The owners of Western Australia’s GWN have warned that the network’s popular nightly local news service for regional TV viewers could be axed without reform of Australia's “antiquated” media ownership laws.
Writing exclusively for Fairfax Media’s mastheads in regional WA, Prime Media Group chief executive Ian Audsley has described existing broadcasting rules as “a slowly tightening noose around the neck of your local TV stations” while global internet giants like streaming service Netflix go unregulated.
“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,” Mr Audsley writes.
“We are on the cusp of public policy failure.”
Regional broadcasters Prime, WIN Corporation and Southern Cross Austereo have lobbied in unison in recent years for the scrapping of ownership regulations that prevent mergers between media companies.
The Turnbull government's long-delayed Media Reform Bill aims to repeal the "reach rule", which stops any commercial free-to-air TV network from broadcasting to more than 75 per cent of the population, and the "two-out-of-three" rule, which prevents companies owning more than two of a newspaper, radio or television outlet in the same market or region.
The reforms include new local content obligations for regional TV licensees in the event of a sale or merger.
With Labor and the Greens opposed to the bill in its current form, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has struggled to convince Senate crossbenchers, including Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the Nick Xenophon Team, to support the government legislation.
Mr Audsley said years of dithering by federal MPs had left the regional TV industry in “decay” and regional and rural Australia at risk of “losing its voice”.
“The outcome of Parliament’s constipation will be market failure on a number of levels, but particularly for local content,” he writes.
“It is simply a matter of time before GWN will have to review its commitment to local news.”
GWN, or the Golden West Network, dates back to the March 10, 1967, launch of TV station BTW-3 in Bunbury.
Prime bought GWN from Kerry Stokes in 1996 and switched its programming to Seven Network content in 1999.
The half-hour GWN7 News bulletin, which screens at 5.30pm on weekdays, is presented by anchorman Noel Brunning, who last month marked 25 years on TV with GWN.
While commercial TV broadcasting licences in regional WA do not require GWN to air local programming, GWN7 News attracts more 80 per cent of the commercial audience in its timeslot.
Employing more than 40 people, GWN has offices in Bunbury, Kalgoorlie, Albany, Geraldton and Perth, as well as staff in Broome.
Using 48 transmission towers to service the state, the network’s potential audience extends to about 560,000 people in about 225,000 households.
Prime also owns 50 per cent of Western Digital Television, which broadcasts three Nine channels across regional WA.
Its joint shareholder in WDT is Network Ten affiliate WIN Corporation, whose falling out with long-time feeder network Nine led to last year’s swap of Nine and Ten channels and a brief blackout of Nine programming in regional WA.
WIN has also warned federal MPs that the 3000 hours of local content it produces and broadcasts each year across regional Australia is "not a profitable exercise" and increasingly at risk without reform of media ownership laws.
As well as owning WIN, 88-year-old Bermuda-based billionaire Bruce Gordon is the largest shareholder in both Nine and Ten, but is prevented from taking his holding above 15 per cent due to the ownership controls.
Seven West Media owns a 11.38 per cent stake in Prime.