Regional media company ACM to lobby federal government on media laws as ACMA approves increased stake in Prime TV

The ACM print and digital network includes 14 daily titles serving Canberra and key regional population centres.
The ACM print and digital network includes 14 daily titles serving Canberra and key regional population centres.

Regional media company ACM has welcomed the Australian Communications and Media Authority's (ACMA) approval of its acquisition of shares in commercial television broadcaster Prime Media Group.

The ACMA approval follows ACM's March purchase of an additional five per cent of Prime from WIN TV owner Bruce Gordon, taking its holding in Prime to 19.99 per cent.

The transaction required ACMA sign-off because it lifted ACM's stake above the 15 per cent deemed to be a controlling interest under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992.

ACM executive chairman Antony Catalano said his company, the publisher of this masthead, was pleased to secure the green light for its increased investment in Prime.

The free-to-air TV network carries Network Seven programs across northern and southern NSW, the ACT, Victoria, the Gold Coast and all of regional Western Australia.

ACM executive chairman Antony Catalano said ACM would be working closely and cooperatively with ACMA to ensure that the compay meets regulatory requirements.

ACM executive chairman Antony Catalano said ACM would be working closely and cooperatively with ACMA to ensure that the compay meets regulatory requirements.

"We look forward to working closely and cooperatively with the Authority to ensure that ACM continues to meet the requirements of the Act," Mr Catalano said.

But the ACM co-owner signalled that he would be asking the Federal Government to reconsider the current Broadcasting Services legislation, which was drafted 30 years ago - before the existence of the internet, social media, smartphones and subscription streaming services such as Netflix and Stan.

If the legislation is not updated, ACM would be required to sell its daily newspapers in Bendigo and Wagga Wagga to retain its stake in Prime.

Mr Catalano said the Bendigo Advertiser and The Daily Advertiser in Wagga were integral and much-valued parts of the ACM print and digital portfolio, which has more than 150 titles around Australia.

"At a time when the regional media sector is under extreme pressure, we are trying to grow a vibrant regional media company that serves Australian communities beyond the big capital cities," he said.

"We will obviously comply with the rules and respect the umpire's decision, but we want to discuss whether those 30-year-old rules adequately reflect the realities of media in the 21st century.

"We are trying to attain the scale required to have a sustainable business that preserves public interest journalism in regional Australia so it's disappointing to think we would be forced to divest important parts of our portfolio."

The media legislation only applies to the traditional formats of free-to-air TV, radio and printed newspapers but not digital news sources or streaming services.

The media legislation only applies to the traditional formats of free-to-air TV, radio and printed newspapers but not digital news sources or streaming services.

The legislation's "5/4 rule", also known as the "voices test", requires at least four independently controlled media operators in a regional licence area.

The Act defines the four media groups in each of the Bendigo and Wagga licence areas as ACM's newspaper, WIN TV, Prime and the radio and TV signals operated by Southern Cross Austereo.

The Daily Advertiser, which counts Deputy Prime Minister and Riverina MP Michael McCormack among its former editors, has covered news for Wagga and the Riverina for more than 150 years.

The Bendigo Advertiser was founded in Victoria's goldfields in 1853 as the single-sheet "Bendigo Advertiser and Sandhurst Commercial Courier".

The ACM stable of 14 daily mastheads also includes The Canberra Times, Newcastle Herald, Illawarra Mercury, The Border Mail, The Examiner in Launceston, The Courier in Ballarat and The Standard in Warrnambool.

Mr Catalano, partnering with Alex Waislitz and his ASX-listed Thorney Investment Group, took control of ACM in July 2019 after buying the former Fairfax Media regional publishing division from Nine Entertainment following Nine's 2018 merger with Fairfax.

Last year Prime and ACM joined with other regional media businesses such as WIN TV and Southern Cross Austereo in the Save Our Voices campaign to push for the updating of media ownership laws.

Mr Catalano said regional media was asking only that the sector be given the same scope as Australia's metropolitan media businesses to evolve for the future.

As an example, the most recent changes to media rules allowed Nine Entertainment Co to have TV, radio and daily print newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne, but ACM could not have a daily newspaper and television interests in Wagga or Bendigo.

"This is a vital issue for the future of journalism in regional Australia and I hope the Federal Government will give serious consideration to modern legislation that helps sustain viable regional voices," Mr Catalano said.

This story ACM to seek talks on media rules after bigger stake in Prime TV approved first appeared on The Canberra Times.