TV manufacturers will be required to promote apps for Australian broadcasting and streaming services from next year, after the government introduced new legislation that will also prevent streaming services from monopolising broadcast rights for key sporting events.

With streaming services such as Netflix, Prime Video, Stan and Disney+ often paying to be featured on streaming-capable TVs and other devices, apps for Australian free-to-air (FTA) broadcasters are often left off app home screens and inaccessible unless customers explicitly install them.

The new legislation – introduced to Parliament as the Communications Legislation Amendment (Prominence and Anti-Siphoning) (PAS) Bill 2023 – will fix this situation by amending the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and ACMA Act 2005 with a ‘prominence framework’ that will, among other things, set prominence standards for new TVs and streaming devices sold in Australia.Specific details of those requirements will be published next year, but a ‘must carry’ obligation will force device manufacturers to prominently feature the apps for Australian FTA broadcasters ABC, Seven, Nine Network, TEN and SBS by default – remedying a situation in which, RMIT University associate professor Ramon Lobato recently noted, “major TV manufacturers have reinvented themselves as advertising platforms… [pointing] to the need for careful regulation.”

The rules will apply to Internet-connected devices designed primarily for “facilitating the viewing of audiovisual content” but devices with other primary functions – including computers, laptops, tablets and mobiles – will be exempt, Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland said during a second reading speech to Parliament in which she warned the home screens of connected TV devices are “increasingly being monetised”.

There will be no restrictions preventing devices from featuring other services and device makers will not be forced to modify search or customisation functions.

“Our existing analogue [media] laws haven’t been updated to reflect the digital age,” Rowland said in announcing the new rules.

“The rise of global streaming services means Australians could miss out on the free content and services they have enjoyed for generations, with free local services becoming harder to find on connected devices and content slipping behind online paywalls.”

Keeping key sports events accessible to all

That slippage has become particularly evident in sports broadcasting, where cashed-up streaming services are increasingly snapping up broadcast rights and sequestering sporting events within their subscription services – preventing most Australians from seeing such events without paying for them.

It’s a loophole in decades-old anti-siphoning rules from which streamers have so far been exempt, enabling streaming services such as Kayo Sports‘ broad sports coverage and Stan Sport’s streaming of the Rugby World Cup 2023, Bledisloe Cup, tennis Grand Slams, IndyCar, and more.

FTA broadcasters “are not competing on a level playing field,” Rowland told Parliament. “They continue to be subject to the bulk of the obligations to deliver important public policy outcomes while their online competitors are not. This dynamic is putting important public policy outcomes at risk.”

The PAS bill’s overhaul of anti-siphoning rules will add a ‘broadcast safety net’ giving FTA broadcasters first right of refusal during bidding for what Rowland called “events of national importance and cultural significance” – a draft list of which has already been published.

“Modernising the anti-siphoning scheme will mean the iconic sporting events and moments that bring us together as a nation won’t slip behind the online paywalls of international streaming services,” Rowland said.

“These changes help support a strong and sustainable media industry that delivers for all Australians.”

Ensuring local flavour for global streamers

The new legislation is the government’s latest effort to address the disintermediation caused by now ubiquitous streaming services – which many feel should be forced to meet Australian content quotas similar to those long imposed on FTA networks.

Just how much local content would be required remains contentious, with the government reportedly considering forcing streaming services to carry 5 per cent Australian content under new local content rules expected to be clarified by 1 July next year.

Industry figures have pushed for a 20 per cent figure and the Greens want streaming platforms to reinvest 20 per cent of Australian profits in local productions.

Streaming services spent $47m less on local content during fiscal 2022-23 than they did in the previous year, recent reports revealed, although streamers still outspend their FTA rivals and have confirmed their intentions to continue doing so amidst recent findings that Australians want more locally-made content.

Industry association Free TV Australia welcomed the new legislation, with CEO Bridget Fair calling the PAS Bill “an important step towards ensuring that people are not being served up incomplete viewing choices based on who has paid the most money to be in the line-up.”

“Right now, Australian viewers are being steered in the direction of services that favour the commercial interests of big tech and TV manufacturers,” she said.

And while there are “still a few issues to be resolved” in the proposed model, Fair said the government’s reform “has reaffirmed that live and free access to key sporting events remains a central part of the Australian way of life.”