Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Primary Television Broadcasting Service) Bill, 8 September 2015
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Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Primary Television Broadcasting Service) Bill, 8 September 2015


Mr FLETCHER (Bradfield Parliamentary Secretary
to the Minister for Communications) (16:43): I am pleased to speak on the Broadcasting
Legislation Amendment (Primary Television Broadcasting Service) Bill 2015. This is an
important bill which amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to allow free-to-air broadcasters
to deliver programing on their primary television services in either standard definition or
high-definition formats. In the time available to me, I would like
to firstly briefly review the history of digital television and why there was at the time a
mandate that the primary channel needed to be in standard definition.
Secondly, I want to make the point that times have now changed and the continuation of that
requirement would mean that Australians were missing out on the full potential of digital
television. And, thirdly, I want to explain, therefore, the rationale for the legislation
which is before the House this afternoon. Let me start with the historical rationale
for the requirement which presently applies to free-to-air broadcasters that they must
transmit their primary service in standard definition. This is a requirement which was
introduced at the start of the digital switch-over process, which was more than 10 years ago.
At the time, the installed base of television receivers was heavily dominated by analog
television devices, reflecting the fact that for many, many years television had been analog
and digital television had only commenced in around 1999 or 2000. Therefore, at the
time the switch-over commenced, not all televisions and set-top boxes were capable of receiving
high-definition content. Let me explain that point. The earliest digital television receivers
were mostly limited to standard definition. Only a minority of people at that time had
high-definition devices, and those were very expensive. Indeed, many people were viewing
digital television through a set-top box, which took the digital signal and converted
it into something which could be viewed on their analog device. So, at the time this
requirement was introduced, the majority of people were not able to receive a high-definition
signal. The majority of people at that time were experiencing and accessing digital television
through a standard-definition device, and it therefore made sense for there to be a
requirement that the primary channel was a standard-definition channel.
The context goes back to the introduction of digital television in 2000. At that time,
the existing commercial and national television broadcasters were given another seven megahertz
of spectrum in addition to the seven megahertz spectrum they had long held which they were
then using to deliver analog television, and they commenced broadcasting in digital as
well. In the old analog world, that seven megahertz of spectrum was required to deliver
a single channel, and consequently Australians, and indeed television viewers around the world,
for decades had been used to the notion that a particular broadcaster�such as, in the
Australian context, the ABC, Seven, Nine, Ten or the SBS�delivered a single channel
into a metropolitan market, or indeed non-metropolitan markets as well. The arrival of digital television
created a cornucopia of new possibilities, because that seven megahertz of spectrum translates
into roughly 20 megabits per second of capacity to broadcast, and the innovation with digital
television is that you can divide up that 20 megabits per second in a range of ways,
and you can deliver a standard-definition signal or you can deliver a high-definition
signal. The high-definition signal takes up more data but it produces a higher quality
picture. It was this technological change which needed
to be reflected in a range of policy settings. As I have indicated, one of those policy settings
was the requirement that the broadcasters must broadcast their so-called primary channel
in standard definition. Let me just touch on that for a second. We had had this notion
for decades that there was a single channel that a broadcaster delivered, but what happened
was that the broadcasters introduced a couple of additional channels. For example, for quite
a number of years now Channel 9 has had its primary channel, Channel 9, and its other
two channels, GO! and GEM. Seven, for example, has Channel 7, 7TWO and 7mate. But the notion
of the original single channel continuing as the primary channel became a commonplace
way of thinking about the offerings, and it was reinforced by this legislative requirement
that the primary channel must be in standard definition as a means of continuing to ensure
the maximum access to that channel, reflecting the fact that, certainly at the time when
this requirement was introduced, only a small number of people were able to receive a high-definition
service�because, as I have explained, the high-definition television receiver was much
more expensive than a standard-definition receiver.
The second point I want to make is that times have changed since the digital television
legislation was introduced and took effect in 2000. That is why it is now timely to be
updating the legislation to remove this requirement that the primary channel must be broadcast
in standard definition. On 10 December 2013 we completed, as a nation, the switch-over
process. From that point, there was no longer anywhere in Australia an analog signal being
broadcast on a simulcast basis with the digital signal. We had moved completely to digital,
following a process which had taken over a decade. During that period, there was an enormous
change in the composition of the national fleet, if I can call it that, of digital television
receivers and set-top boxes. We arrived at an outcome where, according
to a Newspoll survey conducted in February 2014, 96 per cent of all households had a
main television set or a set-top box that was capable of receiving high-definition content.
In other words, over that period of 14 years we had moved from an environment in which
only a small number of people had a digital television receiver or set-top box and, of
those, the majority were standard definition, to a world in which just about everybody had
a digital television receiver or set-top box and the vast majority of those were capable
of receiving high definition. That, of course, reflects technological evolution,
the growth of the market and the very significant increase in scale in the number of digital
television receivers and set-top boxes being manufactured by the major manufacturers around
the world. We have witnessed over that period of 13 or 14 years a very sharp drop in the
price of a digital television receiver or set-top box.
In short, we are now at a point where the concerns which originally motivated the requirement
that the primary channel must be broadcast in standard definition�essentially an equity
concern that many people would not be able to view a high-definition signal�is a concern
that largely no longer exists, because of the very high penetration of high-definition
television receivers and set-top boxes. Yet prior to the change which is embodied
in this legislation we have continued to have in the legislation the notion of a primary
channel and this requirement that the primary channel must be delivered in standard definition.
That has had a somewhat perverse outcome because of the fact that the primary channel typically
continues to be the one which is highest rating and therefore continues to be the one on which
the broadcasters show their most valuable and attractive content, particularly the marquee
sporting events such as the AFL and NRL grand finals. We have therefore had the curious
consequence that those highly desirable programs that millions of Australians want to watch
are being seen in standard definition by many people rather than high definition as an inadvertent
consequence of a regulatory setting that was put in place some 15 years ago for what at
the time was a very good reason. That does seem a shame. Australians love their
sport. We love to watch sporting events of all kinds on TV, and the capacity of high-definition
television to give us the richest possible viewing experience is something that Australians
very much value, but we have had this curious consequence of the existing regulatory framework
that we are not making the highest possible use of the technology. We are not capturing
the full potential of the technology, because even though, as the numbers show us, the vast
majority of Australians have a high-definition television receiver or a set-top box and are
capable of viewing high-definition television, because of this existing regulatory setting,
the primary channel has not been used by the broadcasters to deliver high-definition content
in a way that it could be. That is the issue which the effect of the bill before the House
this afternoon will fix. The bill this afternoon simply will now give
the flexibility to the broadcasters�both the national broadcasters and the commercial
broadcasters�to broadcast the primary service in either standard definition or high definition
as they choose. To think about it another way, this in effect gives the broadcaster
or the licence holder the capacity to choose which channel it treats as its primary channel,
which channel it markets and positions as its primary channel. It can do that knowing
that, however it makes that decision, it can broadcast in high definition or standard definition
as it chooses. Again I come back to the fact that digital
television is a technology with enormous flexibility. There are no technical limitations on slicing
up that 20 megabits per second in a range of different ways. Perhaps I will rephrase
that: there are some technical limitations on it, but there is certainly much greater
flexibility there than existed in analog television days, when your only option was to use the
entirety of your spectrum allocation to broadcast a single analog channel. The guiding philosophy
behind this legislation is to remove a regulatory burden which no longer does useful public
policy work but, on the contrary, in fact constrains the capacity of the broadcasters
on the one hand and viewers on the other to take advantage of the full potential of digital
television. This is a measure which delivers considerable
consumer benefit. Australians love our sport. We love watching sport on TV as well as going
to live events and we like to see the highest possible quality broadcast that we can. We
have the technology which allows sport to be broadcast in high definition. We have not
been taking full advantage of that capacity. The measures in this bill will remove an unnecessary
regulatory restriction and will in turn allow the broadcasters to meet the desire of Australians
to see the sport that they want to see in the highest quality standard that is available
with the technology that we have. This is a measure which removes a regulatory requirement
which is out of date and no longer does useful work, and it will as a consequence deliver
a significant consumer benefit. I commend the bill to the House.

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