09 September 2015

I am pleased to make a contribution to this debate on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Primary Television Broadcasting Service) Bill 2015. The bill amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to allow commercial and national free-to-air broadcasters to provide their primary television broadcasting services in standard definition or high definition—SD or HD. Currently, the free-to-air broadcasters are required to broadcast their primary services in SD only.

In January this year the Department of Communications released the consultation paper on digital television regulation, which sought views on future arrangements for digital television regulation. The bill implements the proposed measure from the review to allow free-to-air broadcasters to provide their primary service in either SD or HD, and I think it is instructive to look at some of those key questions in the context of this debate that we are having today.

Firstly, in section 1.3, consideration is given to the primary channel, and it states:

This paper also considers whether the distinction between a television broadcaster’s primary channel and any other multi-channels remains relevant in a digital-only world.

It then turns to two preliminary government positions. Firstly, it states:

The requirement for the primary channel to be provided in standard definition will be removed.

And it states there will be:

No reintroduction of a quota requiring a specified amount of HD content

I also think it is instructive to look at some of the small number of submissions that were made to that review and what their views were on these key questions. For example, in relation to removing the requirement to provide standard definition for the primary channels, Free TV states:

The requirement for the primary channel to be provided in standard definition is outdated and should be removed. In an all-digital environment, this requirement no longer has any relevance.

Furthermore, Free TV also supports the position not to go ahead on the reintroduction of a quota which specifies an amount of HD content, and it states:

There are sufficient commercial incentives for broadcasters to provide content in HD without a quota requirement.

Very similarly in terms of the high-definition issues, the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia supports the position not to reintroduce a quota requiring a specified amount of high-definition content. It further submitted:

Beyond a requirement for primary services, providing flexibility to broadcasters seems the best way to allow agile response to technological changes and maintain an appropriate balance. Soon enough there may be pressure for Ultra High Definition.

And I am sure that is not too far away.

I want to mention the submission by ACCAN. In its comments, ACCAN made a specific reference to deaf or hearing-impaired Australians. They note:

… Australians who are Deaf or hearing impaired, or indeed any Australians who rely on closed captions to enjoy television do not have access to the ‘full range’ of freeâ��toâ��air broadcast television due to the fact that only primary channels are required to provide 100 per cent closed captioning and this is only between the hours of 6am and midnight.

It goes on to state:

ACCAN’s research indicates that over 30 per cent of Australians use closedâ��captions some of the time when watching television and it is widely known that many Australians who are Deaf or hearing impaired rely on closedâ��captions to gain meaningful access to television news, information and entertainment. The numbers will only increase in future decades due to the impact of current demographics.

The reason I specifically raised that is I that want to acknowledge the work that is being done by ACCAN, Vision Australia and a number of other groups with whom they have partnered. Many members and senators would have dropped in today to the session by Vision Australia, an informative event on audio description. Indeed, its heading was 'How do you watch television when you are blind?'

I want to acknowledge Vision Australia and thank them for bringing this to the attention of members. I have raised this in the House on previous occasions, and I think it is a key issue that we need to address as a parliament, to ensure that we are as inclusive as possible in our broadcasting and general communications regimes.

Turning back to these issues of SD and HD, the explanatory memorandum states:

The proposed measure was strongly supported by both industry and by members of the public who are in favour of watching major events, including sporting events, in HD format.

As a result of this bill there will be a number of consequential amendments to the anti-siphoning regime under schedule 4 of the BSA and a number of other provisions. The explanatory memorandum also states:

The proposed changes would not materially affect the operation of these parts, but take into account the proposed amendment to allow a primary service to be broadcast in SD or HD.

I think it is instructive to consider the difference between SD and HD. It is fundamentally one of resolution. HD allows for more pixels, the miniscule areas of illumination or colour that combine to make up the pictures that we see on various devices. When we view them on the screen, compared with SD broadcasting, they lead to a sharper image.

As I mentioned, we are now seeing ultra-HD broadcasting or 4K broadcasting, which see even more pixels displayed at specific resolution levels. But resolution is not the only difference. There is a difference when it comes to the aspect ratio. In a nutshell, SD can be displayed in both four to three—that is, for every four inches wide the picture needs to be three inches tall—and 16 to nine, which is letterboxed, while HD is displayed in 16 to nine only. Fundamentally, what this all means is that the user experience is better on HD than on SD as it offers a sharper and clearer picture.

This change has been strongly supported by both industry and the general public. It allows commercial and national broadcasters to determine the best mix of services and format for their audiences. I agree that the requirement to provide the primary service in SD is outdated, and this bill is indeed a sensible update to reflect this. It is obvious that the Australian public want to enjoy their favourite content, especially sport, on high-definition television.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the specific advocacy which has been done by the member for Chifley on this issue. Six or so months ago, in February this year, he indeed addressed the parliament, and I think it is appropriate to reiterate some of the content of that contribution in this context. He said:

In 2014 I was staggered that you still could not get, on your primary channel, the main sporting events of this country on high definition. It is something that I raised publicly at the time, and I was very critical of the fact that free-to-air channels do not do this, but they commendably and patiently explained that it was not entirely their fault.

They certainly do feel the anger, the ire, of footy fans. In particular I note this one on the fan site BigFooty, who said:

'In this modern era with billion dollar TV rights it is nothing short of a joke that our sports biggest day is shown in SD.

… … …

Some might say "get over it" or "not first world problem" but this is a massive industry and the great game is let down by not being telecast in HD.'

Fair call! So why are we being so poorly done by?

He goes on:

In December 2013, Free TV Australia wrote to Minister Turnbull requesting a change to the law to allow HDTV on the primary channels. They have proposed to the government that we get rid of the restriction on HD on the main channel. This is a quote from Julie Flynn. As she rightly points out:

'This is something they could do tomorrow. Just do it. It’s bleedingly obvious.'

This discussion paper was released in January and they are asking the industry to respond by March. As the industry association rightly points out, this could be done tomorrow. You do not need a discussion paper and you certainly do not need the red tape of a discussion paper to do it.

He goes on:

I certainly think the public would appreciate it if we were able to change the law, cut the red tape and make sure our sports are in high definition glory. It is the least we could expect in this day and age … Certainly the bulk of the public, and those who do not have subscriber TV, should be entitled to see something that in this day and age, in other parts of the world, is freely available. You would expect a country as great as ours to be able to show the sports the public love.

Some six months later, despite the fact that that discussion paper did go ahead, I am sure the member for Chifley would be very pleased with the position that we have arrived at today.

I want to mention briefly the potential human rights implications of the bill. I agree that this bill is compatible with those obligations. It potentially engages a number of human rights, specifically the rights of people with a disability, the right to equality and nondiscrimination and the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

As noted in the explanatory memorandum, rates of HD equipment penetration are very high. In 2014, Newspoll found that 96 per cent of all households had a television set or set-top box that provided them access to high-definition content. I suspect that the number would be even higher if we were to take that poll today. Also, it is likely that people with a disability already have access to HD channels due to a number of schemes and supplements offered by the Commonwealth. As stated in the explanatory memorandum:

To the extent that the measures in the Bill may engage rights … as outlined above, the measures are reasonable and proportionate to the goal of reducing the regulatory burden on the broadcasting industry and providing the Australian community with access to high quality free-to-air programming.

I want to raise in my closing comments some of the minister's own remarks in his second reading speech on this bill. The minister mentioned the transition we are seeing in how video content is being consumed. The minister noted, in part:

As so much more of the program video content is going over the top—that is to say, it is being provided over streamed internet services like Presto, like Netflix, like Stan—and as viewers want to be able to watch episode drama programs, for example, at their convenience, the value of live events, particularly live sport, is of greater and greater importance.

I will take up those points about some of these video-on-demand services. As the minister would know, fast and reliable broadband connectivity is crucial to allowing all Australians to enjoy these services. Unfortunately, this is something that the minister is actively stifling by pursuing his multitechnology-mix model.

You do not have to take it from me. You only need to look at last week, at comments made by Presto on 31 August. The headline is 'Presto says Australia's internet speeds too slow for 4K content and blames new NBN'. That is precisely what it says: 'too slow for 4K content and blames new NBN'. I quote:

THE country is missing out on the latest television technology because the Federal Government abandoned the original National Broadband Network plan and banished households to inadequate broadband speeds, according to a top Presto executive.

The TV-streaming firm—

that is, Presto—

will officially launch new phone and tablet apps, Apple TV streaming, and high-definition content for subscribers on Tuesday—

that is, last week—

but it will postpone offering 4K content until broadband speeds improve in Australia.

Presto IP services senior product manager Richard Cole said the company had considered offering 4K streaming content but decided broadband speeds in the country were not yet up to the task.

Mr Cole is quoted:

With an NBN as per the original design, it wouldn't have been an issue to do 4K (content) …

The article goes on to note:

Australia's average internet speed is just 6.9 Mbps—

megabits per second—

according to the Akamai State of the internet report, bringing its ranking to 44th in the world, and barely enough to stream 720p high-definition video.

The article ends in part by noting:

Australia's original NBN plan involved connecting fibre optic cable to most homes, while the new plan uses a mix of slower technology, including the old copper … network.

There you have it, Mr Deputy Speaker. While this bill is a welcome move, the minister's handling of our broadband infrastructure is inhibiting the ability of Australians to enjoy high-quality, high-definition, over-the-top services. They are the consequences. They are the facts from the providers themselves.

In conclusion: this bill provides a sensible update to the BSA. It will allow Australians to view their favourite television programs and sporting matches in HD. I want to acknowledge the advocacy of many who have contributed to this important development, specifically the member for Chifley, who I am sure will be very pleased with this. It is just a pity that he and I will not be watching our beloved Eels in this year's grand final, but there is always next year.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Mitchell ): As a Carlton supporter, I say that every year!