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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s plan to put commercial Australian television shows on TV screens in the Pacific Islands has been criticised by free-to-air industry sources as a “multi-million dollar thought bubble” that duplicates services already provided by the public broadcaster.
The new initiative is expected to beam 1000 hours of local lifestyle programmes, news, children’s shows, drama and sports to Australia's Pacific neighbours in an effort to increase visibility in the region, backed by a $17.1 million fund in partnership with free-to-air television lobby group FreeTV.
But free-to-air television executives were bemused by the plan to get their hit mainstream shows in front of Pacific Islands viewers.
One television industry member said it was an example of Morrison’s plans to use “soft power” to improve global opinion about Australia and had no benefit for the free-to-air networks, while multiple sources described it as a "thought bubble" and queried how extensive the consultation had been ahead of allocating the funds.
Morrison initially discussed the plan in November and then provided additional public detail in January while visiting Vanuatu, explaining that the content will be distributed through local free-to-air networks when available or provided using other platforms (such as radio and online) when there isn't an option.
A particular point of criticism is due to what some senior industry members are calling a “doubling up” of responsibilities between the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the commercial free-to-air broadcasters under this arrangement.
The government-funded ABC delivers content internationally, with its 2017/18 corporate plan noting this is “both to influence the understanding and attitudes of foreign populations, primarily in the Asia-Pacific region, and to provide information to the million-strong Australians living and travelling abroad”.
The plan says Australia Plus Television is available to re-broadcasters in more than 40 countries in the Asia-Pacific, with Radio Australia broadcasting into the Pacific and Papua New Guinea.
On the ABC's international television service in the week ahead shows including Play School, Home & Away, The Drum, Insiders, 7.30, and Women's AFL coverage, will be aired in countries like Fiji, Vanuatu, Guam, Nauru, Samoa, Micronesia, Tonga and the Cook Islands.
“Broadcasting markets throughout the region are becoming increasingly competitive and international media services must compete for the attention of local audiences in markets that are increasingly congested and well-served by domestic radio and television providers, as well as global digital content platforms,” the plan says.
The government began a review into Australian broadcasting in Asia-Pacific last year, which has yet to be completed. The ABC’s submission to this investigation pointed out that "the only entities with which the Commonwealth may establish a paid contract for international broadcasting services are the ABC and prescribed companies under the ABC Act".
FreeTV chief executive Bridget Fair said Morrison's initiative was not a profit-making exercise for the commercial broadcasters and there had been several discussions.
“It’s a fund of $17 million over three years. That covers programme rights, delivery and administration and is cost recovery,” she said.
FreeTV’s members include all Australia’s commercial free-to-air television licenses such as Seven Network, Network Ten, Nine Entertainment (owner of this website), Southern Cross, Prime, WIN and Imparja.
“The first stage is a scoping exercise to work out how it’s provided and what type of content people are interested in receiving,” Fair said, with the group in "very early discussions" about the planning and technicalities of delivering the service.
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
Media Helping Media