INFLUENTIAL media figure David Gyngell says removing the 75% media ownership reach rule would improve the quality of regional TV news.
The Nine CEO was one of six TV executives who fronted a 10-member parliamentary committee which was hastily-convened to examine the removal of the rule, which forms part of the Gillard government's controversial media reform bill.
In other media reform developments on Monday:
- Prime Minister Julia Gillard hinted the government was willing to negotiate with members of the crossbench to secure the bill's passage through the Parliament.
- The government continued to cop criticism for the tiny two-week window allocated to examine, debate and pass the legislation.
- News Limited CEO Kim Williams threatened to challenge the bill, if passed, in the High Court.
- Mr Williams and the heads of Australia's other major outlets fronted a second parliamentary committee examining the media reform package.
Of the six executives who fronted the reach rule hearing, three called for its abolition and three called for its retention.
Under the reach rule, one person cannot control commercial television broadcasting licences that reach more than 75% of the population.
Removing the rule would pave the way for Nine to proceed with its mooted merger with Southern Cross Austereo.
To dispel fears regional news would be killed off in any merger, Mr Gyngell said Nine would commit to broadcasting 30-minutes locals news bulletins across 23 regional areas.
He said Nine would give an enforceable undertaking, to be policed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
The undertaking would ensure "local content is maintained to the high standards that WIN and Prime do in local Australia", Mr Gyngell said.
In his submission to the inquiry Mr Gyngell argued that removing the reach rule to allow mergers between metropolitan and regional broadcasters would bring "more local television news" to people outside the cities.
"As merged entities they will have the resources to meet high standards in regional news gathering," his submission to the inquiry read.
"In fact, they will benefit from more news produced by a business with a long tradition in news gathering.
"To that end I am asking this committee to protect local content by requiring any metropolitan purchaser of a regional broadcaster to produce more news than is currently required under the act."
Under questioning from Queensland Senator Barnaby Joyce, who has serious concerns about the fate of regional TV news under the proposed media changes, Mr Gyngell denied any merger would be about achieving "efficiencies".
Southern Cross Austereo and Prime also called for the rule to be scrapped.
But Channel 10, WIN and Seven West each warned the consequences for regional news would be dire.
Hamish McLennan, on his first day as Ten's CEO, said there would be an "automatic reduction in diversity".
"We think the implications for regional Australia are great and we shouldn't rush it through," Mr McLennan said.
"We are very, very concerned and I think we need to be clear that mergers are about taking costs out."
In its submission to the inquiry Ten said people in regional Australia "deserve better".
Ten also called for a review of existing regional content rules, and warned any commitments about local content, such as Nine's, were "unenforceable and meaningless".
While he claimed to neither oppose nor support the reach rule, Seven West Media boss Kerry Stokes predicted local news would be an "easy casualty" of any merger, which he said were sought for one reason - to achieve savings.
Mr Stokes wrote that removing the reach rule would almost certainly result in mergers between Southern Cross/Nine and Ten/WIN, and that this flew in the face of the government's desire for media diversity.
He said while the 75% reach rule had flaws, it was the best protection of local content "right now".
But he warned against rushing through the changes without proper debate, arguing people in regional areas deserved a voice in the debate.
"In the face of increasingly global media products, it has never been more important to decide how best to protect the regional and local content that is so important to our communities, particularly outside metropolitan areas," Mr Stokes's submission read.
"This is not an easy matter. Surely it deserves more attention than a four-hour committee meeting where not one representative from regional Australia has been able to speak."
WIN chief executive Andrew Lancaster said removing the reach rule would cripple the company's ability to produce local news.