Mar 22, 2012

Broadcasting Services Amendment (Regional Commercial Radio) Bill 2012 – Second reading speech

Federation Chamber

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler—Leader of the House and Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) (11:12):  I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Regional Commercial Radio) Bill 2012 amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to ease the regulatory burden on regional commercial radio broadcasters which has arisen as a result of the operation of provisions introduced in the former government’s 2006 media reforms.

This bill makes changes to the regulatory arrangements for regional commercial radio licensees to reduce their overall regulatory requirements while ensuring they continue to provide local content for regional audiences.

It also provides appropriate exemptions for remote area, racing service licensees and the small number of licensees operating outside the Broadcasting Services Bands. It further revises provisions relating to certain types of changes of control of a licence known as a ‘trigger event’, including to allow improvements to business practices and reduce unintended consequences.

Regional commercial radio localism requirements

The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Act 2006 introduced a range of new obligations for regional commercial radio licensees relating to levels of local content, minimum service standards for local news and information, local presence requirements and changes of control known as ‘trigger events’.

Broadly speaking, there are two separate obligations.

First, there are provisions that apply to all regional commercial radio licensees requiring them to provide minimum amounts of ‘material of local significance’. The Australian Communications and Media Authority has defined ‘material of local significance’ in the Broadcasting Services (Additional Regional Commercial Radio Licence Condition—Material of Local Significance) Notice of 19 December 2007 as material that is hosted in, produced in, or relates to a regional commercial radio licensee’s licence area.

The minimum amount of material of local significance required to be broadcast by each regional commercial radio licensee differs. Most licensees must provide three hours on each of the five business days of each week, while lesser amounts apply for smaller broadcasters and racing radio.

Second, there are a series of additional and overlapping requirements that are imposed after certain changes of ownership—known as trigger events. The trigger event related provisions were introduced to guarantee minimum levels of local news and information, and ensure that changes in ownership did not result in high levels of syndicated content on regional commercial radio.

Following a trigger event, a licensee must in perpetuity meet minimum standards for local news and information, submit to the ACMA local content plans and annual compliance reports, and maintain a defined level of local presence (which includes staffing levels, and use of studios and other production facilities).

The commercial radio industry, Productivity Commission and the ACMA have all expressed concern with the inflexibility of the current legislation, noting that these regulatory requirements for regional commercial radio licensees are affecting the operation and viability of regional radio services.

These concerns were also borne out by respondents to the review of localism requirements which was undertaken in 2010. In some submissions licensees even said they had not employed extra staff for regional radio stations nor made additional investments in capital equipment because of the requirements.

Of particular concern is that once a broadcaster is subject to a trigger event, under the current legislation they are forever locked into maintaining the levels of local staffing and use of studios and facilities that existed prior to the trigger event. This is regardless of changed business or economic circumstances, changed audience demand, or technological developments.

With many regional commercial radio licensees already struggling to maintain profitability, these onerous requirements—as well as the administrative reporting burden associated with them—significantly reduce the ability of licensees to adapt their business to deal with new or changed market conditions.

The ACMA reports that 90 broadcasting licences have been affected by trigger events since the provision was introduced on 4 April 2007.

Providing flexibility and consistency while maintaining local content

The changes proposed by this bill will provide greater flexibility for regional commercial radio licensees in meeting their obligations to ensure minimum amounts of locally relevant content is available to regional audiences.

The bill takes into account the limited on-air staff available in some regional areas and the difficulty obtaining short-term replacements for staff on leave. The current requirement to comply with the local content and minimum service standard for news and information for 52 weeks of the year fails to take into account industry working arrangements such as the entitlement of some employees such as journalists to six weeks annual leave and radio announcers to more than four weeks leave in exchange for working Sundays and public holidays. While not all employees receive six weeks annual leave, reducing the compliance period by five weeks will assist the industry while maintaining local content for audiences.

The bill also provides those regional commercial radio operators affected by a trigger event with flexibility in the local presence and reporting requirements after a 24-month period. As mentioned earlier, the current legislation maintains these limitations in perpetuity and limits the ability of licence holders to adapt to changed business or economic circumstances.

The operation of this 24-month ‘sunset period’ on the local presence and reporting requirements will be considered as part of the statutory review of the provisions undertaken every three years. A transitional provision will cap the obligation to 24 months from the commencement date of the legislation for licensees affected by a past trigger event.

Licensees affected by a trigger event will still be required to provide local news and information and emergency warnings, ensuring that localism is still provided to regional audiences.

The government also recognises that the current legislation is not well suited to some categories of regional commercial radio licence holders, particularly those: operating in remote areas; providing predominantly racing services; or operating outside the broadcasting services bands (referred to as section 40 licence holders).

The wide geographic area covered by some licensees or the highly specialised nature of their content makes compliance with the current legislation particularly burdensome and this bill exempts these operators from the operation of the local content provisions. It also ensures consistent treatment of these categories of licence holders with respect to exemption from the application of the trigger event provisions. These changes will only affect a small number of licences and have a minimal impact.

The bill also provides a tighter definition of the circumstances in which a trigger event takes place so as to reflect consistency with media control principles outlined in section 1 of the Broadcasting Services Act, and allow for some specific situations to be exempted from the definition of a trigger event, for example, certain types of internal corporate restructures, transactions between close family members where there is no sale of shares, and in other limited circumstances. The ACMA will be given discretion to determine the extent to which the trigger event provisions apply so as to avoid or reduce unintended consequences from events which are not initiated by licence holders including, involuntary administration, bankruptcy and court orders. This bill eases the regulatory burden on regional commercial radio broadcasters which has arisen as a result of the operation of provisions introduced in the former government’s 2006 media reforms. The bill provides greater flexibility to the regional radio industry while maintaining the government’s commitment to local content for regional audiences, and I commend built about House.