ACMA registers new TV code to keep pace with streaming

The media industry regulator has registered a new code governing commercial TV standards in a bid to cover the advent of streaming services and the ability to broadcast across multiple platforms.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has announced the registration of a new Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice in large part to deal with the impacts of the burgeoning IPTV sector.

The code [PDF], submitted to the ACMA by industry group Free TV Australia, was mainly written in response to how streaming services such as Netflix have affected complaints handling, privacy, advertising, content programming, and classification.

"Since the previous code was registered in late 2009, there have been tremendous shifts in the media landscape. Many of the provisions in the earlier code had been around for 20 years or so -- from an analogue era where viewers could only source content from three commercial free-to-air channels and two national broadcasting channels," said ACMA chairman Chris Chapman.

"The new code reflects the reality that television is operating in a new, digital era in which content can be viewed from a wide variety of sources and on a wide variety of platforms. The digital era has brought many challenges for broadcasters, and there were aspects of the previous code which made it difficult for them to respond and innovate."

The updated code, which had regard to the ACMA's 2013 Contemporary Community Safeguards Inquiry, will allow for increased programming flexibility while maintaining consumer safeguards on classification and regulation, according to the ACMA.

The industry regulator also took into account submissions from affected parties.

"'This code is the product of a robust engagement between the ACMA, the commercial television sector and its audiences, manifest in submissions made by individual viewers and advocacy groups," Chapman said.

According to Free TV chairman Harold Mitchell, the code allows traditional broadcasters more freedom to respond to the digitisation of TV services, particularly the advent of enabling consumers to view broadcasts across multiple digital platforms.

"It has resulted in a code which reflects commercial television's place in Australia's modern, diversified media economy, where viewers can access content at any time on any number of devices and platforms," Mitchell said [PDF].

However, while both Free TV and the ACMA stated that the new code "reflects Australia's contemporary digital media environment and supports a wider range of programming choices for audiences", the code itself makes no explicit mention of streaming, IPTV, or video on demand.

Last week, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) argued that advances in technology such as streaming television have also gone beyond the scope of competition laws, with legal and policy framework needing to catch up to innovation.

"I think our media laws would be an excellent place to start. Flowing from our analysis of the media market in our assessment of the Foxtel/Network Ten transactions, the ACCC is well placed to have views on these issues," said ACCC chairman Rod Sims.

"The 2 out of 3 media ownership rules may be preventing efficient delivery of content over multiple platforms, and should be reviewed to see if they are still relevant for the preservation of diversity. Surely laws that restrict acquisitions need clear justification. Changing technology may have made the initial justification for the 2 out of 3 rule, from 30 years ago, redundant.

"The 75 percent reach rule has been undermined by the ability of commercial free-to-air television to stream their content nationally via the internet. Both the 2 out of 3 rule and the 75 percent reach rule were introduced before the emergence of the internet."

Sims added that the anti-siphoning rule may also need to be revised due to the increasing popularity of streaming, though this would need to be balanced against the risk of pay TV providers acquiring all high-value broadcasts and consequently being able to drive up pricing.

Last month, the ACCC approved an acquisition deal between Ten Network and Foxtel, giving Ten the option to take a 10 percent stake in Australian video-streaming service Presto, while Foxtel acquires 15 percent of Ten.

The ACCC had been initially wary of approving the deal, saying in September that it could reduce competition in the traditional TV broadcasting market, but eventually decided that it was satisfied the deal would not have this effect.

In approving the deal, the ACCC said it also had consideration of encouraging competition among streaming services.

"The ACCC considers the other free-to-air television networks, pay television providers, and online service providers will continue to have sufficient alternatives to allow them to obtain content that is attractive to their viewers," Sims said.

"Foxtel and Ten will continue to face competition from the remaining free-to-air networks, and streaming services are also likely to become increasingly important."

The increasing popularity of streaming services has seen the Australian government recently unveil its draft exposure legislation that will see GST added to all digital products and services purchased online by Australians from mid-2017.

The ACMA's new TV code will come into operation from December 1, 2015.