Networking: Commercial Television in Australia
Abstract by Katharine Brisbane, Currency House
Networking: Commercial Television in Australia by Nick Herd has been produced with generous support from the NFSA, and is available in bookshops from 15 April. Networking is Australia’s first comprehensive history of the commercial television industry in Australia. It is the work of eight years’ research by a man with extensive experience of its corporate creation and government regulation, and he brings a penetrating mind and independent perspective to the imaginative forces and colourful characters that have built the television we have today.
The records of the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra was one of the many valuable sources that contributed to the book including 10 oral histories of major players in the industry.
The popular history of television in Australia begins in 1956, but Networking shows how Australian interest began much earlier. Dr Herd’s book traces how the dual public/commercial radio system informed the structure of our television industry, and follows the imaginative foresight, technical advances and public disquiet that pushed and frustrated its first years. In 1939, the nervous Harry Brown, the Government’s chief adviser on broadcasting and telecommunications, summed up:
My main reason for this point of view is, first of all, the abnormal cost, and, secondly, the disinclination for people to make use of the service to any extent because of the undivided attention which would be entailed.
In 1952 Prime Minister Menzies was recorded as saying: ‘I hope this thing will not come to Australia in my term of office’, but it did.
Public and private interests
A fierce battle began between private interests vying for commercial freedom and public interests concerned about quality, cultural policy and foreign ownership. The Labor Government wanted television to be a monopoly of the ABC; Menzies preferred to see private interests involved. Finally, a lengthy Royal Commission recommended separate public broadcast and commercial stations regulated by annual licence. Applications were dominated by newspaper and radio proprietors and for the most part they were successful.
But while television began in Sydney and Melbourne in 1956, it took much longer to reach the rest of the nation—television did not start in Darwin until the early 1970s. Where government imagined a network of local commercial stations controlled by and serving local communities, the media companies wanted networks with centralised control. This battle was fought through the ’60s and ’70s.
In 1986, the height of Australia’s speculative boom, Treasurer Paul Keating famously declared that our media barons must choose between being ‘princes of print, queens of the screen or rajahs of radio’. Keating’s pronouncement ushered in dramatic changes to Australia’s media ownership laws. The launch of the first national communications satellite in 1985 had opened the commercial landscape to national broadcasting. The power of the Sydney and Melbourne stations was now reinforced as they became the centre of national networks and gained power over regional television programming and access to their revenue streams. Highly-geared entrepreneurs like Christopher Skase and Alan Bond almost brought the television business to its knees.
The rise of consumerism
From the start television proved an ideal outlet for the new consumerism, an outcome of post-war prosperity and full employment. The push for cheaper product with broad appeal was reinforced by the ratings firms that sprang up, seeking to prove for advertisers the size of their audience. Their results bore no relation, writes Herd, to the diverse community interests whose views were adjudicated by Government seeking TV with an ‘Australian look’. Networking traces how the ‘dumbing-down’ element was regularly defeated by government regulation or technical advances like the VCR, DVD and today the digital channels. Television, he writes, is a powerful social institution, and the audience is intrinsic to it.
He describes the cumbersome early news broadcasting and the transformation wrought by Mike Willesee’s A Current Affair which in 1971 introduced news as entertainment. Herd shows how independent drama producers sprang up, and how companies like Crawford, Grundy, Southern Star and Beyond International had by the 1980s revolutionalised the packaging business and established themselves globally. And he shows how, with quotas, advertising time limits, tax deductions and NGOs like the Film Finance Corporation, Government resolutely sought to support employment and encourage excellence.
The sport revolution
With the introduction first of outside broadcasting and then colour in the 1970s, Herd traces how the young Kerry Packer’s revolutionary takeover of sport on the Nine Network changed both the nature of television and the nature of the sports it covered. In the 1990s when pay TV was introduced, rugby league joined the Murdoch team on TEN.
‘What had once been a coalition of suburban football clubs had evolved into a national competition run as a subsidiary enterprise of a major-multi-national media company’, writes Herd. In this way our media changed the rules of the game and the sports lover from amateur participant to corporate client.
The book closes as television joins the digital age. Television, the author concludes, is firstly a social, not a financial institution, and social change has contributed to its character as greatly as its engineers. ‘While the audience may be fragmented, the mass audience still exists for those major events that bind us all together in space and time. Exploiting the continuing power of this immediacy will be the future of commercial television.’
Networking is in bookshops from 15 April at $69.99. A pre-publication discount offer of 25% is available by printing the order form below or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and asking for an order form. Please quote 'NFSA’ in your message.
Keep an eye out for Nick Herd’s blog, coming in late March at nfsa.gov.au/blog