Competitive neutrality policy aims to ensure that government business activities do not have unfair advantages over private sector competitors, particularly in relation to cost or pricing advantages. Price-setting and user-charging are necessary criteria for a competitive neutrality issue to arise. These are not relevant to the ABC or SBS which provide services by which, for the most part, are not charged for.
Similarly, commercial broadcasters generally do not charge their audiences any access price. Commercial broadcasters charge advertisers for access to their audiences. The ABC has no advertising, meaning there is no competition with commercial broadcasters and no relevant competitive neutrality issues. The SBS does carry some advertising, which could be seen to compete with commercial stations. The simplest way to eliminate any concern on this front is to remove SBS’s advertising.
Commercial media in Australia does face serious competitive challenges, but these relate less to the ABC than to the rise of Google, Facebook, Netflix and other competitors for advertising revenue.
The irrelevance of competitive neutrality issues to the public broadcasters is reflected in the lack of complaints registered with the Australian Government Competitive Neutrality Complaints Office. The SBS has never been the subject of a competition complaint and the only complaints against the ABC relate not to broadcasting, but to studio rental and content acquisition. Even in the small parts of the national broadcasters’ operations that are relevant, competitive neutrality complaints have been rare and not upheld by the Complaints Office.
More broadly, the similarities between the commercial broadcasters and the public ones are superficial. As Julianne Schultz puts it:
Commercial broadcasters engage with an audience of consumers, seeking to maximise their numbers and the profits that can be derived by successfully entertaining and informing them.Public broadcasters are required to provide a universal service to fulfil their responsibility to citizens.
This distinction leaves little for the public broadcasters and commercial broadcasters to compete over. The audience of the ABC and SBS is citizens and their services are for citizens, while the audience of the commercial broadcasters is customers and their services are for customers.
The ABC and SBS provide emergency broadcasting, regional coverage and high quality public interest broadcasting that is qualitatively different to that provided by the commercial broadcasters. No other current affairs show in the country has provoked the long list of Royal Commissions and inquiries that Four Corners has. The ABC’s commercial “competitors” recognise the ABC as best placed to provide more regional coverage.
All ABC and SBS broadcasting is done to strict standards, including legislated requirements of accuracy and impartiality, Charter requirements of independence and balance between programming with broad appeal and programming with specialised appeal (ABC) and requirements for diversity and language coverage (SBS), rigorous complaints handling expectations, advertising limits (or no advertising) and an exhaustive code of practice. Where these restrictions are present at all for commercial broadcasters, they are more limited.
If commercial broadcasters believe that they are in competition with the ABC and SBS, then they should be required to meet the same standards as the ABC and SBS – to provide a universal service to citizens instead of to an audience of consumers. Otherwise, the national broadcasters should be left alone to provide this unique service.