Media heads call for crackdown on ABC and SBS

Media heads call for crackdown on ABC and SBSSBS' offices in Melbourne, Australia. PHOTO: Alex Proimos / Wikimeda Commons

Australian commercial media created a united front this week to push for federal government action to level the playing field between them and the taxpayer-funded ABC and SBS, which offer free news content in competition to the subscription-based digital model publishers have been forced to adopt.

Media chiefs from Fairfax Media, News Corp Australia, Nine Entertainment, Foxtel and Seven West Media want the government to review the operations of the ABC and SBS and either restate or clarify the boundaries in which each operates.

Federal Communications Minister Senator Mitch Fifield said on Sunday night that while the broadcasters have independence, it is something the government would investigate.

“From time to time commercial media organisations have raised the issue of public broadcasters competing with them for content and programming. While the public broadcasters have legislated independence, it’s an area I’m looking at more closely,” he said.

News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller was angered by the activities of the public broadcasters in light the government’s inability to legislate media reforms.

“As commercial media fights to secure its future it waits and waits to be unshackled from outdated regulation that doesn’t apply to international competitors or the ABC or SBS,” he said.

“It is a real issue that as the commercial sector painfully waits for a political decision, the ABC and SBS are becoming more and more aggressive commercial competitors who are determined to join the ranks of digital streaming services rather than meet the unmet needs of Australia, and particularly, regional Australia.

“It is troubling that as regional Australia faces uncertainty in terms of media sources, the ABC is not helping give certainty by strengthening its commitment outside of metropolitan centres.”

Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood said: “At the very time the Turnbull government has reform legislation in parliament to deal with the structural issues facing the commercial media sector, its own agencies — the ABC and SBS — are using taxpayer dollars to distort the content market. This madness needs to stop. Senator Fifield needs to pull the reins on such activity — hard.

“The very strong view of the industry is that the ABC and SBS have exceeded their Charters. The Government needs to restate or clarify the boundaries in which the ABC and SBS operate. This should not include using taxpayers’ money to undercut commercial operators on programming and threaten jobs.”

Commercial outlets are particularly concerned about public broadcasters using taxpayer money to encroach on commercial spaces and reducing the opportunities available to companies that have to charge for their content.

The ABC currently has a deal with Google to appear higher in search term results for issues of national interests. Using Google AdWords, the broadcaster uses its funding to pay for increased visibility of key search terms, including “Sydney News”, “Breaking News”, “Political News”, International News”, and “National News”.

The deal sees commercial outlets fall lower in search results, which can have a serious impacts on revenue as they rely on ad revenue on a click through basis.

Free streaming is also a large concern for the industry. Both public broadcasters have their own free online streaming services, offering local and international content. While SBS On Demand has minimal ads, ABC iView is an ad free platform.

Fairfax Media, with Nine Entertainment Co, operate Stan, a paid subscription service which creates its own original programs while operating in Australia.

In May, Mr Hywood came out swinging at the ABC, stating that criticism from competing businesses was more than “commercial media whingeing”.

The move by the media chiefs comes a week after Mr Miller called for industry unity. At the Melbourne Press Club on last Tuesday, Mr Miller said that the industry needed to redraw “old demarcation lines”.

“The future of journalism will be determined by those who work together, work smarter, put their customers first and continue to invest in the craft that is of the utmost importance to this country – journalism,” he said.

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