of households would be left with blank television screens after their areas make the switch to digital. So given the consistent rhetoric of governments, regardless of their persuasion, about the right of Australian audiences to have access to free-to-air broadcasts and to see events of national significance on their television sets, this scheme, or something similar was an inevitable component of the digital transition. It is regrettable that the debate about cost and alternative options did not take place sooner and that so much of the current debate has overlooked the issue that those who can least afford to make the transition to digital television are the beneficiaries of the scheme.
Community broadcasting: funding boost
This Budget also provides a funding boost of $12.5 million for community radio over four years to establish a new Community Radio Content Development Fund and to increase local content production. Some of this funding will be specifically targeted towards assisting the development of new content for Indigenous and ethnic radio and Radio for the Print Handicapped broadcasting.
The Community Broadcasting Association of Australia General manager, Kath Letch, welcomed the funding increase calling it ‘fresh hope’ that the Government was prepared to give greater recognition to the contribution community broadcasting makes to society and to assist many of its stations which are struggling to survive. The Australian Greens also welcomed the community broadcasting funding, but at the same time, the Greens pointed out that a number of community broadcasters in a joint submission to the Government in 2010 requested an additional $25 million in annual funding. Greens’ Senator, Scott Ludlam, highlighted the inconsistency with the funding allocated to the set top scheme and the lack of funding for a broadcasting sector that ‘includes a significant number of stations specifically catering to senior audiences’.
The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy noted that the rationale behind the boost to community broadcasting was that this sector plays a vital role in ‘supporting media diversity and providing communities with a local voice’. That having been said, there is some justification therefore in the sector’s pleas for more than what could be labelled token funding by some, given the size of the sector and its not inconsiderable audience of over 9.5 million Australians.
National Indigenous Television: possible new directions
The National Indigenous Television Service (NITV) began in 2007 as a private company, but with a government funding allocation of $48.5 million to allow it to broadcast until the end of June 2010. Funding was extended in 2010–11, pending the outcome of a review of Indigenous broadcasting (the Stevens review). Further funding of $15.2 million was announced in an interim government response in April and confirmed in the Budget to allow NITV to continue to broadcast during 2011–12.
The Stevens Review emphasised that Indigenous broadcasting has great potential to improve the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to support policy objectives in Indigenous affairs, in particular, closing the gap initiatives. The review delivered a number of significant recommendations for the Government to contemplate. One of these was that the ownership of NITV was transferred to the Government and that it was funded as an ongoing program on a triennial basis, as are the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service.
As the interim response noted, the 2011–12 funding will cover NITV’s operations during a transitional period, during which time responsibility for Indigenous broadcasting will be transferred to the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. During the transitional period the Communications Minister, Senator Conroy, intends to ‘negotiate with NITV a more sustainable structural model that achieves the sector’s widely held goal of providing more original Indigenous content on free-to-air television’. 
In effect therefore, the funding for NITV in this Budget allows the Government time to consider the Stevens’ recommendations and to negotiate with the Indigenous broadcasting sector, particularly with NITV, before making any decisions regarding funding arrangements for the service in the future. The NITV noted in April that it was looking forward to negotiations with the Government ‘in good faith, and with a sense of optimism about NITV and what it can do to make a positive difference to the lives of Indigenous Australians, and indeed all Australians’.
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