Funding certainty for media programs

Budget Resources

Philip Dearman and Emma Vines

The 2023–24 Budget includes measures designed to provide certainty of funding for Australia’s national broadcasters, as well as further support for the eSafety Commissioner (eSafety) and viewers who receive direct-to-home free-to-air television via the Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST) service in the absence of available traditional infrastructure. It also provides further assistance to the Australian Associated Press (AAP) newswire service as part of a broader program aimed at supporting media diversity.

Funding for the national broadcasters

The government has delivered on its election commitment, announced in November 2021, to shift Australia’s national public broadcasters from a 3-yearly to a 5-yearly funding cycle. The budget papers announce that the government will ‘provide $7.7 billion over 5 years from 2023–24 to support Australia’s national broadcasters, including $6.0 billion for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and $1.8 billion for the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS)’ (Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2023–24, p. 171).

Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland announced on budget day that the ABC and SBS will receive an additional $72 million over 4 years ‘to extend and roll 3 previously terminating programs into ongoing funding’, including the ABC Enhanced News Gathering, the SBS Media Sector Support and the ABC and SBS Audio Description. These programs support journalism jobs in regional bureaus and provide increased accessibility for both linguistically diverse and vision impaired Australians.

Funding provided to the public broadcasters, and to the ABC in particular, has been the subject of substantial debate over recent years, with The Guardian reporting in February 2022 on ABC claims, made to a Senate Estimates committee, that it had lost $526 million since the 2014–15 Budget. At the same time, academic researchers argued ‘the ABC’s accumulated lost funding from fiscal years 2014–15 to 2024–25 will reach a staggering $1.201 billion’.

The ABC has welcomed the budget announcements, stating ‘the budget provides financial stability and allows the ABC to continue delivering on its charter, serving Australian audiences across the country and in our region’. News of possible job losses at the ABC, reported immediately after the Budget, does not appear to be connected to budget appropriations, but rather seems related to the restructure of news and content divisions announced in November 2022, and to the 11% pay rise (over 3 years) for ABC staff announced in April 2023.

SBS similarly welcomed the shift to a 5-year funding cycle, stating ‘SBS welcomes the continuity and stability which the five-year funding model provides, ensuring that we are able to keep delivering our vital services for all Australians and especially multilingual and First Nations communities’.

Online Safety

The government is providing additional funding to the eSafety Commissioner to support their work in online safety education, and its outreach and investigative activities.

Budget paper no. 2 (p. 179) indicates the government will provide $134.1 million in additional funding over the next 4 years, and $33.7 million per year ongoing, in addition to the office’s current base annual funding of $10.3 million. Minister Rowland made it clear in a budget day media release that the government was ‘increasing its base operational funding from $10.3 million to $42.5 million per year’.

eSafety was created by the Enhancing Online Safety for Children Act 2015 (and in fact, at that time the entity was titled ‘Children’s e-Safety Commissioner’). Subsequent legislative changes, including the Online Safety Act 2021, have broadened the role of eSafety: it is now a focal point of regulatory strategies for making the internet a safer place for all Australians, not only children.

The increased funding  is presented in the budget papers as delivering on the government’s commitments in 2 areas: it supports a wider regulatory response to technological change, which can empower Australians ‘to have safer and more positive online experiences’ (Budget strategy and outlook: budget paper no. 1: 2023–24, p. 152); and it is a component of the Women’s budget statement 2023–24, which states the additional funding:

will ensure eSafety can continue to fulfil its statutory obligations and support women’s safety online. It also allows eSafety to continue providing webinars and workshops that complement the National Plan [to End Violence against Women and Children 2022–2032] and help victim-survivors of technology facilitated abuse. (p. 55)

In the leadup to the Budget, the government claimed eSafety was facing a ‘funding cliff’ created by the former Coalition Government. This term was used in a budget day ministerial media release on communications funding, and also previously by Minister Rowland in Question Time on 27 March 2023, when she was asked about challenges faced by eSafety in supporting the Government’s objectives. She responded:

The fact is it has been relying on non-ongoing or terminating funding for years. Can you believe that eSafety's base funding of $10.3 million has never been increased since it was established in 2015? This is despite eSafety being given significantly expanded powers. In fact, after 30 June this year, thanks to funding decisions by the now opposition, eSafety would've faced a funding cliff, with their overall funding dropping from $53.8 million down to $23.3 million. That's a more than 50 per cent decrease, and as with every budget announced in the last government, they went for short-term expediency and never addressed the structural underfunding of key agencies like eSafety.

Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST)

The government will provide funding to extend the VAST program for 8 years, from 2023–24 (Budget paper no. 2, p. 186).

VAST was established in 2010 as part of the transition to digital TV in Australia. The program provides direct-to-home satellite free-to-air (FTA) TV services (commercial and public), and ABC and SBS radio services, for households where reliable reception of terrestrial FTA TV is not available. VAST is also available to travellers through mobile satellite reception equipment.

The program is operated by a consortium of regional TV companies and provided through Optus satellites. Free TV, the peak group representing commercial TV broadcasters in Australia, has welcomed the announcement of funding certainty for VAST, as has Optus.

While the Australian Government provides funding to commercial broadcasters through grant agreements, the provision of ABC and SBS TV and radio services on VAST is supported by the annual appropriations made to the national broadcasters. The Annual report 2021–22 of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications indicates that funding is provided to the regional broadcasters ‘for actual expenses incurred in providing the required commercial free-to-air services over VAST’, and that the broadcasters ‘must meet reporting requirements and key performance indicators, and provide invoices for expenses incurred’ (p. 125). It also notes a very minor increase in the number of registered VAST households, ‘from 250,953 to 252,644’ (p. 125).

A review of VAST was conducted in 2018, 2 years ahead of the original contracts with commercial broadcasters ending in June 2020. The issues paper for that review noted the rationale for funding broadcasters to provide such a service.

Traditionally, broadcasting services have been funded either directly by Government or by advertising revenue. However there have always been isolated areas of Australia that are difficult and expensive to cover with a terrestrial transmission. Advertising revenue has not been sufficient to justify commercial investment, hence special arrangements, such as VAST funding, being implemented as a safety net for viewers in these areas. (p. 14)

One outcome of the 2018 review was an extension of funding by the Morrison Government for a further 4 years to 2023–24, as announced in the 2020–21 Budget (Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2020–21, p. 144).

In a speech given to the Communications and Media Law Association seminar in November 2022, Minister Rowland stated that the future of VAST was an issue that had ‘been stuck in a cycle of short-termism’, and that it demanded ‘near-term consideration’ (p. 7).

Budget paper no. 2 lists the funding amount for VAST as ‘nfp’ (not for publication) due to commercial sensitivities (p. 186). However, the Regional ministerial budget statement: October 2022–23 indicates that the Australian Government has so far provided $172.7 million in total funding towards VAST from 2009–10 to 2023–24, including $14.1 million for 2022–23 and $14.3 million for 2023–24 (p. 190).

The statement added:

Over 262,000 households across Australia, primarily in regional and remote areas, rely on a Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST) service for access to free to-air television by direct-to-home satellite. This includes 38,000 travellers who also use the VAST service when travelling through areas where there is no signal from a terrestrial broadcast transmission site… Through funding provided by the National Indigenous Australians Agency, the VAST platform also carries Indigenous Community Television (ICTV) and 14 Indigenous radio services. (p. 190)

Supporting media diversity

The Budget includes $9.1 million over 3 years from 2022–23 to ‘support local news media and promote media literacy’ (Budget paper no. 2, p. 183). This includes:

  • $1.6 million in 2023–24 for further development of the News Media Assistance Program (NewsMAP), which received $4 million initial funding in the October 2022–23 Budget (Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: October 2022–23, p. 166)
  • $2.5 million over 2 years from 2023–24 to build media literacy in culturally and linguistically diverse communities
  • $5.0 million over 2 years from 2022–23 to support the financial sustainability of AAP.

AAP describes itself as ‘a purpose driven not-for-profit organisation … [which] no longer has any shareholders and is committed to independent, fact-based journalism’. The company receives a mix of philanthropic and government support. It has previously received $20 million from the Australian Government through the Public Interest News Gathering Program. AAP’s financial report for the year ended June 2022 indicates this funding agreement is scheduled to end on 28 June 2023 (p. 12). AAP has welcomed the additional funding, stating it is looking forward to working with the government on further development of the NewsMAP program.


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