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.
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
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.
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.
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.
are broadcast at various times on both commercial and national television.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
the Olympic Games scheduled for Sydney in 2000, the influence of
television on the world of sports in Australia will undoubtedly
reach a zenith.
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.
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.
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.
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
And Current Affairs
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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
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.
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.
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Sale of the
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