Labour keeping an eye on Sky

22:57, Jul 07 2009

Sky Television may have persuaded the Government to kill off a sweeping review of broadcasting regulations, but it still has some way to go to remove the threat to its business that could be posed by a returning Labour government.

Labour broadcasting spokesman Brendon Burns says the Government has a "cosy relationship with Sky", and argues Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman's decision to terminate the review was based more on philosophy than fact.

He has accused Dr Coleman of misrepresenting advice provided by Culture and Heritage Ministry officials when canning the review, kicked off by Labour in 2007.

"If you look at our environment, it is the most unregulated broadcasting sector in the Western World. We have no real regulation of broadcasting, no `anti-syphoning' legislation, no cross-media ownership laws and no requirement for New Zealand content.

"Dr Coleman's stated position is that consumers have never had so much choice, that there are 80 channels out there, mostly on the Sky platform. My question would be, does that deliver to all of the needs and aspirations of New Zealanders?"

Anti-syphoning regulation would prevent Sky from buying exclusive rights to broadcast events of national significance, such as All Blacks games.

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Mr Burns says Sky has its place in the firmament, but Labour wants to ensure free-to-air television survives. He points to a briefing to Dr Coleman by the Crown Company Monitoring Advisory Unit as evidence that that can't be taken for granted.

The agency warned that Television New Zealand's audience share was gradually declining due to the impact of competition from pay TV and other broadcasters, and this could ultimately affect its ability to buy programming, sending TVNZ into a downward spiral.

"As those other broadcasters' audience shares increase, their programming budgets are likely to also increase, meaning that they can outbid TVNZ when purchasing programming," the unit said. "The risk is that this may then exacerbate TVNZ's decline in viewership."

Similar concerns have been voiced by former Freeview general manager Steve Browning, but may have additional resonance coming from a government agency that is charged with dispassionately monitoring investments in Crown-owned companies.

Mr Burns, a newbie MP and former newspaper editor, says he is still formulating Labour's broadcasting policy and has no insight into why Labour did not press ahead and conclude the broadcasting review while it had the chance. But he says some things are becoming clear.

Sky's success in winning the rights to broadcast the 2011 Rugby World Cup without proper clarity about which games would be broadcast free-to-air and when, highlights the case for anti-syphoning legislation, he says.

Perhaps of more concern to Sky, Mr Burns says the Culture and Heritage Ministry's suggestion that broadcasting regulation come under the auspices of the telecommunications commissioner seems sensible.

TVNZ proposed one outcome of a merger of telecommunications and broadcasting regulation should be the imposition of Telecom-like operational separation on Sky, that would see the "unbundling" of its set-top boxes.

The Dominion Post