Broadcasting rules & complaints | ACMA

Broadcasting rules & complaints

What can be broadcast

1. Are there rules about what can be broadcast?
2. What is a code?
3. What is a standard?
4. What is a licence condition?
5. Where do I find the rules?
6. What about advertising?
7. What are the Children’s Television Standards?
8. Who regulates junk food advertising?
9. Does the ACMA regulate the ABC and SBS?

Making a complaint

10. Who can make a complaint?
11. How do I complain about a broadcast?
12. How do I make a valid complaint to a broadcaster?
13. How do I contact a broadcaster?
14. How long do I have to complain to a broadcaster?
15. What happens when I complain to a broadcaster?
16. Can I make an anonymous complaint to a broadcaster?
17. When should I complain to the ACMA?
18. How long do I have to complain to the ACMA?
19. Can the ACMA investigate a broadcast without receiving a complaint?
20. What complaints will the ACMA investigate?
21. Broadcasting complaint form

ACMA investigations

22. What happens when I complain to the ACMA?
23. Can I make an anonymous complaint to the ACMA?
24. Will the ACMA publicise that it is investigating my complaint?
25. Will I have to attend a hearing to give evidence?
26. Will I have to make submissions?
27. Can I monitor the progress of my complaint?
28. How does the ACMA investigate a complaint?
29. How long does an investigation take?
30. Who decides the outcome of my complaint?

If there is a breach

31. What can the ACMA do if a broadcaster breaches a code provision?
32. What can the ACMA do if a broadcaster breaches a standard?
33. What can the ACMA do if a broadcaster breaches a licence condition (other than a licence condition imposed by the ACMA)?
34. What can the ACMA do if a broadcaster breaches an ‘additional’ licence condition imposed by the ACMA?
35. Will the broadcaster be forced to correct its mistake?
36. Can I be paid compensation?
37. Who decides what will happen to the broadcaster?
38. What about the ABC and SBS?

If there is no breach

39. What happens if the ACMA finds that there has been no breach?

After the investigation

40. Will the ACMA publish its findings?
41. Will everyone know I’ve complained?
42. I am unhappy with the ACMA’s decision about my complaint. What can I do?


What can be broadcast

1. Are there rules about what can be broadcast?

Yes. The rules governing broadcasting content can be found in legislation, standards, licence conditions and codes of practice.

2. What is a code?

Codes of practice are sets of rules which regulate and guide what can be broadcast. The codes also cover other matters, for example, complaints handling and, in the case of the community broadcasting codes, matters such as governance. Codes are developed by radio and television industry groups. They are reviewed regularly and ‘registered’ by the ACMA, provided they contain appropriate community safeguards. The ABC and SBS codes are a little different. While they are developed by the ABC and SBS respectively, they are ‘notified’ to the ACMA without the ACMA making any assessment of the community safeguards they contain. Complaints about compliance with a code of practice must go to the relevant broadcaster in the first instance. For further information see broadcasting complaints.

3. What is a standard?

A standard is a form of regulation determined by the ACMA to apply to a particular industry, where there is no code on the matter or existing codes are not providing appropriate community safeguards. For example, Australian content and children’s programs on commercial television are regulated by these compulsory program standards. Other examples include standards requiring the disclosure of commercial agreements by presenters of current affairs programs on commercial radio, and anti-terrorism standards that apply to open and subscription narrowcasting television licensees. Compliance with standards is a licence condition for broadcasting licensees in the relevant industry. Complaints about compliance with standards can be made directly to the ACMA. For further information see broadcasting complaints.

4. What is a licence condition?

A licence condition is another form of regulation which can either apply to all licensees or to specific licensees depending on the issue. Some aspects of broadcasting are subject to licence conditions set out in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. For example, commercial, community and other radio and television broadcasters are subject to a licence condition prohibiting them from broadcasting tobacco advertisements. Other licence conditions in the Act cover matters such as captioning on TV and advertising on community TV and radio as well as local content, and local news and information. From time to time, the ACMA may impose an additional licence condition on a particular licensee to address a compliance issue. Complaints about licence condition matters can be made directly to the ACMA. For further information see broadcasting complaints.

5. Where do I find the rules?

All relevant broadcasting content rules can be accessed via the ACMA’s website.

A good starting point is the Broadcasting Content Regulation page. Industry codes are available from each of the relevant industry associations such as Free TV Australia, Commercial Radio Australia (CRA), Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association (ASTRA), Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA) and Australian Community Television Alliance (ACTA). The codes can also be found on the ACMA's website.

6. What about advertising?

The ACMA has a limited role in the regulation of advertising on broadcasting services. Tobacco advertising is prohibited on all kinds of TV and radio services. It is also prohibited for commercial TV and radio broadcasters to broadcast advertisements for therapeutic goods unless these have been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. These are licence condition matters listed at Schedule 2 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. The broadcasting of political advertisements is also regulated by licence conditions which apply to all TV and radio services.Beyond that, the regulation of advertisements differs according to the broadcasting industry sector involved.

Commercial TV (Free-to-air)

The Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice has provisions about advertising, including time limits on advertising.

The Children’s Television Standards regulate the amount and content of advertisements during designated children’s (C) viewing periods. Advertisements during preschool (P) viewing periods are prohibited.

The Television Program Standard for Australian Content in Advertising (TPS 23) regulates the amount of foreign-produced advertising that may be broadcast.

Commercial radio

The Commercial Radio Australia Code of Practice has provisions about advertising.

Community TV and radio

Community TV and radio broadcasters are not allowed to broadcast advertisements. However they may broadcast sponsorship announcements, within hourly limits (5 minutes for radio broadcasters and 7 minutes for TV broadcasters).

National broadcasters

In respect of advertising, the ABC is governed by its own act of Parliament – the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 – and Charter which is set out in section 6 of the Act. The SBS Codes of Practice has provisions about the placement of advertisements and hourly time limits on advertisements. 

Subscription broadcast TV (Pay TV)

The ASTRA Code of Practice—Subscription Broadcast Television has provisions about the content and placement of advertisements.

Subscription narrowcast and open narrowcast TV 

The ASTRA Code of Practice—Subscription Narrowcast Television has provisions about the placement of advertisements and the content of locally produced advertisements.

Complaints about advertising

Complaints about matters related to advertisements which are covered by a code of practice should be made to the broadcaster concerned in the first instance. Complaints about matters related to advertisements which are covered by a standard or licence condition can be made directly to the ACMA. For more information on how to make a valid complaint see broadcasting complaints.

Other agencies also regulate advertising

Other agencies, such as the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB), and Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) also regulate advertisements. The ASB deals with the portrayal of sex and nudity, people, language, violence and health and safety in advertisements, including those broadcast on TV and radio. It also deals with motor vehicle and alcohol advertisements and advertising to children. The ACCC and state Departments or Offices of Fair Trading deal with misleading advertisements.

7. What are the Children’s Television Standards?

The Children’s Television Standards are a set of rules developed by the ACMA which apply to commercial television broadcasters. The objectives of these standards are to ensure that children have access to a variety of quality television programs made specifically for them, including Australian drama and non-drama programs, and to provide for the protection of children from possible harmful effects of television.

8. Who regulates junk food advertising?

There is no single body directly responsible for the advertising of ‘junk food’. The Children’s Television Standards (CTS) include provisions which limit the broadcast of some forms of advertising during children’s (C) and preschool children’s (P) programs. The restrictions primarily relate to the use of specific advertising techniques, given children’s youth and impressionability. It is important to note that the CTS do not define what is considered ‘junk food’. If you are concerned that an advertisement may have breached the CTS, you can complain to the ACMA at broadcasting complaints.

9. Does the ACMA regulate the ABC and SBS?

As national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS each has its own act of Parliament and Charter. Both the ABC and SBS have codes of practice developed under their own legislation. The ACMA performs an independent adjudicator role where complaints under either code of practice are not resolved between a complainant and a national broadcaster. If you make a complaint to the ABC or SBS on the grounds that they have acted contrary to their codes of practice, you may refer the matter to the ACMA if you have not received a response within 60 days of making your complaint or you consider the broadcaster’s response to be inadequate. This applies only to content broadcast by the national broadcaster's TV or radio services.

Making a complaint

10. Who can make a complaint?

Any individual or organisation can make a complaint to the ACMA about an Australian broadcaster’s compliance with a code, licence condition or standard.

11. How do I complain about a broadcast?

If a person wishes to complain about something of concern in a broadcast by a TV or radio station, and the matter is covered by a code of practice, the person should first make a written complaint to the broadcaster. If the complainant does not get a response from the broadcaster within 60 days or is dissatisfied with the response received, the complainant can then lodge a complaint with the ACMA. When making a complaint to the ACMA, a complainant should provide a copy of the original complaint to the broadcaster, a copy of the broadcaster’s reply if one has been received, and any other relevant communications with the broadcaster. The ACMA can only investigate valid code complaints. If a complaint relates to a matter covered by a standard or licence condition, the complaint can be made directly to the ACMA without the need to first refer the matter to the broadcaster.

12. How do I make a valid complaint to a broadcaster?

A valid complaint is a complaint which meets the requirements of the relevant code of practice. Generally this will mean that the complaint is lodged with the broadcaster in a specified form (for example, in writing) and within a certain time period. The exact requirements depend on the type of broadcaster involved. Therefore, it is very important that people wishing to make complaints consult the complaints handling sections of the relevant code about the time limits and other requirements for a valid complaint. More information on how to make a complaint to a broadcaster can be found at broadcasting complaints.

13. How do I contact a broadcaster?

The contact details of broadcasters are available on the internet or through telephone directories.

14. How long do I have to complain to a broadcaster?

The time limits for making a code complaint to a broadcaster are set out in each of the codes of practice. It is very important that people wishing to make complaints consult the complaints handling sections of the relevant code about the time limits and other requirements for a valid complaint. These can differ depending on which type of broadcaster you are complaining about.

15. What happens when I complain to a broadcaster?

Upon receipt of your complaint the broadcaster should consider the issue, investigate and then respond to you in writing. They may need to seek additional or clarifying comments from you to assist in the investigation process.

16. Can I make an anonymous complaint to a broadcaster?

If you require a response from the broadcaster, you will need to provide them sufficient detail to enable them to contact you to advise you of the outcome of the matter. In most cases, you will need to identity yourself for your complaint to be valid under the relevant code of practice.

17. When should I complain to the ACMA?

You can complain to the ACMA about a matter covered by a code of practice, if you have first complained to the broadcaster and you have not received a response within 60 days of making the complaint or are not satisfied with the response received. You can complain to the ACMA about a matter relating to a standard or licence condition without first taking the matter to the broadcaster.

18. How long do I have to complain to the ACMA?

You can bring a complaint to the ACMA at any time, although in the case of a code complaint, you must first have complained to the broadcaster. It is better to make a complaint promptly, as broadcasters are only required to retain a copy of a broadcast for a limited period.

19. Can the ACMA investigate a broadcast without receiving a complaint?

Yes. The ACMA may decide to investigate a matter on its own intiative. These investigations can be commenced at any time. The key consideration for the ACMA in exercising its discretion to investigate a matter without a complaint is whether it is in the public interest to do so.

20. What complaints will the ACMA investigate?

The ACMA considers every complaint it receives and assesses whether an investigation of the matter/s raised would be in the public interest. Decisions to investigate will be made on a case by case basis in light of all the relevant facts and surrounding circumstances and no one factor will be determinative. The ACMA focuses its investigative resources on issues of most concern to the community.

21. Broadcasting complaint form

You can submit your complaint to the ACMA using the ACMA complaint form.

ACMA investigations

22. What happens when I complain to the ACMA?

On receiving a valid complaint, the ACMA considers the matter/s raised in the complaint and whether an investigation by the ACMA would be in the public interest. The ACMA then lets the complainant know whether or not the complaint is being investigated. If the decision is to open an investigation into the matter, we will inform the broadcaster of the complaint issues, and make a request for comments and a copy of the relevant broadcast where appropriate. We will then consider the issues against:

  1. each relevant code, standard or licence condition provision
  2. the information supplied by the complainant
  3. submissions from the broadcaster and a copy of the relevant broadcast, if applicable.

In some cases additional information may be sought from the complainant.

23. Can I make an anonymous complaint to the ACMA?

As with complaints to broadcasters, we will need to be able to contact and communicate with complainants. So in most cases, you will need to identify yourself.

24. Will the ACMA publicise that it is investigating my complaint?

The ACMA does not routinely publicise that it is investigating individual complaints. If asked (for example, by the media) we advise that we are investigating particular matters but we do not identify the complainant. The ACMA will only provide complainant details to the broadcaster where the matter is a code complaint where the complainant has already complained to the broadcaster.

25. Will I have to attend a hearing to give evidence?

The ACMA does not conduct hearings involving complainants or take witness statements from complainants in the ordinary course of an investigation.

26. Will I have to make submissions?

As part of a code investigation, you will be asked to provide copies of any relevant correspondence with the broadcaster concerned, including a copy of your original complaint and a copy of the broadcaster’s response. As part of an investigation into a standard or licence condition matter, you will need to outline the reasons you believe the broadcaster has breached its obligations and provide any available supporting information. You may also be asked for additional or clarifying information as the investigation progresses.

27. Can I monitor the progress of my complaint?

You will be notified by the ACMA that it is investigating your complaint and that the investigation may take several months. The ACMA notifies complainants of any delays. You can contact the ACMA at any time to seek information on the progress of your complaint.

28. How does the ACMA investigate a complaint?

The ACMA’s broadcasting investigations focus on assessing compliance with codes, standards or licence conditions. Once an investigation is opened, we inform the broadcaster of the complaint, and request a copy of the relevant broadcast where applicable. We will then consider the issues against:

  1. each relevant provision of the code, licence condition or standard
  2. information received from the complainant
  3. information received from the broadcaster.

In making its determination, the ACMA will consider:

  1. the relevant provisions
  2. relevant guidelines
  3. other relevant decisions made by the ACMA
  4. any court or tribunal decisions on equivalent legislation
  5. any other relevant considerations.

29. How long does an investigation take?

The ACMA’s stated aim is to complete all investigations within 6 months. The vast majority of investigations are completed well under this time with the current average from start to finish taking a little over 3 months. All investigations must adhere to relevant administrative law requirements including providing opportunities for procedural fairness for the broadcaster and other affected individuals. It is important to note that the ACMA operates within the (legislative) co-regulatory scheme which requires complainants to raise code-related concerns with broadcasters in the first instance. If the complainant does not receive a response within 60 days or receives a response but considers it inadequate, only then can they bring their complaint to the ACMA. This means that by the time the ACMA receives a complaint and commences a code investigation, 2 or more months may have passed from the time of the broadcast.

30. Who decides the outcome of my complaint?

The findings of each investigation are either made by the members of the Authority (the governing body of the ACMA) or by a delegate of the Authority.

If there is a breach

31. What can the ACMA do if a broadcaster breaches a code provision?

Where there has been a breach of a code the ACMA may:

  1. agree to accept measures by broadcasters to improve compliance. These measures can include educating staff or changing procedures to improve compliance with the rule(s)
  2. accept an enforceable undertaking for the purpose of securing future compliance with the rule(s)
  3. impose an additional licence condition requiring a licensee to comply (not applicable to the ABC or SBS).

The ACMA cannot ‘fine’ or ‘prosecute’ a broadcaster for breaching a code.

32. What can the ACMA do if a broadcaster breaches a standard?

Where there has been a breach of a standard the ACMA may:

  1. agree to accept measures by broadcasters to improve compliance. These measures can include educating staff or changing procedures to improve compliance with the rule(s)
  2. accept an enforceable undertaking for the purpose of securing future compliance with the rule(s)
  3. issue a remedial direction directing a licensee to take action to ensure that the licensee complies with the standard or is unlikely to breach that standard in the future
  4. vary or revoke a licence condition, or impose an additional licence condition
  5. suspend a licence for a specified period
  6. cancel a licence
  7. pursue a civil penalty in the Federal Court
  8. refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

33. What can the ACMA do if a broadcaster breaches a licence condition (other than a licence condition imposed by the ACMA)?

Where there has been a breach of a licence condition the ACMA may:

  1. agree to accept measures by broadcasters to improve compliance. These measures can include educating staff or changing procedures to improve compliance with the rule(s)
  2. accept an enforceable undertaking for the purpose of securing future compliance with the rule(s)
  3. issue a remedial direction directing a licensee to take action to ensure that the licensee complies with the licence condition or is unlikely to breach that licence condition in the future
  4. suspend a licence for a specified period
  5. cancel a licence
  6. pursue a civil penalty in the Federal Court
  7. refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

34. What can the ACMA do if a broadcaster breaches an ‘additional’ licence condition imposed by the ACMA?

Where there has been a breach of an ‘additional’ licence condition the ACMA may:

  1. agree to accept measures by broadcasters to improve compliance with the additional licence condition
  2. accept an enforceable undertaking for the purpose of securing future compliance with the additional licence condition
  3. issue a remedial direction directing a licensee to take action to ensure that the licensee complies with the additional licence condition or is unlikely to breach that additional licence condition in the future
  4. suspend a licence for a specified period
  5. cancel a licence.

35. Will the broadcaster be forced to correct its mistake?

The ACMA is unable to compel broadcasters to correct mistakes. The ACMA will seek to have the broadcaster agree to this type of outcome, where appropriate.

36. Can I be paid compensation?

No. The ACMA’s broadcasting investigations focus on compliance by broadcasters with the rules. The rules do not provide personal outcomes or remedies for individual complainants. The ACMA cannot order a broadcaster to pay damages or compensation to you, or to take action such as making an on air apology or correction.

37. Who decides what will happen to the broadcaster?

Decisions on higher-level action (e.g. enforceable undertakings or the imposition of an additional licence condition) are taken by members of the Authority (the governing body of the ACMA). Delegates of the Authority usually decide on lower-level enforcement measures.

38. What about the ABC and SBS?

The ACMA’s enforcement powers in regard to the ABC and SBS are different from those it has in respect of other broadcasters. The ACMA can recommend by written notice that the ABC or SBS take some specific action in relation to the breach and complaint. If the relevant broadcaster fails to act on that recommendation within 30 days, the ACMA may report that failure to the Minister and the ACMA’s report is tabled in Parliament.

If there is no breach

39. What happens if the ACMA finds that there has been no breach?

When an investigation is completed, the ACMA is required to notify the complainant of the outcome. The form of notification is not specified in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992—sometimes it is in the form of a letter, but more usually it is an investigation report. The ACMA’s investigation reports include our reasons for decision. If we make a no breach finding we will advise the complainant and the broadcaster of the outcome and of our intention to publish the investigation report (if applicable). The ACMA does not generally seek the comments of the complainant on the report.

After the investigation

40. Will the ACMA publish its findings?

The ACMA will publish the investigation report in most cases, on its website or as part of its reporting requirements. Following the finalisation of the investigation, the complainant and broadcaster will be notified of the outcome. Where applicable, the broadcaster will also be notified of our intention to publish the investigation report on our website. If the matter has resulted in a breach finding we may also issue a media release or web announcement. If it is considered that publishing the report will have an adverse impact on a person mentioned in the report or the program that was the subject of the investigation, that person, where possible, will be given the opportunity to make comment on the publication of the report. This may in some circumstances include the complainant.

41. Will everyone know I’ve complained?

No. Complainants are not usually identified in our investigation reports but complainants need to be aware that other information provided to us may be referred to in the report and will become publicly available.Details of the program or issue complained about will be specified so it is possible that it may be viewed by others. If you appeared in the broadcast you may be identified without being named by the ACMA in our report.

42. I am unhappy with the ACMA’s decision about my complaint. What can I do?

There is no procedure for internal review of the ACMA’s decisions on whether to investigate, or investigation outcomes. These decisions are not reviewable by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). If you are dissatisfied with the way in which the ACMA handles your complaint, including the decision whether to investigate your complaint, you may address your concerns to the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, GPO Box 442, Canberra ACT 2601 or ombudsman@ombudsman.gov.au. You may also wish to seek legal advice about potential avenues of review for jurisdictional, procedural or legal error under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977.

Last updated: 15 May 2017