The Federal Government yesterday formally admitted that the planned 2008 switchover date to digital television in Australia cannot be met, and has officially changed the date to 2010- 2012. It also flagged a new regime for services like mobile television.

“There is insufficient digital take-up to meet the current switchover date of December 31 2008 in metropolitan areas,” said Communications and IT Minister Helen Coonan. The Minister also raised the possibility of setting up a new organisation to oversee the change to digital telly. Coonan’s decision about digital switchover was part of the Federal Government’s new framework for media reform in Australia, released yesterday.

 As anticipated, reforms include the scrapping of cross-media ownership restrictions in favour of a regime of proposed safeguards to ensure no fewer than five independent operators (“voices” in pollie jargon) remain in metropolitan markets and four in regional markets. Coonan said there will be a requirement for public disclosure when a media outlet reports on the activities of a cross-held entity.

 “This package of reforms will allow the Australian media sector to move from the old analogue-based regime into the dynamic new world of digital content, where traditional media co-exist and compete with new delivery platforms,” the Minister said yesterday.

 “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.

 Other elements of the framework include:
– A “digital action” plan to drive take-up of digital TV;
– Opening up two reserved digital channels for new digital services like mobile television;
– A high-definition multi-channel permitted by the removal of simulcast requirements on high-definition television programming;
– Anti-siphoning scheme to be wound down through a “use it or lose it” approach from January 1 next year;
– Retaining media as a “sensitive sector” under foreign investment policy; and
– New powers for the Australian Communications and Media Authority

 Legislation to introduce the new framework is expected next year. Coonan did not say which part of 2007 would see the new laws imposed.

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