The peculiarly Australian television program is still in the minority on Australian television screens which remain dominated by the Hollywood product. Yet, compared with the situation of only a decade ago, Australian television programs today vie with Australian films in the search for markets worldwide. Australian soap operas such as Neighbours and Home and Away have achieved high ratings in such countries as England and Ireland. And while the Grundy Organization, Australia's largest producer of television shows, began by "borrowing" concepts and formats from American game shows, it has progressed to making a profitable business by selling recycled and rejuvenated American shows back to the country of their origin. Sale of the Century and Wheel of Fortune today typify this genre. While the ultimate ownership of the Australian companies is today increasingly in the hands of multinational corporations, the Australian character of their television programs now seems established and production resides in Australia.

To outline the origin of this national character, however, one must examine the antecedent media. As in any other national context, television programming in Australia can only be understood by examining its origins in radio and film. As in the American experience, and unlike the British, the major impetus to radio programming in Australia came from the commercial sector with the explosive growth of commercial radio in the 1930s. The Australian experience mimicked the American from the soap opera to the singing commercial. While, as the American critic Norman Corwin has observed, Australia is one of the few places on the globe where radio drama was considered as an art form, the vast bulk of commercial radio dramatic product was of the soap opera variety. In its heyday, it succeeded brilliantly by its own commercial standards, meeting not only a domestic niche, but also providing a steady stream of programs for export. It employed a small army of professional writers and production people who formed the nucleus of writers, actors and producers for the infant Australian television industry when it began in the mid-1950s.

Unlike the American, and like the British experience, however, since the beginning of the 1930s, Australia has also had a powerful national, publicly-owned non-commercial broadcasting entity, the Australian Broadcasting Commission. (After 1983, "Commission" became "Corporation"). This corporation is recognized as the primary culture-making force in Australian national life. The ABC has, in fact, sponsored many non-broadcasting aspects of public culture, from the establishment of symphony orchestras in all states, involvement in children's clubs, sporting activities, advice to farmers through specialized agricultural service, and comment on markets and weather, to the explorations of the culture of the rural environment.

Still, it must be pointed out that despite the widespread misconception by commentators, the Australian Broadcasting Commission did not owe its origins to a simple amalgamation of the "good points" of American and British thinking. Rather it arose from the exigencies of the indigenous experience--an Australian response to an Australian requirement. Given its origins and its mandate, the programming from the ABC provided a contrast to the commercial television stations.

The early British broadcasting experience, was, however, very important in the formative years of the ABC. The BBC's "Reithian ethic" of high moral purpose, nation building, and elevating popular tastes, can, in hindsight, hardly be overestimated. High culture was encouraged by classical music programs and community building by popular music programs which often featured Australian musicians performing the latest popular songs from overseas. Sporting programs such as the dominant national pastime of horse racing and test cricket (in the early days especially with England) was a broadcasting staple from the 1930s to the present time. These broadcasts set the pattern of national participation by the time television arrived in 1956, and the various programming categories and genres can be seen to derive from them.

Local programming by independent stations reached its heyday in the decade of the 1980s and exhibited patterns similar to that in other countries. It was relatively common for local stations to do a program on a local event or a car club rally. But local stations became "aggregated" by government policy into a networks not unlike the American commercial system. Local programming then found it necessary to appeal to a geographically wider-spread audience, and by the 1990s began to fade away.

The generalization that the British programming on Australian television tends to be mostly on the ABC is valid. Commercial stations, on the other hand sometimes take British programs, which have proven to be popular from ABC exposure, and rebroadcast them to achieve higher ratings. A range of programs from the ubiquitous Yes Minister series to the more vulgar Are you being served? type vie with David Attenborough nature documentaries and similar British fare as might appear on PBS in America.

In sum, Australian television programming bears the marks of several systems which preceded it. But like many other systems it continues to mold those influences in its own ways. Whether the specifically "Australian" character of television can withstand an onslaught from new economic configurations and new technologies that transcend national boundaries remains to be seen.

Non-Fiction Programming

Talk shows, music, morning programs, sports, news, and current affairs programs are all represented in the Australian television line-up, and again, all derived from radio antecedents. As far as television is concerned little about them is specifically Australian.

In the light entertainment talk shows, for example, the programming is decidedly derivative. Tonight Live with Steve Vizard in the early nineties betrayed its lineage to David Letterman and Johnny Carson. Admittedly, there was an Australian strain of boyish irreverence inherited from the Australian stars such as Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton, but the sets, presentation, and overall style would be easily recognized by an American viewer. Most importantly, in the commercial medium, Vizard's success was due to the economic fact that his popularity allowed the Seven network to extend prime time and charge premium rates for what was, comparatively, an inexpensively produced program.


High culture is typically provided on television with opera or symphony concerts simulcast on Sunday night by the ABC. At the other end of the scale, the ABC provides, in early morning hours, a simulcast of Triple J, the youth national radio network, which broadcasts rock music accompanied by exceptionally raunchy dialog.

Music videos are broadcast at various times on both commercial and national television.

Morning Television

In the very early morning hours, the ABC provides very high quality instructional television which can be correlated with written instruction and tutorial interaction and taken for college credit. Language, biology, business and other Open Learning subjects provide the casual viewer with exceptional, totally involving informational programming, most often of American origin.

Predictably, in the 1980s and 1990s, on Channel 9, the Australian Today show with one male and female compere, provided a mixture of news, interviews, sports and weather in a well-tested format. Variations of this theme have come and gone on competing networks. By the mid 1990s, for example, in the 9:00 A.M. slot, morning television featured Good Morning Australia with Bert Newton, another reference to an American programming format. Again, the interview is the feature of choice, with perhaps a lighter vein to vary the flavor. At least one station usually counterprograms these shows with cartoons for kids.


While sports-watching on television had long been a favorite Australian pastime, the connection between sports and advertising was traditionally not as strong in Australia as in the United States. However, the televised presentation of sporting events is increasingly influenced by American programming strategies. The broadcasting industry had long been poised for intensive activity surrounding the business of sports on television, and media moguls Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch vied (and collaborated on occasion) for various contracts with players, licenses and outlets for the advertising dollars and pay television subscriptions.

In cricket, for example, the tradition had been inherited from the British Empire, where white-suited cricketers (divided into "gentlemen" who were amateurs, and "professionals" who were paid) took days to play a "test" match. By the 1970s, media mogul Kerry Packer was credited with promoting a game more suited to television coverage: played in one day, with colorful costumes, showbiz accouterments and players exhibiting enthusiasm rather than the old British "stiff upper lip." Similar transformations occurred in tennis, football, hockey, soccer, netball and other sports. And the trend toward Americanization was markedly increased with the introduction of Rupert Murdoch's Superleague, an entirely new combination of Rugby League teams and with Pay TV sports programs which were becoming more prevalent by 1995.

Through all these changes, the scheduling strategies have remained quite the same. A typical week's viewing would begin with the traditional Saturday afternoon when all channels present one sport or another. The same pattern holds for Sunday afternoon, with one commercial channel starting sports programming at 9:00 A.M. (The ABC has a counterprogrammed a high culture arts ghetto on Sunday afternoons, and SBS also tends to eschew sports on Sunday afternoon). The regular television news on Sunday nights tends to increase its sports coverage beyond the acceptable thirty per cent for Australian television newscasts, and there are also irregular sports specials on at various prime time slots.

While special football games of various codes are broadcast during one or two week nights in Australia, American football tends to be consigned to late-night taped presentations on the ABC, except for the Super Bowl which is broadcast live. Basketball is the fastest growing sport in Australia, and thanks to television, in one celebrated 1994 survey 11 year-old Australians considered Michael Jordan as the Best Sportsman.

The television sporting scene is also affected by the specialized narrowcasting of events to pubs and clubs across the nation by satellite transmission. Horse racing is perhaps the sport most associated with gambling, but with the advent of new technologies, and especially with the advent of sports on pay-TV, the ubiquitous TAB's or gambling shops will undoubtedly evolve to exploit the new media.

With the Olympic Games scheduled for Sydney in 2000, the influence of television on the world of sports in Australia will undoubtedly reach a zenith.



Australian Radio news was available in the early days in a prototypal form with the stories taken from the newspapers. The newspaper proprietors, already having demonstrated their political clout by keeping the ABC from commercial taint (and revenues), were able to stifle radio news until the war years (1939-45). During the World War II, a coalition government, pressured by the imminence of a Japanese invasion, decided that the ABC radio was crucial to the war effort. Once established, ABC news became one of the world's most professional news broadcasting services with bureaux worldwide.

Typically, the ABC television nightly news is of half-hour duration, is presented from each individual state with common stories from overseas feeds, and is followed by a current affairs program. The presenter is of the BBC "Newsreader" variety, and is not typically a practicing journalist. Richard Morecroft who fronts the ABC TV 7:00 P.M. news in New South Wales (the state with the largest population), is perhaps the best exemplar of the ABC style.

The format is boiler plate: Local, state, national, international, sports and weather. The commercial stations tend to have similar formats, with quicker pacing and a more lurid selection of topics. Australian newscasts typically devote six or seven minutes of a thirty-minute slot to sport, a proportion far greater than typical in the United States. Brian Henderson, the anchor of the Channel Nine (commercial) news, is the long-time champion in the news ratings and provides his network with the coveted high-rated lead-in position for the rest of the night. Another veteran news anchor is his rival Roger Climpson who fronts for the (also highly profitable) Seven network.

The Special Broadcasting Service, often admired for the quality of its television news, has an unmatched foreign coverage, and tends to longer and more comprehensive stories. Besides the nightly news there are shorter programs throughout the broadcast day, some being short updates.

Documentary And Current Affairs

The prototypal Australian television documentary (or current affairs) program is the long-running Four Corners program which is an institution on its Monday night slot at 8:30. Perhaps the finest hour in Australian television was the broadcast of "The Moonlight State" on 11 May 1987 when Australia's premier investigative journalist, Chris Masters, demonstrated on film the illegal booze joints, the prostitution, and the gambling dens whose existence had been long denied by the self-righteous government of the state of Queensland. Senior police officers went to jail and a government was overthrown following the subsequent inquiry triggered by the program.

Channel Nine presents a prestigious current affairs program Sunday on Sunday morning, and from time to time other commercial concerns have attempted to match Nine and the ABC with serious public affairs programming, but their efforts seem to vanish as management turns to more profitable programming.

SBS and the ABC program several high quality documentaries in any broadcasting week. Typical titles, chosen at random for illustration only, are: The Big Picture, That Was Our War, Documentary, Australian Biography, Great Books and A Most Remarkable Planet.

While a number of these presentations move toward television that is distinctively Australian, it is in fictional programming that the clearest and most powerful explorations of a national character and mode of representation have been established.

Fictional Programming

Although the Gorton Liberal (conservative) government in the early 1970s began the process, the great national renaissance in motion picture and television programming began with the free-spending Whitlam Labor government of 1973-75. Because the same people worked in film as worked in television, it is hard to separate out the stories of the different media. The technical infrastructure for movies was aided by the fact that since 1960 imported television commercials were banned. This meant that in the capital cities, especially in Sydney and Melbourne, motion picture laboratories developed a steady business and the technical expertise required to provide high quality professional product in the advertising arena. Until the advent of ENG (electronic news gathering) in the 1970s, when tape was used instead of film, television news, shot on 16mm film also provided a steady demand to supplement the work of the film labs.

The topics of television programming echoed those covered in the motion pictures. Australia, before the 1930s, had an economically viable silent film industry which did not survive the advent of sound and the economic depression of the 1930s. Hollywood (and to a lesser extent British) product then dominated Australian cinema screens. Because film is a cultural artefact as well as being a salable commodity, the Australian audiences became saturated with American culture. Almost ten years after the advent of television in Australia, the American authority Wilson Dizard could make his famous statement: "The daily schedule of a typical Australian television station, particularly in prime listening hours, is virtually indistinguishable from that of a station in Iowa or New Jersey." And as late as 1967, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board required that only two hours of Australian drama be broadcast per month in prime time.

Thus deprived of Australian stories on the screen, when the 1970s Renaissance occurred, the subject of the programming tended to be the indigenous classics, and contemporary themes which depended on a distinctly Australian flavor. In 1976, the government decreed (with a "points system") that there be a 50% Australian content between the hours of 4:00 P.M. and 10:00 P.M., and demanded compliance of commercial licensees. Despite their early protests, the commercial stations found that the Australian programs were very popular with Australian audiences.

Available for television a year or so after cinema release, Australian films became an important part of the indigenous programming, but the epitome of television programming art was seen to be in the miniseries.


The miniseries brought important national myths and icons to the television screen. The quintessential Australian nation-building myth is that of ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). The Anzac story is one of volunteer soldiers, who, in 1915, on behalf of the British war effort against Germany, invaded Turkish territory on the Gallipoli peninsula. The campaign was a defeat, but the valor of the soldiers, celebrated in a national day of commemoration (ANZAC day, 25 April), became a central theme of the Australian nation as a cause worth any sacrifice. The television miniseries Anzacs thus complemented the major motion picture Gallipoli to tell the Anzac story.

Similarly, following the nationalistic, nostalgic (and essentially mythic) impetus, another miniseries The Last Outlaw told the story of arguably the most famous Australian folk hero, Ned Kelly. Ned Kelly is (literally) an Australian icon, because in his self-made steel body armour, he looked like a medieval knight with six guns. Like his American contemporary, Jesse James, he was a highway robber, but unlike James, his behavior elicited considerable public sympathy with large crowds protesting his hanging in 1880. Today his story is all-pervasive in Australian culture with the Ned Kelly icon appearing in the high culture of Sidney Nolan paintings in the National Gallery in Canberra, and the armour and six guns feature as a logo for a brand of sliced bread. Yet beyond the Australian version of the Robin Hood image lies an historical reality. Because Ned Kelly epitomized the rebellious Irishman persecuted by British rule, his story tied in neatly with a long tradition of Republicanism which is becoming more potent at the turn of the millennium.

The television miniseries Against the Wind depicted another important facet of Australian history which had been ignored while American stories had dominated the Australian television screens. It, too, harked back to mythic origins, as Australia's convict past was evoked by the story of a spirited Irish lass who was transported to Australia as a political prisoner. She falls in love with a fine upstanding convict unjustly treated by a vicious system. The settings of the program owe more to the Disney studios than the squalor portrayed by recent historical accounts of the eighteenth century settlement, but the program fulfilled the requirements of standard founding myths which are requisite in all cultures.

The 19th century depiction of a family saga, Seven Little Australians provided a local version of the American Little House on the Prairie or Canadian Anne of Green Gables genre. Other miniseries covered well-known Australian legends, such as those relating to the sporting stories between the wars. Bodyline portrayed unsportsmanlike Englishmen attacking stalwart and long-suffering Australians when playing the extremely popular sport of cricket. The title, Bodyline, described a tactic of aiming at the batsman's body, rather than at the wicket--a tactic that worked. The English won the test series in 1936 and a number of Australians were, in fact, injured. The other casualty was Australian good feeling for the British, although the Australians took the high moral ground and did not reciprocate with the "bodyline" tactic. This material, clearly restricted in commercial terms to the "old empire" of cricket players, is the stuff of myth and legend, and as such proved popular with its intended market.

Similarly, the mythic imperative of coming to grips with former enemies was handled with the miniseries Cowra Breakout. In 1944, Japanese prisoners of war "broke out" of a prisoner of war camp in the remote Australian town of Cowra. By the early 1980s, when the program was made, Japan and Australia had experienced a quarter century of mutual economic interest as trading partners, and Japan was the most important Australian market by far. The deaths of the brave, but culturally incomprehensible Japanese, were treated in this series in a way not unlike that of the pacifist film of the 1930s All Quiet on the Western Front.

Clearly, this outpouring of depictions of Australian history and culture resulted in part because of government production subsidies, provided as partial support for the requirement that holders of the lucrative television licenses broadcast Australian content. But when the ratings demonstrated that these Australian stories were very popular with Australian audiences, it seemed tangible proof that a cultural imperative was also inherent in their acceptance by the indigenous audience.

By the 1980s, however, the economic climate changed. Broadcasting seemed dominated by takeovers of the major television networks. Furthermore, deregulation and privatization rather than activist nationalistic initiatives seemed to capture the governmental imagination. Thus by the end of the decade, the traditional mythical Australian themes of the tragic losers--Ned Kelly, The Anzacs, the bodyline cricketers, Les Darcy the boxer, and even Phar Lap the racehorse--were being superseded by a new type of Australian story. The audiences, satisfied by the availability of their indigenous stories, began to demand a change of programming and the program makers began to look beyond the most obvious indigenous themes.

By the 1990s, the motion picture industry was tackling contemporary themes presented with high production values. For example, The Heartbreak Kid concerned an affair between a high school student and his young teacher. The milieu of Greek culture in Melbourne provided a conflict intermingling male dominance (the teacher's fiancÚ resorts to violence, and her father's role is stereotypical) and a depiction of conflicting loyalties. The television serial spin-off was called Heartbreak High, with the same young male lead and an approximation of the cinematic verisimilitude in the sets. Produced at the same time was Paradise Beach, in the tradition of Baywatch, with Surfers Paradise in Queensland standing for the Californian coast.

Traditional themes, however, remained a staple. For example, The Man From Snowy River, a motion picture derived from a poem by Banjo Patterson, the author of "Waltzing Matilda" (the Australian national song) had been a success in the 1980s. By 1994, a 13-part television miniseries entitled: Banjo Patterson's The Man from Snowy River continued the genre. It is perhaps a sign of the maturity of the industry in Australia that the subjects and formats which secured the initial popularity for Australian programs with Australian viewers now are merely one type of program amongst many.


As in the United States soap operas are programmed during the day, and the typical commercial offering has a mixture of American programming (Days of Our Lives, The Bold and the Beautiful, The Young and the Restless), interspersed with Australian soap operas such as Home and Away, Echo Point and Neighbours. The basic rules of the daytime serials which were established in the 1930s radio era still apply, regardless of the racier themes and more topical situations. Perceptions of "Australianness" of the indigenous soap operas vary, and provide interesting perspectives on cultural productions. The general Australian opinion is that the lives of the protagonists in Australian soaps are more ordinary, everyday and working-class. Yet to European observers, the Australian soap opera is characterized by relatively healthy, happy beings who endure their endless travails in a fortunate sun-drenched situation. Regardless of these "Australian" traits, the Australian soap opera remains true to type, exhibiting, most significantly, the "endless narrative" which characterizes the genre worldwide.


Much of Australia's television comedy is derivative. At 7:30 P.M. on the Nine Network, for example, Australia's Funniest Home Video Show used the standard American formula.

Perhaps with a more indigenous flavor, the family situation comedy Hey Dad (in daytime reruns by the mid-nineties), followed the U.S. sitcom formula but focused on the same everyday working-class context as presented in the Australian soap operas. Acropolis Now (also in reruns), a politically incorrect sitcom, made gentle fun of Australia's ethnic communities placed within a dominant Anglo culture.

On the ABC in the mid-1990s, Mother and Son presented a genuinely challenging comic world. Veteran actors Ruth Cracknell and Gary Macdonald explored the tribulations of a man taking care of his mother--who is afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. And the cult comedy, Frontline, starred Rob Sitch as Mike More, an unhinged, venal, television talking head. A send-up of a television current affairs program, this show was generally considered to be thinly disguised social commentary.

Police Procedurals

The police serial in Australia began with Crawford's, a major production company in Melbourne. Crawford's came to prominence with Homicide and established a format with Cop Shop. Today, the Australian police show genre can be exemplified by considering two programs, Police Rescue and Blue Heelers. Police Rescue, with its star Gary Sweet as the ("hunk") lead Mickey, takes place in an urban setting. With high production values (as befits its ABC origins and overseas co-producers), the story lines deal with tensions of contemporary life in a city which is not necessarily recognizably Australian.

Blue Heelers, on the other hand, is set in mythical, bucolic, small town Australia. Produced for Channel Seven, Blue Heelers is constrained by a modest budget monitored by the creative guiding hand of leading Australian writer, Tony Morphett. The program is clearly indigenous, and not as accessible to overseas audiences as Police Rescue. The very name Blue Heelers plays a word game recognizable to Australian audiences, yet which would escape viewers unaware of Australian nuances. It refers simultaneously to the standard blue uniforms which color-code police in the English speaking world and to a breed of cattle-dog, the Queensland blue, notorious for sneaking behind unsuspecting people and nipping at their ankles. The star, John Wood, is positively avuncular, although the show has elements of action-drama. While Australians are among the most urbanized people on earth, the call of the small town, as exemplified by the long-running program A Country Practice, seems to provide an appeal in national escapism as provided by television.

Both Blue Heelers and Police Rescue aim at a family audience at eight thirty at night. Both present continuing characters who constitute a "family" in the workplace. Both offer the usual recipe of conflict, violence, sexual attraction and humor. Nevertheless, the program set in the country is much more clearly mythical, Australian, and designed to reassure its audience. While Australian viewers, as the ratings attest, enjoy the restless camera and edgy performances of the American offering NYPD Blue, just as they enjoyed Hill Street Blues, Australian producers seem to have stayed with less gritty serials. On the other hand, police-based short series such as Janus, produced by the ABC from its Melbourne studios, have explored a much darker vision for the policing profession than that exemplified by the prototypal Blue Heelers and Police Rescue.

-Myles P. Breen


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See also Country Practice; Four Corners; Heartbreak High; Hey Hey It's Saturday; Homicide; Neighbours; Power Without Glory; Prisoner; Sale of the Century; Sex; Sylvania Waters