The latest submission by mainstream commercial TV channels to the government's review of media convergence unearths some new ways free-to-air TV would like to irritate us: even less commitment to timeslots and a reduced obligation to provide children's programming. But I am sympathetic to their desire for local content rules to spread across multiple channels.
We told you about the government convergence review earlier this year, and looked at the initial reactions from Free TV Australia (the umbrella body for Australia's commercial networks). Since then, the government has issued a framing paper covering the issues to be considered by the review, and Free TV Australia's submission contains some interesting new insights into how commercial networks would like to see TV evolve. Unsurprisingly, the things most Lifehacker readers would like to see happen -- commercial networks actually running shows when they say they will and running entire series once they start them -- are nowhere on the list.
Indeed, the submission argues that the existence of recording technologies means that existing rules about what times particular shows should appear are now largely irrelevant:
Consumers are now creating their own schedules for content consumption without even being aware that they are moving between platforms, let alone regulatory environments. As at May 2011, PVR penetration in Australia was 42% - timeshifting increasingly makes timezones irrelevant.
While time-shifting is clearly a useful technology, it's somewhat disingenuous to pretend that it is now so widespread that existing timeslots have no meaning at all. As Tim over at Mumbrella points out, ratings suggest that 90% of people still watch programming when it's transmitted, rather than recording it and watching it later. Doubtless that behaviour is influenced by the singular inability of commercial networks to actually stick to their quoted timeslots, and their frequent habit of dumping a show after two weeks.
The submission also argues that the requirement that 260 hours a year of children's programming and 130 hours of preschool programming is "overly burdensome", pointing to the existence of alternatives such as DVD, online entertainment, and dedicated pay TV and free-to-air children's channels. I suspect that the networks haven't entirely thought this through in business terms. Undoubtedly those channels provide an alternative, but I can't help thinking that as a mass-market channel, if you don't offer something to attract younger viewers, they'll never become older viewers. I already know children who are far more concerned about what's on Nick than what shows up on any mainstream network. That doesn't bode well for the ongoing need for TV networks to demonstrate to advertisers that they are attracting a younger demographic.
The argument with which I'm most sympathetic is that local content rules should apply to the entire suite of channels from any one provider, rather than just on a single channel. Right now, you'll be hard-pressed to find any new local content on the secondary digital commercial channels, with the big and notable exception of Neighbours on Eleven. Given that we're now two years away from these channels being available to everyone as part of digital switchover, allowing channels to spread their local drama investments (for instance) over multiple channels seems sensible.
The core of the commercial channel argument is that regulations currently apply very differently depending on platforms -- the rules for a TV show shown online are quite different to those shown on a free-to-air channel. That is a fair point, and one which goes beyond TV itself (the ongoing debate over games classification falls into the same category). However, there's still work to be done in demonstrating how consumers are actually served by commercial TV's often irritating behaviour.
Free TV Australia [PDF submission via ]
Lifehacker's weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.