Broadcasting is an extraordinarily expensive business. To put to air even the most humble of programs requires trained personnel and complicated equipment to create just one hour of television can cost more than the average family home. So due to broadcasting being so expensive it is interesting that two countries alike in culture would choose comparative and yet contrasting techniques. Like in much of Australian culture, it has mimicked that of the British. It is hardly surprising considering Australia’s heritage and being colonised by this England it seems only right that many things are done the same way.
With regards to media both had similar beginnings. Radio was for a long time the prime source of entertainment and information and was followed by television that had a very different history in each country. By comparing and contrasting television’s origins in either country we can see how entertainment changed in many different ways and how the beginnings of television had an enormous impact on broadcasting development. The British Broadcasting Company was founded as a monopoly radio broadcaster in 1922.
The BBC dates from 1927 when, after extended heated parliamentary discussion about how the organization should function the ‘Company’ was relaunched as a ‘Corporation’ and given a Royal Charter. Unlike a government department, the statutory authority was based on an Act of Parliament and it would be responsible through a minister. The statutory authority must maintain its distance from political control and remain independent to ensure impartiality. Freed from commercial pressure by its licence fee income, the BBC could project all that was good in British Culture; so it could not just entertain but ‘uplift’1
This arrangement continued without basic changes until 1955 and a pilot television channel was launched in 1936. During the war, television broadcasts were discontinued and resumed in 1946. The BBC radio stations, due to its impartial and reliable news and being a source of comedy and entertainment, came out of the war strengthened locally and nationally. It was having a major influence on social, cultural and political affairs of the nation. Subsequently in 1962 a second television channel was established and launched. However besides informing and entertaining the British audience the BBC had another role in society.
This ideal was that programmes should: improve and elevate, be a worthwhile experience and enhance the viewer’s quality of life. It was these ideals that made guiding principles in designing programmes. The BBC would have to carry easily digestible information and act as a means of relaxation for those not up to its more taxing fare, but it should aim to challenge the rest of its audience with more developing material, programmes which would broaden their cultural knowledge and possibly even question their basic assumptions.
This approach was made possible by the force of a monopoly that had enabled the BBC to change the face of broadcasting. The BBC enjoyed a monopoly broadcast until 1954 when ITV (independent television) was launched and became a national supplier of commercial television. The licence funded the two channels within the BBC that every household with a television set paid for, while ITV benefited from an advertising monopoly. For four decades, this system ran without difficulty and competition was limited to programmes and did not extend to revenue sources.
Public and private broadcasters were officially separate but exhibited a high degree of similarity in terms of organization and programming. In 1982, a second commercial channel, Channel Four (C4) was launched. Designed to be a minority channel it focused on specific programmes that were usually ignored by mainstream channels. Channel 4 was originally funded by subscription from ITV companies. This was due to a levy, financially restricting excess profits. Initially, ITV to meet the Levy, were placing the excess revenue in expensive salaries, and expensive programmes. ITV wanted a fourth channel so as to create more wealth.
It was also at this time BBC2 was becoming a large tax, financially, for BBC. To beat the levy, ITV companies sold advertising time on C4 in their own region. As such C4 was a relatively cheaply funded channel and therefore more money could be spent on programmes. From 1993 C4 became a public trust, with a board appointed by the Independent Television Commission, subject to government approval. Now C4 sells its own advertising time, but if revenues do slide below a specific point, ITV companies will be required to assist financially. The newest channel to broadcast in Britain was established in 1997.
Channel 5, was designed as a popular channel that innovatively used a form of scheduling known as ‘stripping’ whereby specific genres of programmes (soap operas, news etc) are scheduled at the same time each day each week. A distinctive characteristic of British television is the tradition of covering a wide range of programme types and of carrying this range into peak time evening viewing. News and current affairs programmes were ‘protected’ from market pressures and both public and commercial broadcasters were required to schedule these programmes during prime time.
Regulation commanded that both popular and less popular programming ought be scheduled in prime time viewing hours, therefore guaranteeing that the purposes of information and education did not become subservient to those of entertainment. It was further typified by a ‘principled pluralism’2 whereby programme schedules were deliberately distorted to reflect the range of interests represented in a diverse society and to allow each sector to come into contact with the opinions and way of life of others. In contrast of Britain television broadcasting is that of Australian broadcasting.
While they had similar beginnings, it was Australia who branched away from the broadcasting monopoly to begin its own way of television broadcasting. When the ALP was elected to federal office in 1929, it sought to establish an Australian version of the BBC on radio. Labour’s legislation did not propose banning any commercial radio because such a nationalisation would have never passed the conservative dominated Senate. Besides this, proposals for a state monopoly would have been strongly opposed by the newspaper companies who had begun buying into the profitable commercial radio industry.
Instead Labor accepted the dual system of broadcasting. Commercial stations would compete for audiences with the new ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission). Modelled on the BBC and designed to be comprehensive and independent, the new ABC would be a national radio broadcasting network funded by license fees paid by all who owned radios. When this income from licence fees later proved insufficient, the ABC transferred to direct support from consolidated revenue. ABC turned into a publicly funded national broadcasting system.
So while the ABC and BBC started having similar licence fees it was not enough to keep the Australian counterpart afloat. Australian television arrived in 1956 in time for the Melbourne Olympic games. A national ABC television network competed with commercial channels in most cities and regional centres – unlike its British counterpart the BBC. What was similar between the two was broadcasting traditions. ABC television scheduled news programmes, documentaries or imported drama from the UK.
It was only during national emergencies or sports telecast could the ABC attract audience figures approaching those regularly tuning into privately owned stations. The resulting emphasis on British culture, education and information meant that ABC very often resembled the BBC. Yet in Britain the force of state monopoly meant the BBC could dictate its messages without losing its audience, as mentioned before, because it was virtually unchallenged for most of its history. This was not the case in Australia, where the commercial sector survived and flourished as explained later in this essay.
The ABC lost listeners to quiz shows, popular music and comedies of commercial stations. As time passed the new Australian generations and the migrant population were rejecting wanting to preserve the British way of life. In Australia television was expected to reflect local concerns and be owned by local interests, as on the model of newspapers or radio stations. So in 1956 Australian television began with what would become the Nine and seven network stations in Sydney (TCN9 and ATN7) and Melbourne (GTV9 and HSV7) with one ABC station in each of those cities.
The ABC’s national network expansion maintained a good pace with the commercial sector in metropolitan areas. This is another difference with Britain’s beginnings in television because at the beginning Australia had commercial channels and while like Britain they were funded by licences, they later had owners. The owners of the commercial stations were press proprietors: Consolidated Press had the Nine stations; Fairfax had the Seven station in Sydney and the Herald and Weekly times the Seven station in Melbourne. During the second phase of Australian television, was the establishment of a third network.
This was channel 10 and began in 1964. This marked a time of ownership stability and growth of simultaneous programming. While previously there had been a lot of live programming and imported shows from UK and USA, now there was more emphasis on local drama production and a growth in production diversity such as current affairs, comedy, drama and sports. So unlike Britain television which put a large emphasis on UK only shows Australia imported much of their programmes and when they started making their own they were very different from the British idea to have their audience broaden their cultural knowledge and query their basic beliefs.
There was another similar event in Australia as there once was in Britain. That was a second public channel began. In Britain it was BBC2 and it was still funded by the licence money. SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) began much later in Australia (1980) and even though it was modeled on the BBC it was to be like the ABC, a statutory authority responsible to Parliament but independent of government. Like the ABC and BBC, SBS would have no independent income from advertising but unlike the BBC, no licence fees but rely totally on government for annual appropriation.
In the beginning SBS programmes were transmitted through ABC TV and due to ABC seeming uninterested in permanent commitment to ethnic broadcasting, the government allowed for a SBS network and the statutory authority was replaced by the Independent and Multicultural Broadcasting Corporation (IMBC) and though partially funded SBS would also accept some supplementary advertising. The differences in television history of Britain and Australia have not just been about public broadcasting but also about commercial broadcasting.
While governments in Australia procrastinated about whether to follow the British precedent and create a state monopoly over broadcasting, a commercial sector was allowed to develop by default. In Britain however an independent channel was began and even then it was followed by yet another public channel BBC2. The most obvious difference between these two nations television broadcasting is that of ownership and funding. ITV was a subscription service, and the subscribers are limited to existing independent companies also the channel C4 sells its own advertising time and is slightly similar to that of a commercial channel in Australia.
The difference once again is that ITV own Channel 4 not a private entity as began in Australia. Even though the ABC and BBC have many similar characteristics the most obvious contrast is how the BBC is funded by licence, and ABC by a publicly funded national broadcasting system. The other major difference would have to be the proposals for a state monopoly – BBC had the monopoly system however the ABC was competing with other commercial stations very early on it its history.