Finally More TV in Australia

In three years, there will be at least eight new channels on the living-room television, with other programs beamed straight to the mobile phone.

The new media regime proposed by the federal Government yesterday also promises that a greater range of sporting events will appear on pay-TV rather than free-to-air channels, as the owners of the sports rights are forced to screen events or give them up to Foxtel and others.

“It is consumers who will be the biggest winners, with access to a range of new services, potentially including several new digital channels, and even more to come in the transition to digital television,” said Communications Minister Helen Coonan as she unveiled the changes.

The reforms mean public broadcasters ABC and SBS will be able to show a greater range of material on their extra digital channels from next year.

From 2009, they will all be able to add another standard-definition channel. All the extra channels will only be available to Australians who buy a digital television or a digital set-top box that allows their existing analog set to pick up digital signals.

Limits on the new channels mean stations will not be able to screen sports content not already screened on their main analog channel. This would restrict Seven, for instance, from running a separate channel for Australian Rules football.

Despite the changes, Senator Coonan has put off any opportunity for a fourth free-to-air station until at least 2012, when the analog signal is switched off and everyone will have to convert to digital TVs or set-top boxes.

Instead of a new TV network, however, a range of new services is being proposed on the spare spectrum from 2009, including emerging mobile TV technology and other TV-like services.

Once the switch to digital television happens, all TV stations will be free to broadcast as many channels as they can in their spectrum allocation. Under the latest “compression” technology, this would be about eight for each existing station — or 40 free channels through the living room television.

There is still little detail about what sort of “new” services will be made available on the spare channels being offered from 2009.

“What I need to do was to get in-principle approval to allocate the new channels,” Senator Coonan said last night.

“Now we need to design the spectrum and see how it works. It is a very complex task. I am just not going to say what services they will, but it could be mobile or its could be an in-home service straight to your TV set. But it cannot be a fourth TV station by another name.”

She said that rules governing the spectrum and a plan for either selling it by auction or handing it out by “beauty parade” — where it is given to the bidder with the best proposal — would be formulated before the end of the year.

Pay-TV group Foxtel, which is 25 per cent owned by The Australian’s publisher, News Corporation, has been running trials of mobile TV services with Telstra and Macquarie Bank.