December 2005 - January 2006



By Margaret Simons

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The Hyatt is an historic hotel, or what passes for one in this young city, and the front of the building is heritage-listed so the doormen have to fit in. The uniforms are a gesture to some idea of what a servant might have worn back in the 1920s, when power first came to settle in Canberra, the sort of gesture that only the rich and powerful can afford to make.

In early November, the long-socked, cloth-capped ones at the Canberra Hyatt were busy sweeping the rich and powerful out of taxis and Commonwealth cars. The occasion was the inaugural conference of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the government body formed by merging the old Australian Broadcasting Authority (of David Flint and cash-for-comment fame) with the more technically preoccupied Australian Communications Authority. ACMA has the job of managing that sweetest, most fearsome and most contested of public assets – the useable spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, otherwise known as broadcasting.

So this conference was about power, and about the future. Ian Alwill, the man from Nestle, built like a bull in a brown suit, used his turn on the platform to remind everyone that his company was the country’s third or fourth biggest advertiser. So you had all better listen. He wanted measurable results for his dollar. TV was still, he said, a medium like no other for delivering emotion. But he wanted more – to move the consumer, as fast as possible, along the line from being aware of a product to deciding to buy it. He wanted to deliver not only emotion but “functionality” – that is, information about his products, something which digital TV, with its extra channels and datacasting, makes possible.

The catch is, the networks don’t want multi-channelling, and so far they have successfully persuaded the government to prohibit it. Lots of channels mean lots of audiences, and the Mr Nestles of the world might not spend so much if the only audiences they can reach are small ones. Meanwhile the number of people watching free-to-air TV is dropping in any case. People, particularly young people, are doing other things. Largely, they are on the internet. “The networks,” said Mr Nestle, “can’t keep asking more and more for less and less.”

Here was the frisson at the conference, the fear. None of the present media empires can be confident that their business models will survive the next decade. They are struggling to catapult themselves into the future, and they are also trying to hold back the waves. Bridget Godwin, manager for regulatory and business affairs at Channel Seven, put it best when she said it was true that TV was a dinosaur industry – but “the dinosaurs were around for hundreds of thousands of years”. New media, she said, was not the meteor. But many people think it is at least the coming of the ice age.

For those of us struggling to remember what we learned at primary school about the way broadcasting works, the issues discussed at the ACMA conference could easily bamboozle. In normal conversation, people would throw off the doormen at the Canberra Hyatt have a silly uniform. They wear pinstripe trousers cut off at the calf and tucked into long, black socks. They wear waistcoats with false watch chains, and cloth caps. sentences containing terms like DVB and DVBH, IPTV and WiMAX, all butting up against each other. Research released during the conference shows many Australians haven’t a clue what any of this means, or even what digital TV might be. This is a worry. It means that the meteor, or the ice age, might hit without most of us understanding what is happening, leaving the dinosaurs to either evolve or die.

The initials translate as follows. DVB is digital video broadcasting, or digital TV, as distinct from the old analogue system most of us presently use. DVBH refers to hand-held digital TV, delivered on a mobile phone, a development everyone agreed was inevitable. Digital signals are more robust, less prone to interference. Hence better picture quality. And because they can be greatly compressed, more than one program can be broadcast on the same bandwidth. Hence multi-channelling. Channel Nine could, in theory, simultaneously broadcast 60 Minutes and a dissertation on the wonders of Nesquik. The audience could watch either of them, or both of them, or none of them. They might go online to download a podcast or read a blog instead.

IPTV stands for Internet Protocol Television – the delivery of TV over broadband internet lines, avoiding the need to use the broadcasting spectrum. But who owns the content? Will it be the same person who owns the wires? And what might the machinations of Telstra be? If Telstra owns the wires and controls the content, it is likely to become a media power that will make News Limited look puny.

WiMAX, on the other hand, is wireless broadband – a yet-to-be-fully-established technology that enables internet, radio and TV to be delivered on the airwaves, a more far-reaching version of the technology that already allows wireless internet in the home, in Qantas Club lounges and at certain five-star hotels. If you don’t need the wires, you don’t need Telstra. Which means the meteor might be coming for Telstra too, and that’s why Sol Trujillo is moving so fast. There is a lot of fear about.

In this new world, where will Mr Nestle spend his dollar? Will he spend it at all? And if the audience is everywhere, and never or very rarely massing, why would the politicians still listen to Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch? For now, the politicians are listening very hard indeed, which is why multi-casting is not allowed. The politicians will not take on the power of the moguls. The future is being held back.

On the first morning the conference-goers lined up to hear Communications Minister Helen Coonan’s keynote address. She told them that sooner or later the analogue TV signals would be turned off. But how would the government force people to make the switch, to buy new digital TVs or set-top boxes? Her speech, like all her speeches on this issue lately, was full of maybes and ifs. She did not say: “Maybe you will have to make fresh programs so people have a reason to make the switch. Prepare, dinosaurs, for the meteor. Let us have multi-channelling. Let us throw open this public asset, the broadcasting spectrum. Let it be public space. Let a thousand flowers bloom.”

There is a new cliche in the media world: “Content is King.” Everyone says it. Content is now a means of selling “connectivity”, of persuading media consumers to buy a package – telephone, internet and TV, perhaps – from one supplier. Or as Graeme Samuel, head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, put it, if you can’t control the arteries that bring media into the home, then you can try to control the blood.

And yet nobody at the conference really talked about content. Content is King, they say, but the old media companies refer and defer to this monarch without ever behaving as though content truly matters. There was no talk of investment in content, of new and brave ideas. No discussion of new drama. There was no discussion of how journalism or drama could be redefined for the new age, so that politics and social commentary might seem relevant, might actually touch people’s lives. There was no discussion of the junction between journalism and reality TV and drama. (Convergence does not apply only to technology.) And there was only one mention of the word “citizen”. Most of the time, Australians were referred to as “consumers”.

Robert Antulov represented Fairfax, owners of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers and hence tagged a “content creator”. Antulov, though, talked only of “platforms” – TV, magazines, newspapers, internet – and not of what goes into them. Antulov’s title is “director of strategy” and his biography said he was “supporting acquisition growth aspirations, while also guiding business unit strategy and organic growth initiatives”. He used to work for Coca-Cola.

I asked him how Fairfax could claim that its “premium content” was the key to its future when it had just announced redundancies for large numbers of journalists. How was Fairfax going to invest in new content? He didn’t really answer the question, but neither did his colleagues from Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited or Kerry Packer’s PBL.

Off the record, the people at the top of various media companies pointed out that “quality journalism” had never paid its way. It has always had to be subsidised – by the taxpayer at the ABC, by the benevolence of Murdoch at The Australian and Packer at The Bulletin, and at Fairfax by the streams of classified advertising. In the new world, the connection between the ads and the journalism had been broken. One could go online to buy a car without any need to encounter Michelle Grattan. Kerry Packer no longer runs a media company. He runs a gaming company with a media arm. Fairfax’s broadsheets now account for only a minority of its income.

“That kind of journalism is still important,” one of these people said. “It is a symbol, really, of journalistic values. Of where the company came from. But it is a niche product.”

And so journalists may become like the porters at the Canberra Hyatt – a symbolic gesture to the past. Or, in the case of The Australian and The Bulletin or Channel Nine’s Sunday program, an indulgence of rich men.

At the conference dinner Laurence O’Neill, classification regulatory manager at Channel Ten, sat next to Sharon Trotter, ACMA’s manager of content assessment. O’Neill is young, fresh-faced, intelligent and charming. He has the appearance of great frankness, or perhaps great naivety, and he and Trotter were clearly good friends. This struck me as strange, because only weeks earlier Trotter had helped write the report on the notorious Big Brother Uncut complaint about a housemate, Michael, who massaged a female housemate’s shoulders while his penis was exposed. ACMA’s report ultimately concluded that the scene did “debase” the woman, and Channel Ten subsequently announced that in future two classifiers would assess each episode prior to broadcast. Yet here were O’Neill and Trotter, taking pictures of each other on their mobile phones.

“How come you two are so friendly?” I asked O’Neill.

“Oh I don’t blame her for the stupid reports she has to write,” he said. It was all political, after all. Government backbenchers had complained. He understood how the

game worked, and he and Trotter had been drinking pals for years.

O’Neill told me he favoured total freedom of speech. All this regulation was bullshit. Paedophiles should be able to advocate paedophilia. That way, at least we know who

they are.

But his job requires him to be a censor. How did he square his beliefs with his work?

“Oh I can do an honest job. I apply the rules. I don’t have to believe in it.”

O’Neill has studied philosophy. He particularly liked studying free will and determinism, liked reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, liked the argument that we were completely free. Nasty content on TV, O’Neill told me, didn’t really have a bad effect. In films about serial killers, the detective always wins. How could that be encouraging serial killers? How could Big Brother be breaching community standards, he argued, when it was one of the most popular shows on TV? If the massage incident had happened on SBS the lefties would have been queuing up to defend it; but then SBS was a fake anyway, an ethnic TV station watched only by white members of the chattering classes. “The ethnics are all on Channel Ten watching Big Brother.”

I started to argue with him. If the media had no effect, why did advertisers bother spending money to appear during Big Brother? And if we acknowledged it had some effect, then surely that brought with it some responsibility?

At this point, O’Neill’s boss got angry. It was bloody bullshit, she said, to suggest that TV was responsible for society’s problems. One could not program around the fact that there might be wackos in the community. Wackos would get turned on by Target underwear ads. She threw down her napkin and flounced off.

I switched to using my own work as an example. If what I write has an effect, however minimal, do I not carry some responsibility? What is my responsibility?

O’Neill stopped and thought. He said: “Your responsibility is to write the truth as you see it, and to research and observe and write it with integrity. That’s the end of it. If it has an effect, it is the responsibility of the people it has an effect on.”

Hello Laurence O’Neill. I hope you still agree with yourself.

You see, content does matter. It really matters. It is the end, not the means. Only those who have never been affected by content, who have never recognised themselves or been touched by it, can possibly forget its importance. Content – the stories we tell, the patterns we make – is the thing that matters most. I think the future will belong to the people who best understand this. There weren’t many of them at the Canberra Hyatt.

Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons is an author, journalist and journalism academic. She has written numerous books, articles and essays, including the Quarterly Essay Cry Me a River: The Tragedy of the Murray–Darling Basin.


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