Although in some ways Australian television has provided little representation of that continent's Aboriginal inhabitants, in others it is impossible to overstate the importance of Aboriginality to the medium. As with many areas of Australian culture, the indigenous inhabitants have been co-opted here in the formation of an Australian sense of identity. It is unusual to watch an evening's television in Australia without encountering some representation of Aboriginality--in an advert for the Mitsubishi Pajero; a trailer for a Yothu Yindi concert; or a news item on Aborigines' attempts for land rights. Aboriginal characters and issues have appeared in most genres of Australian television. Soap operas such as Neighbours, Home and Away and A Country Practice have featured Aboriginal characters; as have children's programs like Dolphin Cove and Kideo; game shows like Wheel of Fortune and Family Feud; and even lifestyle programs, with The Great Outdoors, featuring an Aboriginal presenter.

However, as well as these insistent, unsystematic images of Aboriginality, Australian television features areas where a greater weight of indigenous representation has occurred. This is true both in Aboriginal produced and circulated programming; and in the arena of the broadcast mainstream.

In "Mainstream" free-to-air broadcast television there is a fairly consistent representation of Aboriginal people and issues on Australia's news programs. As researchers have noticed, this often involves what are understood to be negative representations--of crime, drunkenness, family problems, victimhood and helplessness. Justified as realistic, these patterns of representation are industrial clichés, familiar ways of organising and creating stories in order to render them immediately legible. Another popular pattern of news coverage is to construct stories about Land Rights claims in terms of white versus black, two equal and opposing sides.

As well as television news programs, most representations of the Aboriginal on Australian mainstream television occur in non-fictional modes. Four Corners and A Big Country, two well-known (ABC) Australian documentary strands, have both included reports on the "plight" of indigenous Australians over the decades of their production (the former in episodes such as "Black Sickness, Black Cure," 1983; the latter in productions like 1974's "The Desert People").

There have also been avowedly Aboriginal programs on mainstream broadcast television. First in Line (SBS, 1989) and Blackout (ABC, 1989) are both Aboriginal produced and presented magazine style programs. Again, they largely feature non-fictional material, although the latter has also increasingly involved comedy sketches and music in its mix.

The ABC mini-series Heartland (1994) is worth including in a category of its own. This 13-hour long drama is a unique contribution to Australian television. It is the only example of a drama program with an Aboriginal hero. (In 1992, a detective series called Bony singularly failed to do the same, taking a series of books with an Aboriginal protagonist and casting a white actor in the lead part). Over the weeks, Heartland presented a series of Aboriginal communities, rural and urban, and a wide range of characters, all contributing to a vastly increased range of available discourses on Aborigines. As an entertaining, watchable piece of television, it is truly distinctive in the history of Australian programming.

Ernie Dingo is responsible for a large amount of the Aboriginal representation on Australian television in the early 1990s. As well as starring in Heartland and presenting The Great Outdoors, he has appeared on programs such as Dolphin Cove, Clowning Around, Wheel of Fortune, GP, The Flying Doctors, and Heartbreak High amongst many others. His presence is a large part of current Australian Aboriginal programming.

Any consideration of Aboriginal programming in Australia must also cover the material which is made and distributed by Aboriginal groups and communities. Broadcasting for Remote Areas Community Scheme (BRACS) is one of a series of acronymically-entitled projects set up by Australia's Federal government to ensure that Aboriginal communities at a distance from the continent's urban centres can have access to broadcast television. BRACS is the successor of such projects as RATS (Remote Area Television Scheme), STRS (Self Help Television Reception Scheme), RUCS (Remote and Underserved Communities Scheme) and the SHBRS (Self-Help Broadcasting Reception Scheme). Funded by the 1987-88 budget of the Federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the purpose of BRACS was slightly different from that which had gone before. Rather than simply ensuring reception of broadcast television, BRACS would provide rebroadcasting and program making facilities in order to allow Aboriginal communities to decide for themselves how much of the material received should actually be shown in their communities, and to make their own material to replace that which they did not want. In order to make this possible BRACS supplies the community with satellite reception equipment; a domestic quality video camera; 2 domestic video recorders (to allow for basic editing); and the equipment to rebroadcast to the community. The initial idea was that this would allow broadcast in little-used languages (some Aboriginal dialects have less than 100 speakers), and to allow deletion of offensive material.

The scheme has had varying degrees of success. Difficulties have included the lack of well-trained personnel to look after the equipment; the built-in obsolescence of domestic equipment; the fact that it is not designed to cope with desert settings; lack of consultation with Aboriginal communities as to whether they wanted the equipment in the first place; and limited-range capability of the rebroadcast equipment. However, it seems that the scheme (available to over 80 Aboriginal communities by 1995) has at least taken into consideration the ways in which communities might want to use television. Although the difficulties with lack of training, equipment and money cannot be ignored, many of the BRACS communities are finding the scheme useful, taking advantage of the chance to produce local material. Programs produced include news, health information and music request programs: all with an intensely local orientation.

Perhaps the most active examples of such local television production are the Aboriginal communities in Ernabella and Yuendumu. Both of these towns pre-empted the government's BRACS scheme, establishing their own pirate television broadcasting well before BRACS legitimised the idea. In the latter community, the Warlpiri Media Association has produced hundreds of hours of programming: records of community life, travel tapes, and Manyu Wana, an Aboriginal version of Sesame Street designed to teach local children the Warlpiri language.

There is also Aboriginal video production from a series of media groups. CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association), TAIMA (Townsville And Aboriginal Islander Media Association), TEABBA (Top End Aboriginal Bush Broadcasting Association), WAAMA (Western Australian Aboriginal Media Association) and TSIAMA (Torres Strait Islander And Aboriginal Media Association) produce video and radio material. The radio programs are often carried on the networks of the Australian Broadcasting Association. Larger organisations than the media producers in the BRACS communities, these groups make material that is less locally oriented, and has an address wider than a single community.

Australia broadcasts commercial television to the inner part of the continent on the satellite Aussat. Several Remote Commerical Television Service (RCTS) licenses were sold on this satellite; one is held by the CAAMA group mentioned above. All of the bidders for these satellites were required to guarantee that their services would include material specifically commissioned for the Aboriginal people who formed a relatively high proportion of their audiences (up to 27% in some cases). All did so, but none have done particularly well in keeping to those promises. The Golden West Network has one Aboriginal magazine program, Milbindi. Queensland Satellite Television broadcasts material provided by the government Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the Queensland State Government, programs which present carefully positive images of Aboriginality.

Imparja, despite being Aboriginal-owned, has found constraints of economy have made it difficult to produce broadcast-quality Aboriginal material. The amount of indigenous programming on the channel has varied. When it started broadcasting in 1988, Imparja featured an Aboriginal magazine-style program, Nganampa Anwernekenhe. By contrast, in 1990, the station's Aboriginal broadcasting consisted only of community service announcements.

This overview gives some idea of the vast range of material encompassed by the term Aboriginal broadcasting of Australia: mainstream television on Aboriginal issues; Aboriginal programs broadcast on the mainstream; and Aboriginal produced and controlled broadcasting which is allowing Aboriginal groups in Australia to interact assertively with new technologies, negotiating the places these will hold in their communities.

-Alan McKee


Jennett, Christine. "White Media Rituals About Aboriginal Media." Media Information Australia, November 1983.

Michaels, Eric. Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media, and Technological Horizons. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1993; St. Leonards, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1994.

Mickler, Steve. "Visions of Disorder." Cultural Studies (London), 1992.