GWN, the Golden West Network, celebrates its 50th birthday this month. It is the only television service that provides Western Australians living outside Perth with a local news service. GWN journalists, like their audiences, are geographically dispersed across this vast state, based in Bunbury, Geraldton, Kalgoorlie, Albany, Broome and Perth.
I believe it’s important that GWN maintain local news for as long as we can afford to - for the sake of viewers, staff and in the interests of preserving regional voices and telling regional stories.
But running a service like this doesn’t come cheap and the territory covered indicates the magnitude of expense incurred to deliver what is essentially a public service. In regional, rural and remote parts of Australia, where the internet can be sketchy to say the least, free-to-air commercial TV is regarded as a household utility and it’s fair to say that we take it for granted.
But there is a chill in the air for Australian regional TV. And the truth is that our ability to continue to deliver the quality and diversity of news, information, entertainment and sports programming that Australians have come to expect is under threat.
Like many Australian businesses, the TV industry has been disrupted by the internet with new global entrants boasting large balance sheets, who exploit the weaknesses in this country’s antiquated regulatory framework to reach our viewers. “Well, that’s free enterprise” one might say. However, those same regulations, which do not encumber new market entrants, act as a slowly tightening noose around the neck of your local TV stations.
As the decayed performance of many media companies in the half-year financial reporting period to December 31, 2016, suggests, the future for Australia’s traditional media sector looks especially challenging.
With significant belt tightening and job losses in our sector in recent years, including in regional newspapers, regional and rural Australia risks losing its voice. Australians living beyond the capital cities deserve access to local news services, platforms on which to advertise their businesses and employment opportunities on par with their city-based counterparts.
GWN is part of a small media business, which now has to compete against national TV networks with their streaming and catch-up services, and global entertainment platforms. These internet-based services are unlicensed, unregulated and unrestricted and they are accessing our audiences and advertisers. It is simply a matter of time before GWN will have to review its commitment to local news.
In recent years, regional media companies – including GWN’s owner, Prime Media Group – have lobbied the Coalition, Labor and cross-bench senators about reforms that will mean stations like GWN can continue to provide local news.
Alarmingly, after years of industry engagement, multiple submissions and two, yes two, Senate inquiries, the Federal Parliament cannot come together to correct the imbalance and preserve a vibrant regional media.
So where is Parliament at with any reform, let alone the Media Reform Bill, after years of dithering? Our federal MPs are in Canberra sitting on their hands. All the while we are on the cusp of public policy failure. And the outcome of Parliament’s constipation will be market failure on a number of levels, but particularly for local content.
As regional TV markets decay at an increasing pace, the day will dawn when independent TV stations under financial pressure are forced to reduce their commitment to local programming. You might like the idea of not seeing another politician on the local news – especially if a federal or state election is looming. But regional Australia will be poorer as a result, losing its voice and influence at the national table.
- Ian Audsley is CEO and executive director of Prime Media Group Limited, which owns GWN.