Convergence Review heralds a dramatic shift in Australian media

New platforms and services will face the same requirements for content as traditional media. AAP

Light on detail and raising many more questions than it answers, yesterday’s Convergence Review interim report is still bold and far-reaching, driven by a fundamentally optimistic view of the future for Australian culture, content and communication.

For the first time, new platforms and services – including those operating outside Australia – will be meeting the same regulatory requirements for Australian content as free-to-air and subscription television.

The broadcast services bands will be opened up, and a new market-based pricing system for spectrum will be instituted. Australian games companies, app developers and interactive content producers will have access to a tax offset previously only available to feature film and television drama producers.

The cross-media ownership rules, a focus of passionate debate in years gone by, will be scrapped, along with the limit on the reach of commercial free to air networks. A new public interest test will be introduced for media mergers and takeovers, to be administered by a new convergent regulator.

This last proposal for a new regulator, which was the draft report’s main headline, is also one of the most curious. While the other proposed changes will require substantial overhaul (and, the report claims, trimming down) of existing legislation, it is not immediately clear why the roles and responsibilities proposed for the new authority could not be performed by the Australian Communications Media Authority (ACMA).

The proposed changes to Australian content regulation are enterprising and oriented to an as-yet unclear future media environment. In line with the review’s consistent emphasis on “regulatory parity”, the report proposes that all “Content Service Enterprises” be required to commit a percentage of total production expenditure to specified Australian content, along the lines of that currently operating for select subscription television channels.

The category of Content Service Enterprises is a broad and as yet ill-defined class of entities providing programs and other content to Australian audiences on any delivery platform.

It appears likely to cover large and small Australian players such as the existing free to air and subscription television companies, Bigpond and FetchTV, as well as international services that supply content to Australians including, presumably, Facebook, YouTube, and BBC iPlayer.

Some commentators are already suggesting that the imposition of this requirement on international services will discourage them from operating in Australia and potentially lead some Australian services to relocate offshore. And there are many questions about how these enterprises will be identified and monitored. But in theory at least, this is a bold attempt to spread the responsibility for supporting Australian content production to all services operating here.

The report also prioritises the encouragement of innovation through proposals to reduce the administrative and regulatory burden in some areas (though it remains to be seen whether cost savings will flow through to research and development), and through the extension of the Producer Offset to games and interactive content producers. Changes to spectrum allocation and use could also conceivably promote the development of innovative content and services.

While the report contains scant detail about either the nuts and bolts of the proposals, or how particular recommendations were reached, the report represents a dramatic shift in thinking about the future of Australian media.

Presumably the fine points will be revealed in the final report to the government, due in March. Submissions are invited by February 10. In the meantime, we can look forward to robust debate on the merits of these proposals as the major players and vested interests digest what promises to be the most extensive and comprehensive set of changes to media policy and industry settings ever seen in this country.