The future of regional television will be in jeopardy if the government allows major metropolitan stations to buy out regional broadcasters, a parliamentary inquiry was told on Monday.
Television executives gave the warnings when they appeared before a committee investigating proposed changes, including the abolition of the 75 per cent reach rule as part of the suite of media reforms being considered by parliament this week.
They focused on a proposed merger between Southern Cross Media and Nine Entertainment.
Newly-appointed CEO of Network Ten, Hamish McLennan, told the hearing: “Our perspective on this matter is that, if the reach rule is pulled away, this merger will happen very very quickly.
“I've been involved in many mergers on both sides of the fence and I think what you'll see is an automatic reduction in diversity."
Mr McLennan said the implications for changing the 75 per cent reach rule, which limits a television network from reaching more than three-quarters of the population, were "very dangerous".
"We think the implications for regional Australia are great and we shouldn't rush it through," he said.
“We're very, very concerned and I just think we need to be clear that mergers are about taking costs out."
Chief executive of WIN Television Andrew Lancaster said axing the reach rule would signal the end of regional television.
He said an end to the reach rule would impact WIN's commitment to local news coverage in regional Australia, while it would also hit regional advertisers who he predicted would be overlooked by the city-centric major networks.
"It would be the end of regional television, to be perfectly honest, because there would be no differentiation between what comes out of Sydney and what is aired in Victoria," he said.
Mr Lancaster told the inquiry he was concerned about the impact the Nine-Southern Cross merger would have on cricket coverage, which WIN now broadcasts into regional areas.
"I'm not entirely sure we would be inclined to run a competitor's product across states where Southern Cross might not have a signal or a licence," he said.
"This gives great fears to those in Perth and Adelaide, and regional South Australia, regional Western Australia."
Southern Cross chief Rhys Holleran dismissed claims that abolishing the reach rule, which he supported, would affect cricket coverage.
Prime Media boss Ian Audsley backed the abolition of the 75 per cent reach rule, telling the committee it would not impact on his company's provision of regional news.
"The 75 per cent reach rule is not a trigger to downsizing local news operations," he said.