Stop Broadening Broadcasting!

Abstract: This article describes why the role of broadcasting regulators will diminish in future. It argues that the Australian Broadcasting Authority should not seek an expanded role, but instead should withdraw from pay-TV and preferably should be abolished altogether.

A. Two kinds of Authority.

In the mid-18th century, the French writer Voltaire said: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". This made Voltaire an authority on freedom of speech, not just because he was the creator (author) of this phrase, but even more because of the depth of the argumentation behind the phrase.

A different kind of authority is the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA). The ABA claims authority over many things people say, do, hear or see. This kind of authority has little depth, it just enforces compliance with its rules at the threat of punishment. This in itself is reason to doubt the ABA's ability investigate and draw logical conclusions. The ABA is not used to look at the strength of logical arguments. The ABA likes to rule, it doesn't bother whether the rules make sense.

B. ABA hangs on to Power.

Innovations in communications and computing have enabled technologies such as pay-TV and the Internet to deliver services that compete with the traditional broadcasting stations. Furthermore, political trends and international agreements favor freedom of speech and abolition of protectionist and patronizing regulation. Under the circumstances, the ABA can be expected to lose more and more 'authority' as time goes by. This development is supported by so many political, economic, social and moral arguments, that it is hard to find any arguments in favor of a more restrictive regime.

Meanwhile, the ABA stubbornly continues to promulgate instructions and prohibitions, hanging on to its power over traditional broadcasters, even seeking expansion of its 'authority' into new areas. It has just investigated online services and the conduct of Internet service providers. Without having a logical or workable definition of broadcasting to start with, it is investigating cable-TV and telephone services such as music-on-hold and sex-lines.

The Broadcasting Services Act 1992, a legacy of the former government's often ridiculed pay-TV policy, requires the Minister for Communications to review Australian content on pay-TV. Astonishingly, the Minister has asked this very ABA to investigate this matter. The prospect of future roles in regulating pay-TV make the ABA a biased stake-holder with a vested interest in the outcome. The ABA's incompetence to conduct proper research make this investigation a farce.

C. Content does not benefit.

The ABA seeks comments on how to encourage Australian content on pay-TV. But the ABA avoids any questions regarding its own role, despite the fact that the ABA itself obviously constitutes a huge barrier to development of pay-TV as a medium and its content.

By definition, pay-TV puts more choice into the hands of the viewer, making it more difficult to force unattractive content onto viewers.

It is a myth that prescriptions of a certain amount of "Australian" content on pay-TV will benefit the development of "Australian" content. In fact, such rules have a devastating effect on such content. Content forced to comply with such a regime inevitably suffers from patronage; each time new content is created or existing content is changed, measures have to be taken to ensure the result will comply with the rules. What is "Australian" content anyway? Do actors have to speak with a thick Australian accent? Do such rules make it easier to market such content overseas? Importantly, such a restrictive regime makes content look inferior to start with, unable to compete on its own merits; hampered by bureaucracy, such content will lack the confidence, spontaneity and innovation to be successful.

So, what can be done to encourage Australian content on pay-TV? The best thing the ABA can do is to withdraw from pay-TV; preferably, the ABA should be abolished altogether.

Appendix: Choose the Future!

Most communications analysts agree that the Internet will only grow in features, capacity and reach in future. Technological progress will eventually enable anyone anywhere in the world to operate the equivalent of a multi-channel interactive TV service aimed at a worldwide audience. The law may prohibit such a development in one country, but as deregulation brings down the price of telecommunications, there will be little cost difference between domestic access and cross-border access; subsequently, national legal measures will be ineffective. Today, people can already access services such as gambling, personalized news, banking and investment overseas, while encryption and electronic payment technology provide high levels of security for the associated financial transactions. In future, a large part of the economy will be located in cyberspace and communications and entertainment will spearhead this development.

Globalization implies that local services will more and more have to compete with services from elsewhere. For service providers this means that they have to improve their services in order to survive in future. The way customers are treated is an important aspect of such improvements. Customers will more and more expect service providers to care for privacy, confidentiality and security of information put in their trust; customers will expect to be able to communicate without Big Brother listening in and otherwise acting as a dictator. Service providers who can treat their customers with the respect that these customers expect, are in a much better position to face the future global competition.

To encourage developers of future technology, services and content, it is imperative that the existing system of patronage and prohibition is abolished. The old-fashioned legal regimes for broadcasting and telecommunications must be banned to history as undesirable restrictions that, even when rigidly enforced, will be ineffective in future. Attempts to patch up such legal frameworks are misguided efforts to preserve the past; such attempts are bound to backfire and stifle the development of future technology, services and content. Instead let's choose for the future! Let's choose for optionality!

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