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Networking: Commercial Television in Australia, A History by Nick Herd

While the long and (mostly) happy marriage between sport and television is not a principal focus of Herd’s excellent book, it is appropriately acknowledged as a key factor in the history and success of commercial television in Australia. Kerry Packer’s interventions and innovations in cricket coverage in the 1970s, which were directly responsible for the dominant position his Nine Network enjoyed for many years, are well-documented, as is the titanic struggle between Packer and Rupert Murdoch over the broadcast rights to rugby league in the mid-1990s that threatened to tear the code in half. Less well known, but as important in the history of Australian television, was media and airline mogul Reg Ansett’s decision to stage a boxing match between Australian world champion Lionel Rose and Welshman Alan Rudkin in Melbourne in March 1969. Ansett gambled on the fight’s drawing power convincing viewers in Melbourne to convert their television sets to UHF in order to receive his ATV 0 channel. The gamble paid off massively, with the fight attracting over 70% of the viewing audience, making it the fourth highest rating program of the decade, and the most watched sporting event on Australian television until the opening of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The media moguls – Packer, Murdoch, Ansett, Kerry Stokes and Bruce Gordon among them – alongside the billionaire chancers like Alan Bond and Christopher Skase, inevitably feature prominently in this history. The battles between them, and the occasional outbreaks of cooperation and collusion, have been almost as important in defining the structure and programming of Australian commercial television as the legislation that governs the sector. As Herd assiduously documents, station and network owners have consistently sought to influence or circumvent government policy and regulation on issues such as localism and Australian content. With the aid of this forensic examination of the economics of commercial television since the 1950s, it is easy to understand why the sector has long been, and still remains, the stage for epic political and commercial struggles. Within three years of the first stations going to air, the four existing commercial television broadcasters earned revenue of almost £6 million, with profits approaching £1 million. In 1960-61, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board reported that the ten stations then on air had generated over £14 million in revenue, returning almost £3 million in profits. Five years after launch, 51% of Australian homes had television, far higher than the comparable figures for the US (34%) and the UK (9%). By 1965, this had risen to 78% of all households. In the decade from 1975, television became the most profitable sector in the Australian economy, with a pre-tax profit margin of over 10% in every year bar one (1985-86, when the margin was ‘only’ 9.9%). Regional television stations in particular were extraordinarily profitable in this period, as a result of the legislated monopoly in many parts, rising advertising revenues and low programming costs. Although this changed dramatically when the effects of the financial crisis of the late 1980s were compounded by the aggregation of regional licence areas into larger markets from 1989, commercial television soon returned to profitability not least as a result of the concentration of ownership and the emergence of national networks.

The details of these events, and the complex and often convoluted political machinations that mark the history of commercial television, are precisely documented and clearly explained here. Along with a wealth of statistical information peppered through the text, Herd provides six appendices that will be of immense value to researchers and students for many years to come. Together with a comprehensive list of the on-air dates for commercial television stations, Herd tabulates the financial results of the sector from 1956-57 to 1997-98, and details the ownership groupings prior to the change in ownership laws in 1986 and the owners of the metropolitan stations between 1956 and 1998. The last two appendices list all programs rating above 30 from 1960 to 1998, and all the Australian drama series broadcast by the commercial free-to-air stations from 1956 to 1998. This last appendix reinforces another of the book’s strengths: its comprehensive discussion of the history of the regulation of Australian content on commercial television.

Herd rigorously outlines the political struggles that have shaped Australian television since the 1940s, as they continue to do today. The history of the medium in Australia is inescapably a history of reviews and inquiries, regulation and legislation, much of which has been politically motivated, and almost all of which has pitched powerful vested political and commercial interests against each other. As Herd comments in relation to the 1953-54 Royal Commission on Television, inquiries have often been designed to allow combatants to ‘let off steam’, with proposals for change often stifled or ignored. (31)

The recent Convergence Review (2010-12) and the Gillard government’s failure to deal extensively or adequately with its recommendations, along with the Productivity Commission’s Broadcasting Inquiry  (2000) which was commissioned by the Howard government, are paradigmatic examples.
This richly detailed, highly informative book sits well alongside the seminal histories of Australia’s public broadcasters, KS Inglis and Jan Brazier’s This is the ABC (1983), Inglis’s Whose ABC? (2006), and Ien Ang, Gay Hawkins and Lamia Dabboussy’s The SBS Story (2008). While the density of the detail betrays its origins as a PhD thesis, the extensive research and thoughtful treatment of issues make it much more useful for scholars than other recent works on commercial television in Australia such as Michael Bodey’s populist history Broadcast Wars (2011). It is perhaps the most important scholarly work on Australian television since Tom O’Regan’s Australian Television Culture (1993). It will be of enormous use not only for those with an interest in Australian television and media studies, but also for students and researchers in Australian studies more broadly given the social, cultural and economic importance of television in Australia that it so thoroughly documents.