The Australian Media Landscape: Recent Changes

Elizabeth Jacka (Australian Film Television and Radio School)

Abstract: Australia has had a comparatively stable broadcasting system since the 1950s. This began to change in the 1980s and the pace of change is now accelerating. The government has just released a new draft broadcasting bill which promises to free up the system, allow new entrants, and provide new services for consumers.

Résumé: En Australie, le système de diffusion radiophonique et télévisuel a été assez équilibré depuis les années cinquante. Avec les années quatre-vingt, on a vu le commencement d'un changement qui maintenant s'accélère. Actuellement le gouvernement envisage l'adoption d'une législation qui permettra le renouvellement du système, l'introduction de nouveaux participants et de nouveaux services pour les consommateurs.

The decade of the 1980s was turbulent for the electronic media in Australia and the present one promises to be even more so. Australia had a stable system with a comparatively small number of services from the time of the introduction of television until the mid-1980s when a significant expansion of radio and television services began. The 1990s has ushered in, later than in similar countries, a so-called fundamental review of broadcasting with a new draft broadcasting bill released for comment in November 1991. It promises to introduce a regime more suited to the contemporary period, in particular the rapid technological change of the last 10 years. The recent period in Australia has also seen the beginning of a transformation in the telecommunications regime. Until 1990 telecommunications was dominated by two government-owned monopolies, Telecom Australia for domestic services and the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC) for overseas services. In addition there was a government-owned satellite operator, AUSSAT, which was constrained by statute from competing in telecommunications provision or broadcasting services and was thus confined largely to providing transmission services for existing broadcasters. In 1990 the government introduced the first stage of long-term reforms in telecommunications, which will see the introduction of competition to Telecom via new private sector entrants. These changes in telecommunications clearly have an impact on the broadcasting sector; however this article is confined largely to a discussion of the latter, but the implications of the former will be mentioned in passing.

A Domestic Satellite for Australia

The introduction of the domestic satellite, AUSSAT, was surrounded by the most intense controversy. The prominent media proprietor Kerry Packer is credited with bringing political pressure to bear on the then Liberal government to establish a government-owned satellite service although there was considerable expert opinion around at the time that said that such a service could not be viable (Paltridge, 1989; Hazlehurst, 1990). AUSSAT was incorporated in 1981 as a government-owned corporation, 75% owned by the Commonwealth, and 25% owned by Telecom (Paltridge, 1989, p. 1). Its first three satellites were launched by 1987 and they are due to be replaced by a second generation in 1992.

AUSSAT did indeed prove not to be viable and by the end of 1990 it was carrying losses estimated to be $740 million. The difficulties for AUSSAT were caused by an overestimation of the demand for transponders by broadcasters, exacerbated more recently by contraction in the broadcasting sector. In common with satellite operators around the world, AUSSAT found itself with an excess of capacity and this was made worse in Australia by the delay in introducing subscription video entertainment services. A "moratorium" on pay television was introduced in 1986 and has only recently been lifted. As yet no pay services are being offered though, as discussed below, the Broadcasting Services Bill envisages a Pay TV regime.

Apart from some minor use in private networks, AUSSAT's main use is to facilitate television networking and for remote television. In 1988 broadcasters provided 63% of AUSSAT revenue. However satellite delivery has contributed to an increase in broadcasters' technical costs since 1987 (Paltridge, 1989, p. 12). In spite of the costs of terrestrial delivery in a large and sparsely populated country like Australia, this method has been preferred by regional broadcasters.

The other major use of AUSSAT satellites, to broadcast to remote communities, has also proved to be unviable. In addition it has proved to be uneconomic to use the satellite for remote telephony, with only corporate users in the "outback" having access on a "user pays" basis (Spurgeon, 1989, p. 30). In order to provide commercial television and radio services to the 300,000 dwellers in remote Australia, who had no access to them, the government introduced a special class of licence (RCRS and RCTS licences--remote commercial radio service and remote commercial television service). A total of four new RCTS service areas were defined which were to be four footprints served by satellite, one in each of Northern, Western, Central, and South-eastern Australia although only three were established. The Northern and Western licences were won by existing regional terrestrial operators and great excitement was created in the Aboriginal community when the successful applicant for the Central licence was Imparja Television owned by the Alice Springs based Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). CAAMA hoped to run a viable commercial television service that would please both black and white audiences but to also use the technology so employed to bring special information, entertainment, and educational services to their linguistically diverse Aboriginal audience (Spurgeon, 1989, pp. 39ff.).

These remote services seem to have failed, not because they have not provided a much needed local service, but because it has proved impossible to do so economically. The dishes were to have cost $1,000; but they eventually cost more like $3,000 so the take-up by consumers has been less than estimated (Paltridge, 1990, p. 13). Consequently it has proved impossible to create a viable advertising market across such vast distances (several thousand miles in Western Australia) even though the transponder costs were partly subsidized by the respective State governments. Even with that, Imparja has been unable to pay its AUSSAT bill for the last two years. The State governments have recently announced that the subsidy will cease and without it or without the cost structure in AUSSAT changing, it seems that the remote services have no future. The Federal government currently has the scheme under review but the issue has been swamped by bigger communications policy changes.

All in all, even if nothing were to change, it would seem as though the viability of AUSSAT itself was under severe threat. With a $740 million debt and a large injection of capital needed to commission and launch the next generation of satellites, it seems doubtful that AUSSAT could have continued to do business. One can only conjecture how much influence these hard facts had on the government's decision to make AUSSAT the basis for the second carrier when it opened up the telecommunications system. Similarly consideration of AUSSAT's viability played a role in its decision to lift the moratorium on pay television and open the way for a satellite-delivered national service of six channels, even when many were arguing that cable was the preferred mode of delivery. This discussion is resumed below.

Aboriginal Broadcasting

Aborigines (a category which is sometimes used to include Torres Strait Islanders although they are ethnically quite different) make up just under two per cent of Australia's population of 17 million but in remote rural Australia (especially in the northern part) form a substantial proportion of the population. Aboriginal communities are very diverse linguistically and culturally, with up to 60 different languages still being spoken (Molnar, 1990, p. 2). The advent of remote services via AUSSAT to the outback has begun to serve remote Aboriginal communities. However such services do little to address their specific needs and their needs to speak to each other. With the exception of 110 hours a week of Aboriginal radio programs broadcast via satellite from 8 KIN-FM in Alice Springs, very little else available to Aboriginal audiences has any Aboriginal content (Molnar, 1990, p. 2). During the 1970s, and increasingly in the 1980s, Aboriginal communities have begun to use radio, and to a lesser extent video, to record their own stories and cultural practices but the type of broadcast material they receive is quite at odds with their traditions in both content and form (Michaels, 1990, pp. 8-31).

The evident shortcomings of European notions of broadcasting to serve quite different cultural ends led the Federal government to hold an inquiry into the media needs of Aboriginal communities. The upshot was a report called Out of the Silent Land, which recommended the establishment of a system specific to such communities (Wilmot, 1984). This new system was to be called BRACS (Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme) and was to be administered, not by the Department of Communications, but by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, replaced since 1990 by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). The basic philosophy of the scheme was to give Aborigines in remote communities the opportunity (and resources) to make and transmit their own programs or to retransmit programs from other services as desired. The BRACS scheme is licensed under the Broadcasting Act but the licensing regime is extremely relaxed, requiring only that the operators of the services register with the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT) and send in an annual report of what they are doing. There are no specific ownership and control or programming requirements but the ABT has the power to monitor the services and ensure that they are operating according to their original purpose.

By the end of 1990 there were 60 BRACS units in place (having been funded by ATSIC) but since the ABT has not established administrative procedures for licensing BRACS it is impossible to say in general how it is operating. There have been plenty of criticisms of the scheme. Molnar reports interviews with Aboriginal broadcasters in which they charge that it is very much a white bureaucratic solution, a system introduced too hastily, without consultation with all communities involved, and not adequately financed. Some communities have the basic equipment but have not been funded for buildings to house it, which tends to mean it gets housed in official buildings under white control. Other communities have been given equipment when they did not ask for it and do not know how to use it. Others again use it to broadcast home video material instead of indigenous material, which clearly raises copyright issues (Molnar, 1990, pp. 8-12). However, on the whole, Aboriginal communities welcome the scheme. Many, those with some access to skills, are using it creatively and if a way of providing adequate training and equipment can be developed, it has considerable potential for considerably empowering them (Molnar, 1990, p. 12).

The Expansion of Radio Services

At the end of the 1970s the range of radio services in Australia was comparatively small and had remained unchanged since the 1950s. At the end of the 1970s the Liberal government began a cautious expansion by opening up the FM band for the first time and allowing two FM services in each of the capital cities and inaugurating the public (that is, community) radio system. The FM services quickly came to dominate the ratings and AM services began the decline that has marked them in other parts of the world. Throughout the 1980s a number of hitherto profitable AM stations became marginal. One way of arresting the decline was through the formations of radio networks, a practice that had not been common earlier. This was facilitated by changes in legislation allowing a greater number of licences to be co-owned and by the advent of the satellite (Broadcasting in Australia 1988, p. 10). Networking permitted large-scale selling of advertising and the sharing of news and talk back programs with popular city hosts, such as John Laws. There has, however, been a concomitant drop in levels of local programming, especially news.

In 1987 the Labour government formulated a policy for the further expansion of radio services; this was to involve new commercial FM services in the cities and in regional Australia and an increase in the numbers of public stations in both the city and the country. In a highly contested move, the government decided to offer the capital city licences by auction to existing AM broadcasters who wished to move to the more lucrative FM band. In July 1989 six successful tenderers for FM conversion were announced. They had paid between $31 million for a licence in Melbourne and $5 million for one in Adelaide. These prices, especially those on Melbourne, were considered by the industry to be ridiculously high and difficult to recoup even on the FM band.

The radio industry, used to a good deal of regulatory protection over the years, was sent into turmoil by these changes. This led the industry lobbies to campaign vigorously against both the full implementation of the plans and against the regulatory imposition of the Australian music quota (the requirement, embodied in an ABT standard that 20% of all music played daily on all stations be by Australian performers). The latter standard was reviewed by the ABT in 1986 and retained, subject to some minor variations in application (Australian Music on Radio, 1986). However, the radio industry's opposition to the expansion plan did persuade the government to put the program on hold pending the outcome of the major review of broadcasting which is embodied in the new draft bill (see below). It is interesting to compare the prices paid for the two Sydney FM conversions in 1991 with those paid in the slightly smaller Melbourne market in 1989. Sydney AM station 2UW paid $9.423 million for its FM frequency in a blind auction and 2WS paid $8.056 million.

Critics of the existing commercial radio industry in Australia point to the blandness and sameness of the formats. Financial pressure has led to most aiming for the same slice of the market--the 25-39 "demographic"--and to the same format--"hits and memories"--described as "your favourite hits from the sixties, seventies, and eighties." Talk stations did well in the early 1980s but have fallen off more recently. Only the ABC and the public stations offer any variation to the formulaic nature of commercial radio, but, for different reasons, each of them has problems in reaching audiences. There have been rumblings from Canberra about freeing up the FM band by moving the "marginal" public stations to the less desirable AM band. New technologies, such as DAB (digital audio broadcasting) are being hailed as ushering in a new era of niche programming and therefore greater diversity, but limited overseas experience suggests that introducing more services tends to exacerbate the flight to the middle of the road, as more and more players fight over revenue that has to be spread thinner and thinner. What is true, more for radio than for television, is that the existing regulatory system is appropriate for the industry as it was in the 1950s, not the 1990s. The new draft bill brings a degree of genuine deregulation to radio, which will provoke howls of outrage from established players. Desirable as it might be to free the radio industry up, the new legislation seems to ignore the issue of diversity and how it can be financed as audiences become more fragmented.

Equalization of Television Services

Although the Act does not recognize the existence of networks, but only individual services (for all intents and purposes, stations) the television system in Australia is in fact organized into networks. In the five largest capital cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Perth) there are three television services and these have traditionally been linked, by a mixture of ownership and affiliation arrangements, into networks, the Seven, Nine, and Ten networks. Introduction of cross-media ownership restrictions between print and electronic media in 1987 forced the traditional print proprietors (Fairfax, Packer, and Murdoch) to sell their television holdings, to Christopher Skase's Quintex, Alan Bond's Bond Media, and Frank Lowy's Northern Star Holding respectively. It is now generally agreed that it was the inflated prices and high gearing involved in these purchases, rather than any basic unsoundness in the television business that has brought the Australian industry to its knees.

These cross-media restrictions (on which Kerry Packer's bid for the Fairfax newspapers was snagged) were part of a bigger pattern of changes that were introduced in the mid-1980s, the cardinal point of which was the so-called equalization policy. It was designed to equalize the difference between viewing options in the city (five services) and the country (usually two). Although the disparities appeared large on the surface, regional and local viewers were in fact well served because the regional stations were able to "cherry pick" the best programs from the three networks. In addition they had a consortium through which they could independently acquire overseas programming at advantageous rates, thus partially by-passing their dependence on the networks. The network stations were almost solely responsible for developing Australian programming, especially in the expensive areas like drama, documentary, national and international news, and current affairs programming and big budget variety and music shows. The regional stations were very profitable due to the fact that they were in "solus" markets and could pick the best from the networks. They could afford to produce a modest amount of local programming to serve their own regional audiences, even though they were numerically quite small. The mix usually included local news, local sport, current affairs, information and community programs, and documentaries. These were unpretentious in style and budget but their local specificity ensured a sizable local audience.

However there was undoubtedly also some pressure from regional audiences for as much choice as city audiences. After some vacillation on the most suitable mechanism for bringing this about, including a trial of a supplementary licence scheme, the final solution reached was to do it by a process of aggregation. This meant that existing service areas would be amalgamated into bigger units, thus increasing the audience reach by about three times and allowing each regional station to broadcast to this augmented area. It clearly made no sense for there to be three identical services, so the way this would work to increase consumer choice was by having each regional operator in the augmented service area affiliate with one of the networks, so that regional viewers would have identical services (except for some local inserts of both programming and advertising) to people in the cities. This would produce a situation of virtual networking throughout the more populous half of Western Australia.

As a result of the accompanying changes to cross-media ownership rules all three networks changed hands for exorbitant prices in highly geared deals (Alan Bond bought the Nine Network from Packer for over $1 billion). The subsequent stock market fall and rise in interest rates contributed to the deals coming apart and to two of the Networks (Seven and Ten) being placed in receivership in 1990. As is well known, Kerry Packer, who held $200 million of preference shares in the network, called them in and at the end of 1990 Bond was forced to surrender the network back to Packer in a complicated deal that is estimated at around $300 million.

The process of aggregation and equalization is at the moment confined to Eastern Australia, to the most populous states of Queensland, Victoria, and New South Wales. It began in April 1989 in Southern New South Wales, continued in Northern Queensland in January 1991, and Northern NSW and Victoria followed in 1992. Other events and reforms have overtaken this process (see below) and it is unlikely to be extended to the rest of Australia. The policy has generally been a disaster for the viability of regional stations and has led to a sharp decrease in the amount of locally produced programming. Admittedly, it was introduced at a bad time, a time both of a general downturn, leading to what is now a severe recession and also a time when the networks were at the height of their financial distress. However, even without these circumstances, aggregation seems in retrospect an ill advised policy, which now, at the dawn of new delivery modes in Australia (cable and satellite) looks more and more anachronistic because the aggregated services are being delivered terrestrially over very long distances. Given the often difficult terrain of Australia near the coast, this has necessitated the construction of expensive new transmitters and other equipment and plant and has cost the regional operators funds they could ill afford, in spite of their earlier comparative prosperity. In addition to this, the service that, as it were, drew the booby prize and was forced to affiliate with the Ten Network (the most marginal of the three in audience and financial terms) is disadvantaged. The close nexus thus created between the network parent and the regional affiliate raised potential difficulties under the Broadcasting Act as to whether the arrangement amounted to control of the regional affiliate, which would breach the audience reach limits of 60% set down in the Act. As will be discussed below, this problem has been overcome in the new legislation by increasing audience reach limits to 75%.

The National Broadcasting Services: The ABC

In common with other national broadcasters around the world, the 1980s brought a truly painful adjustment to the end of Reithianism (Rowland & Tracey, 1988; Madge, 1989). The Reithian vision of a national, publicly funded broadcaster with cultural and nation building tasks and protected from the commercial market place were already beginning to be eroded in the 1970s. The Liberal (that is, conservative) prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, began to cut funds to the ABC in 1976 and there has been a slow erosion ever since. The ABC is responsible not just for supplying three national radio networks (Radio National, a metropolitan "light" network and a regional network) and a national television service, but also with providing an international service, Radio Australia, which is widely available in the Asia-Pacific region as well as in Europe and the Americas. It also manages the national orchestras, based in each state, and is the major classical music entrepreneur in the country. Pressures on it during the 1980s to manage with less, to be more commercial and accountable have led it, like the BBC and the CBC, to move into marketing, mostly its own products, which has been quite successful.

In 1988 the comparatively new Minister of Transport and Communications, Gareth Evans, released a report on the ABC and the SBS written by his department, the Review of National Broadcasting Policy. The review was to address the problems of adequate funding for the two national broadcasters and the possibility of raising extra funds through advertising or sponsorship. It attempted to divide the activities of the ABC into what it called "charter" and "non-charter" activities and raised the possibility of seeking outside funds to support the latter (Review of National Broadcasting Policy, 1988). It also pointed out that the charters of the two national broadcasters should be viewed as complementary, something that had not occurred previously. Soon after, Senator Evans became Foreign Minister and the report was shelved. However, the issues it raised are still current and at the present time the possibility of closer co-operation between the two organizations in some areas remain highly pertinent.

During Evans's tenure as Minister responsible for the ABC, there was a much publicized and very bitter struggle between him and Managing Director David Hill. The issue was continued funding cuts to the national broadcaster and a disagreement as the funding formula to be being applied. Hill lost and the upshot has been a roughly 5% per annum shaving of funds. Frequently the ABC is seen as too politically controversial and is distrusted by politicians. It is continually accused of bias and of not being responsive to viewer complaints. It is also accused of still containing fat, although no evidence for this is ever produced. In the new broadcasting legislation, the audience complaints aspect of the ABC is finally brought under the regulation of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, as the new body will be called, a move some politicians and critics of the ABC have been calling for for some time.

The ABC's response to funding erosion has been to continually trim program costs, although as many embattled program makers point out, the administrative staff appears to keep growing. This trimming is evident in areas like regional radio news, staff training, and constraints on production budgets and in expensive areas like television drama. In the latter area there is a move to a more "international" strategy with emphasis on international co-productions and less ability to take risks or innovate (Jacka, 1991). The ABC has declared an interest in participating in a new pay TV service but this is a controversial move as some commentators see it as a recipe for losing money and fear the ABC's entry could compromise its attempts to continue to fulfil its other obligations. The corporation is also investigating other means of raising revenue such as selling of down-time, providing news services to other radio networks, and leasing its facilities.

The ABC is still a robust national service which plays a central role in Australian cultural and political life. Its television service is watched by something like 90% of the population at some time in the week and it currently has a share of around 16%, with many individual programs attracting a much bigger audience. Its radio services are also popular with audiences, especially in the country regions, where the competition has traditionally been less and the local coverage is appreciated. The ABC leads the field in the production of news and current affairs, especially in overseas reporting and investigative journalism (a story on its flagship program, 4 Corners, was the first step in the downfall of ex-Premier of Queensland, Sir Jo Bjielke Petersen), although Network Nine's record on local political reporting is also good. After being challenged during the 1980s by the commercial networks in the field of Australian television drama, the ABC is also now producing the most aesthetically interesting and conceptually challenging programs, although it has to be admitted that the commercial competition has been very subdued since the onset of financial troubles. The corporation regularly scoops most of the prizes in the various national award systems in both the general and news and current affairs areas, and it wins its share of international recognition.

If the ABC is to survive the 1990s, like public broadcasters around the world, it will have to find new ways of counteracting decreasing state support while maintaining the level of its services. At least one commentator has advocated a breaking up of the ABC into separate television and radio services, with its non-broadcast functions going elsewhere (Davis, 1988). Some wasteful duplication of administrative functions does seem to occur because of the size and diversity of the ABC, but remaining intact makes it harder for the government to pick it off. This suggestion of a break up does not seem to have had much discussion in Australia, though it is a path that has been followed in other countries, such as New Zealand.

Other than that it is difficult to see what can be done. The issue of advertising and/or sponsorship always lurks in the wings ready to be revived. It was raised by politicians as recently as December 1989 but was so thoroughly rejected by the Board and management and so roundly criticized by the pro-ABC lobby in the community that the government let it drop. It is, predictably, also opposed by the existing commercial broadcasters. However we have not heard the last of it, especially in view of the fact that the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) has been accepting sponsorship (as distinct from advertising) for some of its programs for most of 1991, with apparently no adverse effect on its programming philosophy, although it is too soon yet to be sure.

The National Broadcasting Services: The SBS

Australia's national multicultural and multilingual broadcasting service is a unique and valuable service, particularly SBS Television which has no counterpart elsewhere in the world. It broadcasts nationally approximately 12 hours a day (more on the weekend) and presents programs from all around the world. All programs except the daily news in Russian from Gostelradio are subtitled by the network's own sub-titlers. In a typical week a viewer can see arts documentaries from Europe, the U.S., and Canada, feature films from Greece, Egypt, Brazil, Poland, Turkey, Russia, China, etc., soap operas from Holland, Brazil, and Japan, and soccer from Italy. There is also a good daily news program emphasising overseas news, news in Greek and Italian, and a weekly community participation current affairs show, Vox Populi. Independent work by local film makers is also featured, something the ABC no longer does. This is all done on a remarkably small annual budget of $56 million, now slightly augmented by sponsorship. SBS has the advantage of not being under the regulatory or moral obligation of broadcasting a certain quota of Australian programming. It is in the nature of its brief that a lot of its material will be imported and therefore cheaper. In order to better serve the local ethnic communities, SBS would like to be able to produce more Australian programming, but its budget makes this difficult.

SBS television normally has an audience share of about 3% but its audience research claims that it is watched by two million people a week. It can only be received in the capital cities and a few major regional centres because it cannot afford to install the transmission equipment needed to bring it to a wider audience. It is disadvantaged by being the only TV channel on UHF and by being broadcast on low-power transmitters. SBS Television has been criticized for having too much English language programming and for serving middle-class European audiences at the expense of those from non-European countries and from other socioeconomic groups. Its response has been to say it is a multicultural, not multilingual service, with a brief to address the dominant Anglo-Celtic culture and to acquaint it with other cultures as much as to serve an "ethnic" audience.

SBS radio is rather different, being a multilingual service. It operates two ethnic stations, 2EA in Sydney and 3EA in Melbourne. It also reaches audiences in other cities via relays to public radio stations. It currently broadcasts in 57 languages and is about to add three new ones, Farsi, Thai, and Japanese. In an attempt to cater for the more newly arrived migrant groups and those with the greatest communications problems, SBS Radio recently tried to reduce the number of languages by 21 and give more time to the needier groups, but the outcry from the affected communities was such as to force the restoration of the older languages (Communications Law Centre, 1991, pp. 4-5).

In November 1991 legislation was passed establishing SBS as an independent statutory corporation. For the first time it is given its own charter, which states that "the principal function of the SBS is to provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television services which inform, educate and entertain all Australians, and in doing so, reflect Australia's multicultural society." The incorporation of SBS might indicate that the threat of merger with the ABC is off the agenda, but anything is possible in this rather fluid media situation. Under its new legislation the SBS is permitted to broadcast advertising and sponsorship material, but with stricter constraints than those applying to commercial broadcasters. The total advertising and sponsorship material is to be no more than five minutes per hour (in contrast with the likely total of 15 minutes for commercial television stations) and it is to occur only between programs or in "natural breaks." While advertising is permitted on SBS radio, as yet there is no intention of introducing it. No doubt the government will regard this as an experiment to test whether advertising on the major national broadcaster in the future is feasible or politically possible. The recent inclusion of sponsorship announcements on SBS Television has received remarkably little comment.

The Broadcasting Services Bill

The then Minister for Transport and Communications, Kim Beazley, released the draft Broadcasting Services Bill in mid November 1991, with a period of three months allowed for public comment. The Bill for the first time sets out objectives for broadcasting in Australia, the first of which is "to provide a regulatory environment that will facilitate the development of a broadcasting industry in Australia that is efficient, competitive and responsive to consumer needs" (Minister for Transport and Communications, 1991, p. 3). Other objectives mention the need to encourage diversity, ensure Australian control, promote a sense of national identity and culture, as well as injunctions to innovate, to provide balance, to respect community attitudes, and to provide an effective complaints mechanism. There is no mention of the public interest in the objectives though it crops up in the explanatory notes.

The draft bill offers a more flexible approach than in the existing Act, identifying services in a "modular" fashion and recognizing that some types of services require less regulation than others. It is technology neutral and simply recognizes six service types: national broadcasting services (that is, the ABC and the SBS, which have separate acts), commercial broadcasting services, community services, subscription broadcasting, subscription narrowcasting, and open narrowcasting (such as shopping centre services and BRACS). The second two will be granted individual licences, the last three will be granted "class licences": "standing warrants for any operator to enter the market and provide the service so long as the general conditions are complied with" (Minister, 1991, p. 12).

The Bill's underlying philosophy for regulatory intervention is no longer the notion of spectrum scarcity. Rather, the driving concept is the capacity of a service to influence people. Broadcast services have the capacity to influence great numbers of a population and therefore require the most regulation. Narrowcast services influence fewer people or are chosen (and paid for) on an individual basis and therefore require less. There is little guidance offered on the question of when a narrowcast service becomes a broadcast service, though this is crucial to the regime for regulating video services offered by alternative technologies. The Bill transfers planning powers to the new regulatory body, to be called the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA), reverting to the situation that obtained under the old Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB). This is intended to facilitate flexibility and speed in the development of new services in response to changing technologies. The ABA will not however make spectrum allocation decisions, which are negotiated by the Minister in accordance with international agreements.

Licence renewal is streamlined with licences allocated by tender or auction, and renewals more or less automatic unless the ABA has detected serious problems. Radio will be deregulated with virtually no barriers to entry, such as cross-media rules, foreign-ownership restrictions, or commercial viability provisions. In recognition of its greater power to influence television will continue to be more protected with only three broadcast services permitted until 1997 after which new services, possibly on alternative technologies, will be permitted. Thus it will continue to have concentration limits, cross-media rules, and foreign ownership limits. The only substantial change to the status quo is that audience reach limits are extended from the current 60% to 75%.

The community broadcasting regime remains much as at present except for an ominous suggestion that these services may be driven off the spectrum because they will not have the financial capacity to pay spectrum charges. There will be a class licence system for subscription broadcasting and narrowcasting services. These will be subject to licence conditions and codes of practice which the ABA will determine and enforce. Pay TV delivered initially by satellite will be treated differently, that is more like free to air TV, until 1997. After that the Bill envisages a "publishing model" of regulation for subscription and narrowcast services, based on a "contract" between subscriber and service provider. This does not seem adequate to meet the possibility that a single subscription service might gain overwhelming market dominance and by virtue of that exert an influence not too different from that of the present television services.

This thinking also permeates the Bill's treatment of program standards. Services with wide dissemination will be required to meet standards in the area of Australian content, children's programming, classification to meet community standards, balance of reporting, and advertising. The first two will continue to be set by the regulatory body but the others will be safeguarded by industry codes subject to ABA scrutiny. In a rather odd and controversial move the Bill envisages parliamentary approval of any program standards set by the ABA with "provisions to disallow them if Parliament considers them to be inappropriate." What criteria Parliament might apply, which would not be available to the ABA, is not made clear. Other services with less power to influence, because of the multiplicity of competing services, will not be required to meet such rigorous standards. For the first time this includes radio, a matter which will also be controversial. The explanatory notes to the Bill suggest that the 20% Australian music standard should be reviewed by the ABA as soon as possible. The modification hinted at is that this should apply only to "suitable formats" (such as contemporary rock) rather than across the board as at present.

The sweetener for the successful bidder for the second telecommunications licence, Optus, is that it would get the carriage for pay television, which will be delivered on the AUSSAT satellite on four or perhaps six channels, but with other "niche" services using other delivery mechanisms like cable and MDS. This is in spite of the fact that a parliamentary inquiry recommended that cable would be a better medium for pay TV (Cunningham, 1990). Pay TV will be regulated within the new broadcasting legislation, which treats satellite delivered pay in a special way. The special provisions include anti-siphoning rules and an obligation on the new service to "develop a local industry package to maximize the involvement of Australian industry in the development of pay TV."

At the time of writing (April 1992) the ownership and control regime for Pay TV is under intense debate. The bill mandates majority Australian ownership, a cap of 25% pay ownership for existing television licensees, a 25% limit on participation by the carriers of pay TV signals, and a ban on advertising for the first five years. However these restrictions are bound to be modified during the passage of the bill through parliament, expected during 1992. Uncertainty has been increased by the fact that a new and more powerful Minister, Senator Graham Richardson, is now in charge of the Communications portfolio. Since taking office in January 1992 he has already watered down the deregulatory aspects of the bill in favour of the existing television owners. For example he wants to mandate their involvement in Pay TV and shows signs of accommodating their dislike of content regulation by weakening the definition of Australian content.

The ABC would like to be a major player in Pay TV and at the time of writing the most likely successful bidder for the licence would seem to be a consortium consisting of the ABC and/or the commercial networks, a major overseas player, probably a Hollywood supplier, some of the rest owned by the operator, Optus Communications, and other overseas and local participants. Predictions about the service indicate that it will consist of four national channels, news, sport, movies, and "family." The level of Australian content is expected to be rather low and the service will depend largely on the usual sources of such programming, CNN, ESPN, Disney, etc. The participation of the ABC could be essential to any provision of an Australian news service and its backlog of drama and documentary could also prove useful, although of course rights would have to be renegotiated. It is difficult to see how the service in the early phases could be a stimulus for new Australian production because of the high comparative cost, though the more bullish observers and participants swear it will.

At the time of writing the consultation about the Bill is only at the very early stages and there are bound to be many suggested modifications before it is passed into law some time during 1992. Issues that will continue to be controversial in this context and for the next few years are: the role and funding of the two national broadcasters, the viability of the radio industry, and the implications of new technology for the radio industry and its regulation. The regulation of new video services and in particular to what extent they will be regulated as "broadcast" or "narrowcast" also raise controversial issues. Furthermore questions remain about foreign ownership of our communications institutions, about media concentration, about the needs of minority and remote groups not to mention the continued viability of an Australian content in various of the media.


In this section I rely almost totally on a paper by Helen Molnar (Molnar, 1990).
In Australia it is necessary to distinguish between the "national" broadcaster (the ABC) and "public broadcasting" which is a different sector altogether. The latter was established on the FM radio band in the late 1970s and would be better called "community radio" since it consists of stations initiated by various local and special interest communities, run on miniscule budgets and funded by a combination of subscription, sponsorship and small government grants to the sector as a whole (Tebbutt, 1989).
Two celebrated instances of this occurred during the Gulf War. In the first, the Minister for Defence, Senator Robert Ray, threatened to cut off that part of the funding to the ABC that went to Radio Australia if the latter did not broadcast messages from relatives to military personnel serving in the Gulf area. The ABC was unwilling to broadcast these messages, seeing them as part of a propaganda effort for the prosecution of the war at a time when Australian involvement was being hotly debated in and out of parliament. In the second, the Prime Minister criticized the ABC in Parliament, and threatened to examine again its funding, for using a certain academic commentator on the Middle East, who it was claimed, was pro-Iraqi. There were attempts made then to force the ABC to identify the political affiliations of all its commentators. 4
As in other countries there is currently a lot of debate about mechanisms of spectrum allocation; in essence whether it should be done administratively or through a price mechanism (BTCE, 1990, House of Representatives, 1991).
In connection with the latter point, the various support mechanisms that, for over twenty years, have been in place to support Australian film and television production (for example the Film Finance Corporation and various tax measures) are currently also under review and are subject to the same creeping pressure of economic fundamentalism that is present operating in the arena of broadcasting reform. Space unfortunately does not permit an adequate coverage of policies of cultural support in the film and television industry and all the issues of national identity upon which they are predicated.


Australian Music on Radio. (1986). Report. Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Tribunal.

Broadcasting in Australia 1988. (1988). Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Tribunal.

BTCE (Bureau of Transport and Communications Economics). (1990). Management of the radio frequency spectrum: An economic analysis (Occasional Paper 102). Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Communications Law Center. (1991). Communications Update, 69, 4-5.

Cunningham, Stuart. (1990). Cultural frames for pay television. Media Information Australia, 58, 85-93.

Davis, Glyn. (1988). Breaking up the ABC. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Hazlehurst, Cameron. (1990). The dawn of the satellite era in Australia. Media Information Australia, 58, 9-22.

House of Reps (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport, Communications, and Infrastructure). (1991). Management of the radio frequency spectrum. Canberra: Parliamentary Printing Section.

Jacka, Elizabeth. (1991). The ABC of drama. North Ryde: Australian Film Radio and Television School.

Madge, Tim. (1989). Beyond the BBC: Broadcasters and the public in the 1980s. London: Macmillan.

Michaels, Eric. (1990). A model of teleported texts (with reference to Aboriginal television). Continuum, 3(2), 8-31.

Minister for Transport and Communications. (1991). Draft Broadcasting Services Bill: Explanatory papers. Canberra.

Molnar, Helen. (1990, August 26-31). The broadcasting for remote Aboriginals scheme: Small versus big media. Paper presented to IAMCR Conference, Bled, Yugoslavia.

Paltridge, Sam. (1989). Australian satellites: Promise, performance and the next generation (CIRCIT Policy Research Paper, No. 1). Melbourne: Centre for International Research on Communication and Information Technologies.

Review of national broadcasting policy. (1988). Canberra: Department of Transport and Communications.

Rowland, Willard D., & Tracey, Michael. (1988). The apple's worm: Current challenges to public service broadcasting worldwide. Background report for International Institute of Communications 1988 Annual Conference, Washington, DC.

Spurgeon, Christina. (1989). Challenging technological determinism: Aborigines, Aussat and remote Australia. In Helen Wilson (Ed.), Australian communications and the public sphere (pp. 27-45). Melbourne: Macmillan.

Wilmot, Eric (Chair). (1984). Out of the silent land. Task Force on Aboriginal and Islander Broadcasting and Communications Report, Canberra.

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