Free TV Australia has written to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull requesting an urgent meeting with the lobby group and metropolitan television network bosses amid fears the government is about to ignore their calls for a cut to their $173 million-a-year licence fees.
Fairfax Media understands the letter, sent late last week after a Thursday telephone conference arranged by Free TV Australia, asks the Prime Minister to meet Seven West Media’s Tim Worner, Nine Entertainment’s Hugh Marks, Ten Network Holdings’ Paul Anderson and Free TV chairman Harold Mitchell.
Networks bosses were alarmed last Monday by a Fairfax Media report that the chances of a dramatic cut in licence fees, from 4.5 per cent to 1 per cent of broadcasters’ revenues, have weakened as the Turnbull government prepares to hand down its pre-election budget next month.
There was intensive lobbying last week as a profit warning by Nine sent sector share prices plunging, underlining investors’ fears about the structural threats facing free-to-air television from unregulated foreign services such as Netflix, which do not pay licence fees or have content obligations.
Bosses are ramping up pressure, apoplectic that the licence fee issue, their shared top priority, is likely to be ignored again. Last March, when he was communications minister, Mr Turnbull killed hopes of a near-term licence fee cut as the government prepared a tough 2015 budget.
But within two months then-prime minister Tony Abbott, who had stymied Mr Turnbull’s attempts to loosen media ownership restrictions, agreed to review licence fees after he met the chief executives of Seven, Nine and Ten and their regional affiliates.
As revealed by Fairfax Media, that review found broadly in favour of the broadcasters’ case and hopes had grown for a significant cut, which could spark a rerating of the sector.
But with the government again facing tight fiscal restraints, some Canberra sources predict a more phased reduction, and others saying it is likely there will be no cuts to licence fees in the budget on May 3.
One TV executive expressed dismay at such a possibility, saying: “Turnbull, before he was Prime Minister, was saying ad nauseam that the whole regime was outdated. He’s been the proponent all along so it’s a bit baffling why there’s no action; but maybe that’s indicative of how this government is going.”
It is understood a final decision has yet to be made by the government. A spokesman for Mr Turnbull declined to comment.