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Pay TV eyes a slice of public pie
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Pay TV eyes a slice of public pie - 09-March-2009, 06:59

A DISPUTE has erupted between the ABC and the subscription television industry, triggered by a call by the pay TV channel Sky News for taxpayer-funded broadcasters to compete with the private sector for government money to set up new channel.s

Sky News, which is shown on Foxtel and Austar, said funding for a proposed new children's channel or education channel should not automatically go to public broadcasters.

"The Government should open a fair and transparent contest between public and private providers to deliver new taxpayer-funded services," the chief executive of Sky News, Angelos Frangopoulos, told the Australian Broadcasting Summit in Sydney yesterday.

He said Sky News would contest the ABC's $20 million contract to run the television station Australia Network, which is broadcast throughout Asia for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The contract expires next year.

The managing director of the ABC, Mark Scott, retorted last night that Sky's calls to tender for such services were "more a reflection of the financial constraints they are under … than an indication of the depth and breadth and quality and independence and integrity of the services that they can offer".

"We don't think the Australian Government should outsource its broadcasting diplomacy to Rupert Murdoch's media empire," he told the Herald. Commercial media were under significant pressure, "but the answer is not to squeeze the ABC out from roles that the ABC is best placed to deliver".

He stressed the ABC was not captive to delivering profits to shareholders.

Sky News is equally owned by Mr Murdoch's BSkyB, PBL Media and Kerry Stokes's Seven Network. Its ambitious bid for public funding came after SBS on Wednesday compared itself to an Oliver Twist character living on stale bread and gruel.

Sniping at SBS, Mr Frangopoulos said the multicultural broadcaster "may be better served, and better serve its audiences and taxpayers, by returning to its roots".

The ABC hopes to get a funding increase in the budget in May to set up a dedicated children's TV channel, and has plans to provide an education channel. SBS has requested a 37 per cent increase in its budget to start new TV and radio services.

Mr Frangopoulos argued that opening the closed shop for taxpayer-funded TV services would improve efficiency and increase quality, regardless of who won. Competition would inspire innovation and diversity.

"Why should the ABC and SBS continue to be the natural or default recipients of public money for any of the new channels they propose to provide?" he said.

If funding was not contested, "the community cannot know if taxpayers could get a better outcome".
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