Media sector reforms

Budget Review 2022–23 Index

Philip Dearman

The Government has allocated $24.8 million over 5 years (and $0.8 million per year ongoing) for a package of measures titled ‘Media Sector Reforms’ (Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2022–23, pp. 145–146). The measures were originally announced by the Government on 7 February 2022, in a set of policy proposals titled Media Policy Statement: Green Paper Response and Next Steps. That statement in turn is an outcome of a consultation process which started in November 2020 with the release of the Media Reform Green Paper, subtitled ‘Modernising television regulation in Australia’.

Funding for the Media Sector Reforms measures is a small proportion of the $3.3 billion annual funding allocated to the ‘broadcasting’ and ‘arts and cultural heritage’ sub-functions of the Budget, outlined in Budget strategy and outlook: budget paper no. 1: 2022–23 (p. 160), which support media and arts industries such as broadcasting, film and television production, live events, and public galleries and museums.

There is also $4.3 billion allocated for Australia’s national public broadcasters over 3 years from 2022–23 to 2024–25 (Budget paper no. 2, p. 146), which confirms the announcement by the Government on 7 February 2022 that it had ‘locked in’ new triennial funding agreements with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Corporation (SBS).

Size aside, the measures warrant examination because they point to some of the complex challenges the Government has encountered on its journey towards the goal of ‘media reform’ that it established early in the term of the 46th Parliament.

The first stage of that journey was an announcement in December 2019, when the Government responded to the final report of the Digital Platforms Inquiry with a number of commitments to support Australian media. This included—crucially—a commitment to a ‘harmonised media regulatory framework’, which would be achieved by:

… a staged process to reform media regulation towards an end state of a platform-neutral regulatory framework covering both online and offline delivery of media content to Australian consumers. (p. 9)

The Media Sector Reforms package includes 5 different elements, as set out below.

Journalism training

A total of $10.0 million is provided for a 2-year program titled the Journalist (Cadetship and Training) Fund, from 2021–22, ‘to support broadcasters and publishers to hire, train and upskill cadets and journalists to support public interest news in regional Australia’ (Budget paper no. 2, p. 145). The bulk of this money—$8.0 million—is to be spent on hiring cadets, while $2.0 million will go to upskilling journalists. The Media Policy Statement indicates that the latter funding ‘is likely to target identified gaps for regional journalists, including digital literacy.’ (p. 8)

It is not clear at this point what kinds of organisations will be able to offer this kind of training, but perhaps one likely candidate will be the University of Melbourne’s recently established Digital News Academy, which is a joint venture involving the Melbourne Business School, News Corp Australia and Google.

The guidelines for the cadetships state that each package ‘will have a total value (over two years) of $150,000. The Government will contribute 70 per cent of each cadetship package, up to $105,000, and successful grant recipients will be required to contribute the remaining 30 per cent.’ (p. 2) Applications for the cadetship funding have already opened and will continue until 20 April 2022. Guidelines for the upskilling component of the Fund have not yet been published.

This funding resembles 2 components of the Regional and Small Publishers Jobs and Innovation Package (RASPI), which was allocated $60.4 million when established in 2017, and which included the Regional Journalism Scholarships Program and the Regional and Small Publishers Cadetships Program.

A departmental submission to the Senate’s inquiry into media diversity noted that those 2 programs ultimately funded 66 scholarships at 16 universities and 43 cadetships at 39 small and regional publishers, with a total value of $4.5 million (Submission 49, p. 12). It further noted that $36.6 million of the original funding allocated to the RASPI program was ultimately diverted to the Public Interest News Gathering (PING) program, which was one of several short-term measures announced in April 2020 to support media businesses during COVID-19 (Submission 49, p. 13).

Research on the future of television

A new Television Research and Policy Development Program is to receive $7.3 million over 3 years from 2021–22, to ‘support the Government’s long-term media reforms in collaboration with industry’ (Budget paper no. 2, p. 145). Evidence provided at a recent Senate estimates hearing (p. 82) indicates this Program will research matters raised in the Media Reform Green Paper consultations, including about the technical capabilities of the approximately 20 million television sets that are currently in homes and commercial premises across the country, as well as ‘technology standards, spectrum questions and planning questions associated with any transition to new broadcast technologies.’

The Media Policy Statement (p. 13) notes that while Australia relies on free-to-air broadcasting—particular television services—to ‘deliver key public outcomes, namely quality Australian content and public interest news’, the available technologies and existing regulatory settings are ‘dated’.

The Statement (pp. 14–15) references several industry submissions to the Green Paper consultations which argued more time is needed to work through questions about technology standards and options for more efficient use of spectrum.

However, some industry groups have reportedly expressed frustration about the measures. The chief executive of Free TV, the industry lobby group for Australia’s commercial free-to-air television companies, has been reported by the Australian Financial Review to have ‘blasted’ the Government about key issues ‘like prominence, anti-siphoning and spectrum tax kicked into the long grass’. The report quoted Free TV CEO Bridget Fair as saying ‘broadcasters have waited almost a year for this response and to say we are underwhelmed is an understatement.’

In any case, the Media Policy Statement proposes that a new Future of Broadcasting Working Group will also be established alongside the new research program. This Working Group will be established in early 2022 and include a range of industry and government representatives. It will finalise its consideration of ‘technology futures’ by late 2023 (p.16).

Development of an Australian content and investment framework

Budget Paper No. 2 states that $4.0 million is being provided over 5 years, from 2021–22, to establish the Australian Content Reporting and Investment Framework which will ‘support the provision of Australian content to Australian audiences, including in relation to subscription video on demand (SVOD) services.’ (p. 145)

This is a conflation of 2 policies announced by the Minister on 7 February 2022. The first, set out in his media release on media sector reform refers to a new ‘Streaming Services Reporting and Investment Scheme [which will] incentivise and, as needed, require large subscription video on demand (SVOD, or streaming) services to invest in Australian content.’ This would affect streaming services operating in Australia, such as Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime and Disney+. The Media Policy Statement proposes that the scheme will ‘set clear expectations’ on large streaming services about how much they should spend on new Australian content, and ‘require reporting on investment and efforts to make Australian content discoverable to Australian audiences’ (p. 7). The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (DITRDC) has issued a discussion paper for consultation on the proposed scheme. Submissions can be made until 24 April 2022.

This proposal builds on a reporting regime introduced by the Government in September 2020 as part of a ‘simplification’ of the regulations pertaining to Australian screen content, which required large streaming services operating in Australia to report regularly to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) on their investment in Australian content.

The second policy under the umbrella of a ‘content and investment framework’ is referred to in the Minister’s media release on media sector reform as a ‘National Broadcasters Reporting Framework’, which will provide the Government with ‘enhanced information on the provision of Australian content by the ABC and SBS.’

On the same day, the Minister noted in a media release on triennial funding for the national public broadcasters that he had written to both organisations about their funding packages and issued Statements of Expectations to both the ABC and SBS regarding the proposed National Broadcasters Reporting Framework for Australian Content, and a range of other matters.

The Shadow Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland, has expressed concern about the proposed Framework, claiming the Minister ‘is not empowered to issue Statements of Expectations to the national broadcasters.’ She described any requirement for additional reporting by the broadcasters as ‘regulation by stealth’.

Continued access for remote television audiences to the VAST system

The Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST) service, which provides an alternative reception option for viewers in remote areas and in terrestrial digital television ‘black spots’ who are not able to receive television services from terrestrial transmission sites, has been allocated a further $3.5 million for 3 years from 2021–22 (Budget paper no. 2, p. 145).

A review of the VAST service published in December 2018 noted that while funding for the service was due to end in 2020, it should be continued ‘for the next 5 years, as it currently provides the only available cost effective and fit-for-purpose service delivery model for free-to-air television in areas not served by a terrestrial transmission service.’ (p. 41)

According to the DITRDC Portfolio Budget Statement, 252,644 households were registered for direct to home satellite television services through VAST at the end of December 2021. (p. 74)

Further financial assistance to regional commercial broadcasters

The package includes support for regional commercial broadcasters in the form of a rebate of the Commercial Broadcasting Tax (CBT) for 2 years, from 2022–23. This is expected to decrease revenue by $9.5 million (Budget paper no. 2, p. 145).

The Media Policy Statement (p. 19) notes that the CBT—which levies approximately $46 million per annum on commercial television and radio broadcasters for their use of spectrum—was implemented in 2017, as part of a package of media reforms which included the scrapping of licence fees for commercial broadcasters. The Statement also notes that transitional support payments were required to ‘ensure that no broadcaster was worse off under the new spectrum pricing arrangements, which expired in 2020–21.’ (p. 19)

The ACMA reviewed the CBT in 2021, proposing it should not be repealed, because ‘it provides the Government with the flexibility to impose a price on spectrum that represents its value and provides opportunities for recovering the indirect costs of spectrum management.’ (Media Policy Statement, p. 19)

The Statement concludes, on this point, that the Government ‘remains open to the idea of offering broadcasters a choice to move to lower cost operating models including an option for a new licence type with no CBT, but has made no decisions in this area.’ (p. 19) It proposes to continue the transitional support payments ‘so that no broadcaster is worse off due to the CBT arrangements implemented in 2017.’ (p. 19)


The significance of this package of measures is not in the volume of dollars allocated but in what each component signifies for the state of media policy in Australia: each component references a work in progress, from a past in need of ‘reform’, to a future that is yet to be calibrated as fully ‘platform neutral’—where media regulation is based on conduct and content rather than the mode by which content is delivered.

These matters have been recognised as highly significant. As the Media Reform Green Paper (p. 10) noted, in 2018–19 the Australian media sector employed approximately 90,000 Australians and at the same time generated an estimated $47.7 billion of domestic revenue through advertising and consumer spend in 2019. Media also provide access to public interest journalism, which in turn enables Australians ‘to hold governments, public officials and corporations to account and to participate in informed public debate.’ (p. 10)

Further, screen content which has a ‘focus on Australian stories, voices and perspectives’ is not only popular with audiences but also ‘helps to reflect Australia both to itself’ and ‘support cultural identity, social cohesion and points of connection between Australian citizens.’ (p. 10)

Questions about media reform present major challenges. This has been the case for a succession of governments, at least since the early 2010s when the focus was on ‘media convergence’—for example in reports by the Australian Law Reform Commission and by the Convergence Review Committee, both published in 2012.

The focus in 2022 is now on ‘harmonising’ regulatory frameworks, on subjecting digital platforms and other media to a more consistent set of rules and thereby creating what the Minister for Communications has called ‘a level playing field that promotes competition in Australian media and advertising markets’. The current Government has certainly made some progress towards this, including passage of the News Media Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, a new industry code on disinformation, and a consolidation of online safety legislation in the new Online Safety Act 2021.

But the work of media reform is ongoing, and the outcomes of these individual measures will be very interesting to watch.


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