ASTRA Chair Tony Shepherd on media law reformation

Astra Chair Tony Shepherd talks about his optimism for media law reform.

By James Manning

With the appointment of former Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister, and the arrival of a new Comms Minister in Mitch Fifield, there is renewed optimism in some parts of the media about media law reform.

Among those leading the push for reform is ASTRA representing the subscription TV platform and channel suppliers. Spear-heading the ASTRA push are chairman Tony Shepherd and CEO Andrew Maiden.

“It was a good appointment and he is very experienced as a minister and a senator. He will understand this space and he is an economic dry which is good, but with a strong community focus,” Shepherd told Mediaweek about Fifield.

“With regard to the new government their cornerstone is innovation which is encouraging as subscription TV is an innovator.”

Shepherd has already written to Minister Fifield and he hopes he will seem him in the not too distant future.

“Subscription TV is not a baby any more after it had a long and difficult birth,” added Shepherd, who has been in the role for just under two years. “It is kicking goals and thriving despite very substantial regulation.

Asked which skills he has been called on by the board to use the most since he arrived, Shepherd replied: “Political realism. [Laughs] I am a reformist but not a lunatic. I keep pushing for reform and saying we do need to get rid of some of the ridiculous regulations around subscription TV. It is a simple contract between the consumer and us. If they like the product they continue to buy it, if they don’t like the product they don’t. Why should anybody get into the middle of that arrangement? It’s a little more complicated than that, but that is the general line I take.”

Asked if he was optimistic about achieving policy reform on issues like the anti-siphoning list, Shepherd displayed some of the realism: “It is a sensitive area. Australians like me have grown up with free TV and the expectation, not unreasonably, that we see certain events and that is ingrained in the Australian psyche now. It is very hard to change things without upsetting people. The free-to-air people have invested significantly in networks and businesses over the years and we respect that.

“We seem to be getting a consensus now. People are realising the world has changed significantly with SVOD and fast internet everywhere and also the growth of mobile. The world is changing and the regulations, some of them maybe back as far as the 70s, are becoming irrelevant.

“We really need to loosen up the whole area, fairly and equitably, while protecting the consumer. Its time is coming and we are seeing groups like free TV and subscription TV getting closer and closer together in a technical sense and even in a policy sense. If we can get a reasonable consensus which I don’t think will be impossible, maybe not in this parliament, but by the end of the next parliament, we can get some reform into the sector. We can then let the creative juices flow and allow the businesses to get on with their jobs. I am encouraged that in some areas we are not that far apart.

“You’ve got to be real about this and I don’t expect either side of politics to stick their head out too far.

“Subscription TV now produces more local content than any of the other FTAs including public broadcasters. This has made a huge contribution. Unfettered we may probably do a lot more. Australians still love to see Australian stories. You don’t get that by regulation…in many respects you get it better by deregulation. If we have fewer restrictions we’ll probably have more Australian production, we will be bigger, better and more encouraged to invest in local production.”

This role is Shepherd’s first in the media. “I have worked in engineering and construction and defence, hard-edged businesses for close to 45 years – never in a creative industry. I have had creative interests with things like the Australian Chamber Orchestra [where Shepherd used to be on the board].

“I love TV and I love movies so to get involved in a creative business like subscription TV was a big change. Although there is lots about regulation, you are still dealing with people who are being creative like [Foxtel’s executive director of television] Brian Walsh. I have never had a chance to do that in my day-to-day job before.”

After having worked with executives from other sectors, we asked Shepherd his opinion about media executives. “They are very sharp. It is one of those businesses where the results of your efforts become very apparent, very quickly. In our case whether it be the trajectory of subscriptions or with FTA whether it be the trajectory of ratings.”

He suggested media industry executives are also good at warring with each other. “They scrap as hard as the construction industry does in many respects. The thing I like about them is that offline they have a healthy respect for each other and they can have a beer together. There is camaraderie which is quite attractive.”

Shepherd said he didn’t know the Free TV chair Harold Mitchell very well, but he has had some dealings with him. “He is a very worthy competitor though.”

The ASTRA chairman did add “he likes to be a little provocative in the public space and I’m more behind the scenes. I try to shift the needle that way.”

As to the minimum progress Shepherd needs to get before he could feel some sense of achievement at ASTRA, he replied: “We’d like to see some sort of modification to the anti-siphoning rules. When you have 1,300 programs on the list you have to say, even by Australian standards, that is excessive. We don’t have the world tiddlywinks championships on the list, but we are getting close. We need to wind it back. It has been a feast for Free TV that got out of hand. I don’t think the minister wants to be chief censor in Australia either and that needs to be wound back.

I hasten to add the grand finals should stay on FTA and the State of Origin. We are not advocating watching top quality sport in Australia becomes the sole prerogative of subscription TV customers.

ASTRA Chair Shepherd on his CEO Andrew Maiden:

“He has been a terrific bloke to work with and he knows the sector backwards. He’s also extremely well organised…like me. We always plan about a year ahead.” His CEO has been known to refer to him as anally retentive, a description that Shepherd was “not unfair”.

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