One of the most protean forces driving restructuring in Australian media is convergence.
Typically, it describes the activities of a communications company such as Telstra—once the monopoly supplier of fixed telephony (the ‘Plain Old Telephone Service’, or POTS)—now with ‘convergent’ interests in pay television (50 per cent ownership of Foxtel), fixed and mobile telephones, online video (Telstra T-Box) and internet provision (BigPond). While convergent dynamics have always been an element in media industries, the digitisation and globalisation of media technologies, products and services have made it a central feature today.
There are at least four dimensions to convergence: the convergence of technologies, industries, policies and content. Technological convergence, enabled by technologies of digitisation, refers to the increasing ability to carry and convert ‘content’—sound, data, image or text—into multiple formats. For example, the same piece of music might be used in the form of a CD played on the home sound system, or downloaded on to the home computer or as a digital file on an MP3 player. Such technological capability has facilitated industry convergence, where formerly separate sectors of the media industries and the communications economy (such as broadcasting, telecommunications, computing and publishing) have sought to merge or form alliances.
These shifts have necessitated significant modifications to the policy regimes used to regulate the industries concerned. These might be understood better if we think of the history of media and communications regulation and policy as going through three distinct stages. The first stage, which lasted for most of the 20th century, was based on scarcity, and saw protection, universal service and public interest come to the fore. The second stage, which is now coming to an end, was based on abundance, and focused on liberalisation, competition, efficiency and diversity. The third stage is still emerging, but it will reflect the decentralisation of the communications infrastructure, and it is likely to begin to place the media and communications industries within the broader and more generic regulation of the services industries. This presages far-reaching changes to the social, political and cultural role of media in society.
One of the trickier aspects of convergence is ‘content convergence’. Content, as the term is used today, could refer to a television program, the information on a website, or that in an app or an email message. As the corporate organisation of the media and communications industries changes, and as competition between media sectors increases, there is growing pressure to gain the maximum use from the content being produced. In practice, this means exploiting the capacity to present the same content, with the necessary modifications, on as many platforms of delivery and distribution as possible. In the movie industry, a new title will carry a raft of spin-off products—from t-shirts to computer games to theme park rides. In radio, it means establishing a website that offers everything from an online version of radio programming and archived transcripts of broadcasts to fan websites, chat rooms and gig guides. The comfortable sectoral differentiations that once existed no longer hold, and competition is extraordinarily comprehensive as every medium competes with every other medium.
The fact that convergence also brings media companies into ever-wider business relations means that conflicts of interest are rife. Sport, for example, has become a driver of innovation, growth and profitability in television—especially pay television. Media organisations have taken up commercial interests in the sports themselves, as well as in their coverage. An example of this is the role played by News Limited as a part-owner of Rugby League in Australia since the Murdoch-sponsored Super League intervention, which split the code for a short while in the late 1990s, as well as its ownership of Super15 Rugby, shown exclusively on pay television.
Convergence was the subject of a major federal government review in 2011–12. It proposed the creation of a new category of ‘Content Services Enterprises’, which placed the big broadcasters, telcos and ISPs together for regulatory purposes. It found itself dealing with the regulation of journalism, the future of Australian content quotas on television, spectrum allocation and resale, ownership and control, matters touching on innovation and competition policy, and much more. Convergence touches on virtually everything.
For contemporary policy and regulation, the key issue arising from convergence is the manner in which it breaks the link between media content and delivery platforms. Convergence points towards a shift from vertically integrated industry ‘silos’ (print, broadcast, telephony, etc.), and the associated need for sector-specific regulation, to a series of horizontal layers, of infrastructure, access devices, applications/ content services and content itself.
In an overview of Australian broadcasting and telecommunications regulations undertaken for the Convergence Review, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (2011) identified 55 ‘broken concepts’ in current legislation, including the concept of ‘influence’ in broadcasting; the concept of a ‘program’ in broadcasting; and the distinction between a ‘content service provider’ and a ‘carriage service provider’ in relation to the internet. The review concluded that not only were policies on new media required, but a new approach to media policy overall was also required.
With a broadly deregulatory thrust, the review identified three enduring areas that justify ongoing regulation of media and communications: media ownership; media content standards across all platforms; and the production and distribution of Australian and local content. In determining ‘who’ or ‘what’ should be regulated in a converged media environment, the review proposed a regulatory framework based on size and scope, departing from the tradition of regulating around particular delivery platforms. For the first time, the big broadcasters, telcos and ISPs were grouped together for regulatory purposes and defined as ‘Content Service Enterprises’ (CSEs) that had control over ‘professional content’ (television- and radio-like services, newspaper content and so on). They would be subject to regulation once they had met a certain threshold. This approach would replace the current system of Australian content quotas that commercial broadcasting is required to meet.
The Labor government that commissioned the review did little to enact its recommendations. It remains to be seen whether any Australian government will be able to deal effectively with the now well-identified challenges of convergence. One thing is sure, though: industry and technological change will continue to increase, and that will require a policy response.
REFs: ACMA, Broken Concepts (2011); Convergence Review: Final Report (2012); J.V. Pavlik, New Media Technology (1996).