AUSTRALIA'S commercial free-to-air TV networks are considering a groundbreaking move to share programming on the digital channels they will launch next year, in an attempt to save costs and make the industry's proposed Freeview platform more compelling for subscribers.The Australian understands that under the terms of a "joint venture proposal", each of the new multi-channels would be based on distinctly different themes agreed by the networks.
The proposal would see Network Ten launching a sports-only channel, with the Nine Network having a "general entertainment" offering and the Seven Network likely to launch a lifestyle channel.
On January 1, 2009, the TV networks will be allowed to broadcast one new standard definition channel with separate programming from their flagship channels.
The Government hopes the new channels will convince TV viewers to buy the digital set-top boxes they will need before it switches off the analog TV signal in 2013.
The discussions are designed to help Freeview (the industry's digital TV marketing arm) provide compelling digital content when it launches its campaign -- likely to be in the second quarter of next year.
Freeview is expected to take on the pay-TV sector, so Ten's sports channel, for example, will bid to compete with pay-TV's Fox Sports channels, while Nine's general entertainment channel would be a competitor to pay-TV's Fox8 channel.
The Australian understands that in a further unprecedented aspect of the deal, the three networks could share non-first-run or unused programming according to the specific requirements of the new digital channels.
One network source says: "An umpteenth repeat of The Simpsons could go from Ten to Nine's new multi-channel as part of its general entertainment offering. Or some sport from Seven or Nine could go to Ten on a second-run basis."
However, there were signs last week that Ten may be getting cold feet about pursuing the joint venture and sharing content.
One source says: "Ten appeared to be saying that it knew what it wanted to do with the multi-channel and what it wanted to give its viewers. The Ten people seemed to be saying the joint venture concept was confusing them."
Sources at Ten's rivals have remained optimistic about resurrecting the deal, with more meetings between the three networks believed to be scheduled for this week. But if Ten does not participate, it is unlikely Seven and Nine would agree on a deal on their own because of their fierce ratings rivalry.
One source says: "If it was all in, it would be easier for Seven and Nine to participate. The opportunity is less clear if Ten is not involved."
In July, Media revealed Ten's plans to form a sports-only multi-channel next year, and since then the network has continued to pursue sports rights.
Earlier this month, it beat Fox Sports to the rights for international netball for four years.
In recent months it has also broadly indicated its desire to start a sports-only channel by showing an increasingly eclectic range of sports live on its existing HD multi-channel. These have even included a world heavyweight boxing title fight, the first time a free-to-air network has screened such an event in more than a decade.
It already has rights to two of golf's four "majors", the US Open and US Masters; cricket's emerging powerhouse, the Indian Premier League (IPL); and its joint coverage of the AFL with Seven and Foxtel.
The US Masters and the netball can be repeated on the multi-channels but cannot be screened live and exclusively there because they are on the Government's anti-siphoning list, which protects viewer access to major events on flagship free-to-air channels.
The new multi-channel offerings on the Freeview platform could be completed by a new children's channel offering by the ABC. Earlier this month, at a national press club lunch, ABC managing director Mark Scott said: "Next year, there are likely to be 15 free-to-air digital channels in Australia as we move to analog switch-off. One should be an ABC children's channel."