The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

A tongue in cheek rant on media deregulation

It’s no secret that Australian media ownership is one of the most concentrated in the world. Even with constraints in place such as the 75% reach rule, or the 2 out of 3 media rule, we’re still way off other comparable Western democracies. The general feeling amongst articles that I’ve read is that this is a bad thing… which is ironic considering newspapers are the most concentrated medium in Australia.

To be honest I’m not sure why, in 2014, this is even an issue. Aren’t we already too far down the rabbit hole to affect any meaningful competition – even if we wanted to? It seems to me that successive Australian governments, the ICCC, and by extension the Australian population by its tacit compliance, hates competition. News Corp Australia and Fairfax own 11 out of the 12 metro dailies, 72% of all grocery dollars are spent in either Woolworths or Coles, and unfortunately “you should just Bing it” hasn’t really taken off in the Aussie vernacular, with Google holding a whopping 93% share.

In terms of competition, the media as an industry is small fry. Unlike the supermarket industry, or the new “evil empire” known as Google (someone had to replace the Soviet Union), there are two reasons why the media will be fine with added deregulation:

  1. Anyone with an internet connection and two brain cells to rub together can technically be a “media owner”. Even with such concentration, Australians have never had more choice.
  1. There is significant – for a lack of a better term – government intervention in the media sector by way of #ourABC to counterbalance media consolidation reaching dangerous levels.

Before I get chased with pitchforks and burnt at the stake for my communist, anti-neoliberal views, let me just say I think Malcolm Turnbull would make a brilliant Prime Minister… OK, now that I have my credibility back, the fact that we have a strong, independent and – above all – impartial media juggernaut in that of the ABC, bodes well not only for Australian democracy but, perhaps ironically, for the cause of media deregulation.

The ABC will not be influenced by a major shareholder; the ABC will not bow to advertiser demands; the ABC will be representative of the entire population. Contrary to what the “Team Australia” conservatives might say, a recent Newspoll survey found that 70% of respondents have some/a lot of trust in ABC TV news and current affairs, compared to 48% for the daily papers, and 41% for commercial TV news.

Even with the significant budget cuts that were just announced, the ABC will remain a strong force to be reckoned with. Judging by the public outcry and demonstrations in the streets this week, an apathetic electorate such as ours does have its limits. This ABC safety net points to a model that’s beneficial for all; a commercial media industry unburdened by outdated laws that is underpinned by a strong and impartial public broadcaster.

From an agency perspective, deregulation will herald a renaissance-like era where the key objective will be to truly meet our clients’ needs, and not to work within the boundaries imposed by the media owner. Imagine a one stop shop (think a more evolved Powered by Nine) where we’ll be able to reach more than 75% of the Australian population and implement truly cross-platform solutions for advertisers.

Naysayers will point out that all the mergers will inevitably lead to less media owner competition, and as a result, less bargaining power for agencies. To that point I refer them to the quite bizarre quagmire that’s occurring at this very minute. For a population of 23 million, we have three commercial TV networks, all in (relatively) good shape. Do we need all three? Probably not but that’s the way it is. I don’t imagine with some deregulation, there’ll only be one or two big media companies left.

For the industry as a whole, I believe it will make us more sophisticated and less conservative. Australia is frustratingly unadventurous as an advertising market – possibly because of the current regulations. By restructuring one half of the media equation (owners), it will force the other half (agencies) to adopt a different model where sponsorships, engagement and ideas are at the heart of everything we do, as opposed to boring TARP, R&F and CPM evaluations. Planners and traders will still do what they do best, but it will push them out of their comfort zone which is what is desperately needed.

All in all, it’s truly misguided to fear change because change is inevitable; it is only progress that is optional.

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