The Federal Government’s media industry reforms were announced today. Those holding their breath for quicker digital TV roll-out and increased mandatory HDTV content will be disappointed.

Meanwhile, media big wigs are rejoicing at the dropping of cross-media and foreign ownership legislation that will put large media company mergers on the near horizon.

The switchover of free-to-air television from the existing analogue broadcast to digital has been pushed out from 2008 to “A new switchover target to commence in 2010-2012,” said the Minister for Communications, Helen Coonan, who tempered the delay with the announcement of a Digital Action Plan (DAP) designed to “Proactively drive digital take-up.”

“The DAP will require careful planning and close collaboration and cooperation from all stakeholders,” the Minister added. “It will identify the major tasks, processes and timeframes necessary to drive digital take-up and will consider whether a dedicated new body, such as the switchover organisation created in the UK, will best facilitate the steps required to achieve switchover. The DAP is under development and will be released later in 2006.”

On the cross- and foreign-media ownership legislation revisions, the Minister said “It is clear to the Government and to much of the industry that the media landscape is changing rapidly, and a flexible system is needed to allow media companies to adapt and prosper in the new digital environment.

“A far-sighted approach is needed to meet the needs of consumers now, and to provide the benefits of new technology into the future. The framework I am announcing today will open up opportunities for a range of innovative new services for consumers, while maintaining the existing services that the community already rely on and enjoy, including quality free-to-air television services.

“By allowing new entrants into the Australian media industry, the Government will encourage increased diversity and new sources of information and entertainment.”

The Government also announced it will:

· Open up two reserved digital channels for new digital services such as mobile television or new in-home services.

· Permit commercial free-to-air television stations to broadcast one standard definition multichannel from 2009, and to allow full multichannelling no later than the time of digital switchover.

· Permit a high definition multichannel by removing the simulcast requirement on high definition television programming.

· Reform the anti-siphoning scheme by introducing a “use it or lose it” system for sporting events on the list to commence on 1 January 2007.

· Relax the current restrictions on cross-media ownership subject to safeguards.

· Remove the existing foreign ownership restrictions but retain the media industry as a “sensitive sector” under the Government’s Foreign Investment Policy.

· Give the Australian Communications and Media Authority a range of new powers to regulate broadcasting, including power to seek civil penalties and injunctions and to accept enforceable undertakings from broadcasters.

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