Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 2, No. 1, 1987
Asian Cinema
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Tom O'Regan

Towards a high communication policy: assessing recent changes within Australian broadcasting

Tom O'Regan


Late November 1986 the ground rules under which Australian media operated changed when the Federal Labor Government endorsed a change in TV media ownership policy away from limitations in terms of numbers of stations (2 TV stations) and towards a percentage of the total Australian audience. (Similar changes were mooted for radio and subsequently adopted) [1] Initially, this percentage was set at 75% of the total Australian TV market but in order to have the bill pass the non-Labor controlled Senate, the figure was set at 60% . Counterbalancing this extension in the allowable market size, the legislation for the first time attempted to limit cross-media ownership between the press, TV and radio. In both limiting cross-media ownership and fixing ownership limits in terms of market size, Australian communications policy was following American precedent Within weeks of November 1986 the landscape of Australian media ownership had changed dramatically and will remain fluid representing the most dramatic change in the state and operating conditions of Australian media since the advent of TV.

Because of the speed of changes in Australian media over the past two years any essay on them is bound to be provisional. Every other month builds in either a fresh obsolescence, or evokes a new challenge. This situation has encouraged discussion of media policy on radio and in newspapers but, given The long lead times involved in their publication, not to the same extent in (academic) print. This essay will hopefully contribute to a temporary remedying of this situation.


The changes permitted a high communications policy to evolve in Australia. This term, developed by James Carey, [2] means a program to deliver messages and information across time and space in the most competitive and cheapest way possible by removing any obstacles. Although Carey develops his argument out of the American context it is still applicable to the Australian media changes of the past two years. Carey sees the US as having single-mindedly "pursued an almost exclusive policy of improving communications over long distance"; it did so because it saw "communication as a form of power and transmission". The thorough going pursuit of a high communications policy transformed both "the effective units of culture" and "social organisation", through:

... a progressive shift from local and regional units to national and international ones, though not without considerable struggle and conflict. Individuals were linked into larger units of social organisation without the necessity of appealing to them though local and proximate structures. Communication within these local units became less crucial for the operation of society and less relevant to the solutions of personal problems. [3]

Carey argues that the growth of long distance communication - whether railways, telegraphs, telephones, roads, radio, TV and satellites - "cultivated new structures in which thought occurred - national classes and professions - new things thought about - speed, space, movement, mobility - and new things to think with increasingly abstract, analytic, and manipulative symbols." [4]

Whilst Australia has, to a large extent, pursued a kind of high communications policy it has not done so as completely or with the thoroughness of the USA. Indeed he universal comment has been that the American situation should be avoided at all cost But Australia is now going that same route. Up till l987, Australian States, particularly state capital cities and their attendant regional Capital groupings, have been able to maintain their discrete positions on the Australian continent and resist total incorporation into a national and international metropolis. They have done so by a deliberate policy of centralisation at a State level accompanied by a corresponding insistence upon their mediating the relations with other major metropolitan centres - whether the major Australian centres of Sydney and Melbourne or the overseas regions from whence the Capital (and Labor) came - London/UK, Europe, USA and Japan. In this way, States have been aided and abetted by multi-national corporations which have found allies in and have needed to negotiate with State rather than Federal governments.

The various States have thus been historically able to use the development of space binding media - like railways, roads, telecommunications, TV and radio - to maintain their separate positions on the continent whilst at the same time being connected into a larger national and international communication system. Thus despite the inherent interconnecting, indeed "binding together" effects of these technologies, their Australian introduction has allowed a degree of "context sensitivity" based on individual States that has not been noted by communication geographers in the USA.

Let me try and demonstrate this thesis. Railway development in Australia was conducted by government not private enterprise on the basis of it's perceived lack o- profitability given the sparse populations and distances involved. This lack Or a standard gauge on the Australian continent has generally been seen to be due to the relative prosperity or poverty or The different states - Victoria was rich so it got a wide gauge, Queensland (Qld) and Western Australia (WA) were poor so they got a narrow gauge. But this does not wholly explain the lack of a standard gauge between New South Wales and Victoria (Vic) - the two richest and most populous states nor does it help us understand the consequences which have flowed from this lack of standardisation. Indeed the lack of standardisation enabled the Stale capitals to maintain their respective positions on the continent by ensuring goods and services went through, rather than by-passing, them. Thus Sydney was able to maintain a competitive position vis-a-vis Melbourne in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (despite Melbourne's geographical advantages in terms of sea-time from England and access to the productive hinterland). In Brisbane, Qld, a river symbolically divided the two railway gauges for passenger services which was not crossed till the early 1980s; and in Western Australia, Kalgoorlie - 600 kilometres from Perth-functioned as a transit point where goods were unloaded from one train to another to make the rest of the journey to Perth up until the early 1960s. This arguably economically inefficient and mediated structure was replicated within the communications systems before November 1986.

Broadcasting prior to the current change in policy had placed obstacles to an unmediated delivery of programs nationwide. That is programs were distributed nationally, and broadcasting relied on centrally originated programming in areas such as drama, some elements of news and current affairs, some quiz and some variety programming but it did so in a loosely integrated, often time-insensitive way. Thus stations would certainly screen the same first-run TV drama: but not al the same lime, nor on the same day, nor with the same episode being screened (indeed often there could be as much as an eighteen month to two year time-lag). These obstacles were maintained by economic, technological, political, and ideological imperatives.

They were economic and technological inasmuch as prior to the satellite there was simply not the kind of point to multi-point delivery system in place to drive the simultaneous delivery of programming of all kinds (and not just sport and news) to all stations in the system- To be sure there were micro-wave links and these were increasingly being used throughout the 1970s and 1980s with Packer cricket and Sunday being dependent upon their existence- But this terrestrial system was operated predominantly on a user pays principle. The more a station used the links the greater the expenses to it. Contrast this with the satellite where its greater use by receiver stations entails a lowering of the overall unit cost of a transmission. Thus at a technological level the satellite biases the system towards the simultaneous delivery of programming effectively bypassing the air-freighting of video tapes for program distribution. This in turn puts pressure upon the greater standardisation of the system initially in The biggest capital city markets and then in the regional markets.

There were economic obstacles to national networking for stations both within and outside the Sydney-Melbourne-Brisbane-Adelaide (SMBA) nexus. Inside SMBA recognisable forms of networking emerged but this networking was still mediated by local control over the scheduling of programs and advertising. Indeed SMBA networking arrangements were generally considered to be co-operative arrangements in which stations in each market contributed towards both the purchase and production of programs according to their market size. Additionally there was not the same imperative to integrate advertising, program production, and scheduling with common ownership being limited to two of the four markets as there was when common ownership was extended to all four markets after 1986.

Outside SMBA stations were either operating as the sole commercial station in their market (the regionals) or in the case of Perth (up until 1988) as one of two commercial stations. This meant that these stations did not have to lock themselves into a national networking system because independence was most often to their advantage. 5 Regionals and Perth (up till 1988) stations could use the barrier of time to drive down prices and cushion themselves from the direct control of the networks. Thus TV stations outside of SMBA were able to retain a degree of control over their schedules and the profits to be had from advertising. Compare this to the situation in the USA where network payments to affiliates lagged behind increases in network income by as much as 43% per year. 6 Thus by the late 1970s some Australian regional stations were, in terms of returns on money invested, among the most profitable TV companies in the country.

There were also ideological and political obstacles blocking a fully integrated networked system, inasmuch as policy limited ownership to two stations and a policy of localism provided the rhetorical basis for the development of the TV service. Let me clarify this. The localism policy helped protect the financial viability and corporate integrity of TV stations outside Sydney and Melbourne. It ensured that licences initially went to local groups; it discouraged regionals from entering into formal networking arrangements; and it encouraged the limited development of program production for local audiences.

This situation helps explain the tardy provision of communication facilities permitting simultaneous programming and their limited use once they were provided. The rival metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne were interconnected in 1962; and the last of the major six cities in Australia, Perth, was interconnected in 1970. Further the domestic satellite did not come on stream till 1986 - many years after overseas satellite feeds had become the norm of news broadcasts. The satellites domestic introduction had been delayed in part because of the seeming absence of demand for it. Indeed even third-world Indonesia had a satellite operating before Australia.

Thus prior to 1986 it was possible to see a TV structure which, whilst having a common program and advertiser pool to draw upon, was nonetheless unconnected. The autonomy of the regionals and peripheral capital city stations occurred alongside Sydney and Melbourne dominance of the system. This dominance was conferred by the 43% of the Australian viewing audience both markets had between them and by the common ownership of stations in Sydney and Melbourne by Packer after 1960 and Murdoch after 1979 (which vested them with further power within their respective SMBA networks). When coupled with the 'loose' networking arrangements in SMBA this meant that the SMBA 'networks' had control over what programs were brought into Australia and what kind of Australian programs were produced but they have not had control over The stations showing this material. Thus we can legitimately speak of an Australian communications system in which mediated but not direct control was exercised. This was control at the level of what was to be screened but not a control over either the conditions of screening or The profits to be had from them. In this the Australian system was very different from the affiliated system in place for network/station relationships in the USA.

Alongside these media arrangements was a telecommunications policy which had tended to prioritise social policy objectives as much as economic ones. Communication flows between major centres have subsidised a rural exchange network; business communication, the private telephone system and so on. Thus social policy has worked systematically to discourage information poor corridors with consequent distortions of markets and metropolitan development. The kind of corridors of information that Carey speaks of in the American context where adjacent stales and centres effectively communicate with each other via New York 7 has not occurred on the same scale as Carey claims for the US.

All this is now changing. The potent catalyst for this change was the satellite. It permitted the existing terrestrial system of telecommunications to be bypassed in the delivery of messages between major urban centres. At a telecommunications level it favoured not so much the linking in of telephone services to remote communities but a biasing of these services in terms of centre to centre communication. Provided the satellite was heavily used it also represented significant cost savings in the sending and receiving of messages.

For broadcasting policy the satellite opened a can of worms. It dramatically redrew audience boundaries, program deliveries and connections between places. Suddenly simultaneous programming appeared not only to be routinely possible rather than special, but also to be desirable. In doing all these things the satellite changed the national and international mix. Because the satellite permitted point to multi-point distribution it was able to construct the geographically diverse places within its broadcast area (its footprint) as being the same audience getting the same service in terms of quality and cost of reception. 8 It also represented a fundamental threat to the monopoly enjoyed by regional TV. No longer could it be argued that the cost of delivery was holding back as comprehensive a service to regional Australia as was enjoyed in capital cities.

The high cost required of the federal government to launch the satellite encouraged a profound shift in telecommunications and broadcasting policy priorities towards policy instruments which would maximise satellite utilisation. The need to make the satellite pay was exacerbated by a deepening recession, devaluation, large foreign debt, and the resulting cuts to government expenditure.

The federal government sought to encourage greater broadcast and non broadcast use of the satellite than had been initially indicated. Through its equalisation of services policy, government proposed the aggregation of regional licences to create, where possible, three way competition in existing regional markets by 1990. These proposals attacked the integrity of the highly protected regional stations forcing them into partnership with the networks and ineluctably leading to a greater reliance upon satellite originated images on their part. Secondly the overturning of the 2 station rule in favour of a 60% market share effectively integrated SMBA stations further entailing greater use of the satellite's relative cheapness for simultaneous broadcasting and program transmission. Similarly the lifting of the ownership provisions when coupled with aggregation will see the integration of regional markets into the current SMBAP (Perth joined in 1988) operations. Thus the seemingly intractable obstacles within commercial TV to the extensive use of the satellite were removed: station independence, diversified ownership, single (or in Perth's case two) commercial station markets, and non networking. Furthermore for one of the national broadcasters, the ABC, the satellite was effectively thrust upon it for the delivery of its radio and TV services both to new audiences in remote areas and for program delivery to existing services. SBS, the multi-cultural channel, for its part found in the satellite a means to achieve quasi-national coverage in large Australian cities.

On top of this the Federal government look steps to encourage the "non broadcast" use of the satellite. Thus the Bond group was able to set up Sky Channel: a direct broadcasting sports and entertainment service available to clubs and hotels but not to individual homes.

Some of the issues at slake with the satellite can be seen in relation to the national broadcasters the ABC and SBS which prefigure many of the changes which are now hitting - or are about to hit - commercial TV stations. Regional TV production ceased in Rockhampton and Townsville as The satellite redrew the map of broadcasting in Queensland in 1984 15 bypassing those centres, culling them off from their hinterland in favour of a Brisbane-based broadcast signal. Effectively Longreach now came to communicate with Rockhampton via Brisbane and with his link came a Brisbane-centred and increasingly Sydney-centred view of the world. Even the ABC's rural network came to be based on what could be called the new principle: a commonality of interests no matter where you are on the continent so long as you are outside the major metropolitan conurbations. True, these changes within the ABC were brought about by the needs to economise in a climate of a long-term decline in real terms of governmental ABC outlays. Indeed the AUSSAT satellite was very much forced upon the ABC. Thus the ABC came to increasingly use inter-state segments in both the news and current affairs area partly because there were not the same funds available for local production but also because the link was there and paid for so it needed to be used.

TV and satellite holdings - had ceased to exist and had been carved up amongst diversified conglomerates which included the Bond, Westfield Corporation (a company involved in shopping malls), the Bell group (initially) and of course Rupert Murdoch. In 1987/88 we have seen the demise of the Fairfax family, Robert Holmes a Court, Kerry Stokes and the consolidation of Christopher Skase, Bond and the Westfield group. A much less newsworthy, though equally frenetic, scrambling for positions within radio is now occurring - a good index of which is the Hoyts Cinema Chains' move to secure a national network of radio stations. Changes within TV led those other changes.

These changes in media markets have had profound effects. 10 There have been significant changes both in the advertising and industrial/economic structures of Australian TV. These have conferred a degree of economic and political power in a handful of entrepreneurial corporations who have not adopted the traditional standpoints towards political affiliation. In The process The balance of federal/state relations (always an important issue in Australia) has been altered.

The new broadcasters are not tied to any particular state or party but to whatever state or party which will serve their interests (thus Alan Bond is both a significant contributor to both the WA Labor Government's John Curtin Foundation and to the QLD National Party's Bjelke-Petersen Foundation 11 and an outspoken supporter of the Hawke Federal Labor Government). These unconventional affiliations led to the bizarre spectacle of Elder's Chief Executive, John Elliot, chastising two of The most prominent representatives of this entrepreneurialism - Alan Bond and Kerry Packer - for supporting Labor at the 1987 Federal election. He claimed that they were doing it out of self-interest - whilst he, as soon-to-be President of the Liberal Party - was supporting the Liberal Party, the traditional home of business, for impersonal ideological reasons. With these changes the media in Australia arc now controlled by groups for which their broadcasting empires are not their principle source of income. For all Or the major media players now, media operations are but one of a diversified portfolio of companies working in a 'synergistic' relationship. Another feature of these new corporations is the significant authority and discretionary power they invest in their chief executive (a position which has enabled them to diversify quickly without reference to their Boards for big deals). Due to this internal structure, aside from their corporate philosophies, these new companies have significantly more corporate and political muscle than their predecessors.

The changes within Australian media cannot be considered in isolation but need to be related to broader economic, political and social shifts. Below these changes are situated in relation to a number of adjacent and interlocking developments such as this national reorganisation of Australian capital, and the concomitant nationalising of politics. Then the effects of these pro-networking changes upon Australian content will be assessed alongside a discussion of the significance to the media mix of these large single media enterprises. Finally it will be argued that these broadcasting changes have shifted the regulatory grounds themselves away from the social policy oriented objectives associated with the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal towards the economic policy oriented Trade Practices Commission, that is, from a principle of regulation based on social benefit to one which recognises "economic efficiency" and "monopoly" in highly delimited ways.

Changes In Australian Capitalism

As noted above the federal government's move towards a high communication policy is replicated by a similar move within Australian business. Indeed the change in Communications Policy would not have been as thinkable if the economic instruments outside the media had not in fact been moving in the same direction. The 1980s have seen the rapid consolidation, take-over and merger of corporations in the retail sector with Coles/Myer (in Perth the Boans take-over in the mid-1980s), in the brewing industry with Elders IXL and the Bond Corporation, in the mining sector with BHP's takeover of UTAH and other companies, in the banking sectors with mergers of banks and building societies, in the financial sectors with the nationalising excuse the pun) of the stock markets (their linking together effectively and their integration within international markets) and the virtual disappearance of regionally based financial institutions. To a certain extent the sensational media changes - led by the dominant medium of TV - are bringing the mass marketing sector of the media into line with these emerging conditions of Australian based business.

Of course, this is the classic chicken and egg situation: changes within the media already happening before the November 1986 announcement encouraged the development of national companies. Even before 1986 the move towards efficiency in the sale of TV minutes to advertisers had proceeded apace with regional stations and capital city stations alike banding together in cooperative arrangements to sell time to circumvent the cumbersome station-by-station arrangements -that had listed previously. Similarly within TV program production there was a progressive move towards national simultaneous programming with the re-emergence of high budget actuality TV on a national scale with the VFL, Packer Cricket, 60 Minutes and Sunday. These removed the safety net of time delays to cushion the relationship between the regional and BAPH (Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart) stations on the one hand and the Sydney and Melbourne stations on the other. With drama and variety programming the regionals could hold out for years to obtain programs from the Sydney and Melbourne stations. Simultaneous programming though meant that you had to be linked in now and that gave the Sydney/Melbourne operations more power over the rest of the system.

Thus we can speak, at a number of different levels, or a process of decontextualising at work in both the form of programming and the make-up of TV markets. The satellite in promising that 'everywhere is the same place' - is enacting the same kind or space-binding marketing strategy as Bond and Elders have used to create Fosters and Swan Premium/XXXX as national and international beers. But 'everywhere' is not in the same place - despite the sop to 'national coverage' that satellite interviews from around the continent are providing as concessions to regional identities. We are still seeing the increasing evolution of a Sydney and Melbourne corridor or information coupled with a reconstruction or relations within the periphery. To be sure there has always been an inherent romance of 'national' linkage - indeed overcoming the 'tyranny or distance' is strongly based in the very culture of Australia. 12 Similarly it is true that a mediated national linkage has been part of the media system since land-lines were available and even before through maritime links. Nonetheless what we are seeing today is a full-scale movement of integration rather than the looser integration of the immediate past.

Against this, of course, the head offices of the Bond (9 Network) and Skase (7 Network)parent companies are in Perth and Brisbane respectively. It might appear from this that the peripheral capitals, Brisbane and Perth, have had their revenge. But this is misleading. The headquarters of Bond Media are based in Sydney not Perth and Brisbane could scarcely be considered the nerve-centre of the 7 Network. It could be said that this apparent geographical change in the location of capital has led not so much to a challenging of Sydney/Melbourne domination but to its reinforcement with the further incorporation of the major peripheral capitals into the Sydney/Melbourne axis. Cynically, Andrews talked of the Skase acquisition of HSV 7 Melbourne as paving the way for more TV continuity (more "we love you Melbourne") rather than scheduled Melbourne programming for Melbournians. To be fair, Skase has undertaken local programming initiatives;but these have been designed as much as 'public relations' to make up the ground that the HSV 7 lost with The Fairfax lake-over in 1987. Similarly - the Bond take-over has meant more Perth stories and interviews in national programs like A Current Affair rather than a state based rival to the local TVW7's State Affair.

Accompanying these new technologies of broadcasting communication has been a revolution in the technologies of business communication. Evidence can be seen in the regearing of business markets towards national networking: everything from the national networking of real estate informations to phone/computer linked cattle and sheep sales by description on a state and national basis - to the move to make corporate communications between centres cheaper(this by either bypassing Telecom or else eliminating the cross-subsidising by business of the private and rural user).

Technology then has come to facilitate a decontextualisation of markets. For business, like TV, point to multi-point distribution (and its concomitant national organisation and networking) becomes the norm. For TV this decontextualisation of its advertising markets is progressively occurring at two related levels. First at he overall national level as advertisers gradually purchase lime on national TV through more or less one slop shopping. If networking favours the national advertiser, the ability to organise national slots encourages the development of national markets; and diminishes the importance of context sensitive regional ones. The second level is the related transformation of regional markets under the impending impact of equalisation. Here the component of local advertising will be transformed by the development of a more centralised, less clearly identified, regional market. Under this policy TV markets based on the aggregation of existing licences have been put forward based on state boundaries. Thus non-metropolitan Queensland has been proposed as one market and the whole of W.A. as a single TV market. The consequent decontextualisation of markets and audiences involved can be seen by reference to the Golden West Network (GWN) in W.A. With the takeover of Geraldton and Kalgoorlie TV operations by Bunbury based GWN and the introduction of remote commercial TV services throughout W.A. GWN now reaches all of non-metropolitan W.A. stretching from the dry Pilbara to the cold and windy south west; from the goldfields to the wet tropics. In the process, ads for Esperance, Karratha, Geraldton, Bunbury and Kalgoorlie might be all on one after the other. As too many viewers who cannot purchase your product are being reached this situation is favouring the development of state wide chains (of car yards, delicatessens and real estate groups) and in the process hastening the integration of those regional markets into national advertising networks.

Nationalising Politics

This kind of nationalising of business undoubtedly favours the development of centrally organised political parties and the removal of state intermediaries. The ALP is currently organised along these lines with state branches being beholden to their federal branch. This structure has undoubtedly made it a suitable instrument for the changing dynamics and dynamos of Australian capital to find political expression. Indeed we are finding that the states are of significantly less importance to a nationally geared company. Yet they remain important for resource and commodity sectors both of which can expect favourable treatment from state governments more prepared to look after their interests at the expense of national priorities given the federal control over taxation structures.

Even Joh Bjelke-Petersen, previously the major supporter of states rights on the continent, became for a time a plausible national candidate employing Canberra and ex-Canberra advice and personnel in the formulation of policy. For the present much or this new capital is associated with Labor and will remain so until the opposition parties can organise themselves into equivalent national institutions: if John Elliott has his way this should be accomplished within the next few years. In this sense the ALP factions which are organised nationally are more consonant with the new structures than the factions within the Liberal and National Parties which tend to be partially organised along regional lines.

With local programming coming to imply Australia-wide programming from a centralised source, intense pressure is being placed upon the main source (apart from TV continuity) of a local inflection - regionally based current affairs and news. The result of this pressure to 'go national' could be a 'nationalising of politics' - or at the very least some changes in the ground rules of its conduct. Already the Sydney-based A Current Affair is providing the model in its use of the satellite with its Sydney interviews of people in other parts of Australia carefully constructing its ' truly national look'. In Perth its opposition - TVW 7 's State Affair - which since its inception has been the platform on which 7's dominance of the ratings has been built now needs to provide a semblance of a national coverage, to provide similar national stories. The problem facing State Affair going the same route is in part the lack of a critical audience mass to amortise The added cost of putting together and organising satellite interviews. Facilities in other states have to be booked, technical expertise needs to be developed, The cost of interviewing and research escalates and the style of interviewing changes. As a consequence centralised news and current affairs programs like A Current Affair should become the norm. And with this will come a new kind of coverage and recognition of events of national significance. From a network perspective of the maximum utilisation of resources the pre-satellite-network situation which maintained regional competences in news journalism and current affairs was obviously duplicative and inefficient. Expensive equipment and personnel were tied up in the BAPH states - ie Queensland, S.A., W.A. & Tasmania (or should I now say "BAMPH" states as Melbourne/Victoria is clearly starting to belong there al least with the ABC), producing material for a fraction of the Australian viewing public. However, the result was programming geared to constructing a state rather than a national audience. In the process what evolved was a state-wide mediation of local, national and international stories through their respective capital cities. This could and did lead to a parochial content. But it also marked out the ways in which pre-network, pre-satellite TV was inextricably wedded to the state political objective of maintaining a separate position on the Australian continent. The system mediated the state stories / national / international mix.

At an obvious level satellite networking removes these intermediaries. It substitutes for them an unmediated access to state stories from a national viewpoint with a consequent realignment of state/federal politics. This nationalising of politics is still in its early stages and it is difficult to predict its form and consequences with any accuracy. However a number of speculations may be legitimately hazarded. Firstly this shirt to national news and current affairs inevitably produces a new way of thinking about Australia for its audiences: it constructs, within limits, everywhere in Australia as being in the same place getting the same message. In the process programs like A Current Affair start to appear to viewers as the "modern" programs whilst the older state based current affairs increasingly look tacky in comparison. State based programs will not have the same funds to compete in terms of the standard of imaging - or be able to buy national exclusives such as an interview with parents of Siamese twins. Indeed the cost of news stories - particularly the magazine style, time insensitive exclusives has grown apace over the last few years.

With these changes has come a diminution of the importance of state boundaries and a progressive eroding of the State-based filtering of messages holding in the past. State politics will in consequence need to be understood on a national stage. And it's already happening: Queensland National Party conferences and the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption are covered on Perth TV - which would have been unthinkable a short lime ago. With this has come a disturbance of the often comfortable political hegemony that this cosy system permitted in peripheral States like W.A., S.A. and Queensland. State governments will not, of course, become irrelevant but it must be said that these new media conditions when coupled with the explicit and pronounced nationalisation and internationalisation of business have significantly by-passed them in terms of their having a deciding role in determining the conditions under which business operates on the continent. Every election since the early 1970s has led to talk of the incorporation of an American presidential style of campaigning in Australia. This process, already well in train will be accelerated by the new networking and current affairs situation. But there has always been a significant difference between American presidential elections and Australian: the Australian leadership has been sold like a President but the electoral process has been parliamentary - both in terms of how the leaders are chosen to be marketed as Prime Ministers and in terms of voting (one does not vote for Hawke one votes for a party candidate).

But these new conditions also make possible, for the first time, presidential campaigns. Namely the utilisation of the media and the possession of significant amounts or capital to launch a candidate and a team who are separate from, although affiliated to, the main parties. There can be no doubt that the changes towards national networking and simultaneous programming have developed infrastructures which have accelerated this possibility. In many ways, the first sustained, though unsuccessful presidential challenge was that mounted by the then Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen with his 'Joh for PM campaign' in 1986/7. Petersen, a State Premier, without the support of his (minority) federal party, sought to install himself and his team, through a careful and strategic positioning of himself in relation to the national press and TV. Coupled with this was a direct business backing and national advertising effort. Such a campaign would not have been able to be taken so seriously a few years before.

The very launching of Joh's campaign was a good indication of the relationship between technology/networking and politics involved. It would not have been possible if it had not been for the technological infrastructure of the satellite and forms of organisation appropriate to it - teams of national reporters. Both made it possible for Joh to be reported directly from Wagga and other parts of rural Australia without the mediation of the regional stations.

The failure of the 'Joh for PM Campaign' and Petersen's subsequent demise should not blind us to how close he actually came. His inability to secure the team because Or a few crucial people withdrawing - such as Ian McLachlin, and the purposeful bringing on of early elections first by the Northern Territory government and then by the federal government undoubtedly crippled the campaign more so than any recognition of Joh's patent unsuitability to lead the country. Indeed if fixed election terms were in place then the Joh machine could well have been able to mount a significant challenge in the national political arena.

While the campaign failed it did lead to something unthinkable less than a year before, a senator being elected in Queensland who was not a Queenslander but rather an ex-federal public servant who had spent the greater proportion of his life in Canberra and had come originally from WA. The symbolic significance of John Stone as Senator from Queensland should not be overlooked. It proved that even in the most avowedly parochial of States the new federal/media conditions have sufficiently altered political conditions so as to overturn a tradition of 'hicks for Senators' as a high profile media personality and ex-Treasury Secretary, John Stone, proved an irresistible combination for a State branch of a party attempting to hijack its National branch.

Australian Content/Local Content

The ownership changes coupled with the advent of the satellite have accentuated an existing trend for 'local programming' to mean' Australia-wide programming rather than its previous meaning of 'regionally based output for regional audiences'. These changes pose serious problems for Australian content given that it is a high cost area for the networks. Even the most expensive of overseas programming is not as expensive as the lower-budgeted Australian equivalent This situation has been exacerbated by the increasingly international preferences of audiences for sport and entertainment: Australian networks now pay big money to acquire events like grand prix races, and the US tennis and golf open. Given that regionally based programming (produced for just a section of the continent) is under further threat by the imminent imposition of equalisation, it's possible that 'local content' as it once was will disappear outside of the most populous centres.

So much money has been paid for the SMBAP stations by the new proprietors (Bond, Skase, Westfield) that it has to be asked how it can be recouped. There are at least three ways in which they could accomplish this. First they could network programming including advertising as extensively as possible; second they could diminish levels of Australian content overall including the elimination where feasible of regional inputs; and third they could attempt to change the Australian content provisions themselves in the name of 'de-regulation'.

This last is already happening in advertising where its Australian content regulations have come under sustained attack. Big international agencies representing multinational advertisers have long railed against having to remake their 'international' (mostly American) ads for Australian consumption (sometimes as a frame by frame remake) and argue in the name of economic efficiency against this. They point to its added cost in the delivery of product.

The irony here is that Australian content was initially held back by the staggered introduction of TV, the lack of a pro-networking policy, and a localism policy which meant some regional programming but more importantly relative station autonomy vis-a-vis Sydney and Melbourne. But now Australian content is being threatened by the very existence of networking, by the very rationalising of the service, by the higher costs to the networks of overseas programming imposed initially by devaluation and later by intense competition, and finally by the move on the part of multinationals to rationalise and eliminate duplication in their global advertising effort.

Previous Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (hereafter ABT) decisions on satellite services to remote areas based upon the particular needs of outback communities will surely be reassessed in the light of the seeming turning away from localism elsewhere in Australia. This will put further pressure upon a future government to remove the performance criteria which has hitherto been important to station re-licensing. It might well be that the only forms of localism which remain will be in the area of Aboriginal broadcasting in Central Australia thereby making ethnicity not geography a determining criterion. [13]

Clearly rearguard actions will be fought for the loss of localism in regional markets. I believe we are seeing something of this in Christopher Skase's attempts to claw back the ground lost for HSV 7 in Melbourne through various attempts to make the station appear local. Nonetheless Skase has moved to have the 7 Network's programs go to air simultaneously on all stations thus allowing for national promotion campaigns. Indeed Seven became the first network to sign up regional affiliates permitting 7 to have slightly more than a 92% coverage of the entire Australian viewing audience.' [14] This is further exacerbated by the problems that advertising and local program producers in the areas most affected by 'rationalisation' have in speaking out because they are either employees of the stations or rely heavily on work from them. It will necessarily be left to local groups and politicians to lobby on their behalf.

If these larger trends towards networking within commercial and national broadcasting were not enough there is, moreover, the added problem facing local production which will be brought about by the proposed introduction of technologies of direct broadcasting by satellite linked to cable - the impending and major new competitor for broadcast TV. On the basis of the American experience satellite/cable can be expected to siphon off audiences in ever increasing numbers from 'free TV'. In terms of the inherent spatial bias of direct broadcasting's continental reach it's difficult to see just how 'localism' could be imposed upon it. This is because its programming is delivered from a central area to the periphery turning everywhere into the same market and making in a curious way the local market nowhere in particular. Further cable and direct broadcasting services appear likely to be introduced in Australia without any Australian content provisions (just as broadcast TV was introduced without any in 1956) so as not to prejudice the viability and speed of expansion of the service. [15]

What is perhaps possible is that 'localism' in broadcasting may be expressed as a proportion of the Australian content screened nationally. lf this happens then 'local productions' would occur in the context of national production and screenings - in which case the old form of local programming made for only local audiences would become a thing of the past. In this case organisations like Barron films in WA provide the model: a local operation geared to producing for a national and international audience. Certainly local identification will still be conferred by TV continuity ("We're still the one" etc) and news broadcasts, but increasingly it will find its place within a network of national images and image-making.

Shifts In Concentration: Redrawing the Boundaries of Monopolies

The changes in legislation have hastened the development of significant concentrations within particular media whilst reducing the concentration across-media. The new legislation favours horizontal expansion across space. Conglomerations explicitly linked across distance and so across geographically dispersed communities are favoured at the expense of the previous de facto endorsement of monopoly localism - community and regionally based vertical integration of radio, TV and the press. With as little as three large operators within the different spheres of press, radio and TV emerging (within the press it could be as little as two) the full effect of the move away from large and small diverse media holdings to even larger single media holdings is too early to predict apart from an inevitable increase of competition between the media (possibly leading to a price war between them).

Nonetheless it is clear that there has been an historic dislocation of the press/ TV/radio sectors. In consequence the stage is set for their separate development. This loss of cross ownership when coupled with the rise of an integrated and highly developed national market within a particular medium will make for different kinds of relations between the different Australian media forms on the one hand and between Australian media and international media industries - particularly American - on the other hand.

It might well be that cross-media ownership permitted the old corporations - Packer, Herald and Weekly Times, Fairfax - to deal from strength inasmuch as they could always rely upon their press interests to, if need be, subsidise their other media interests. Will it be as easy now, for example, for SMBA TV stations to go on 'strike' for a year as they did in the mid-1960s to reduce the cost to them of American series and serials? Similarly when aggregation eliminates the regionals' buyer's market for programs by forcing their integration into the networks won't a significant cushion against full international pressures being exerted on Australian TV be removed as well? Australian TV could once, by its decentralised nature, keep a lid on the power able to be exerted upon it by the international industry . Now it will be less able to. This is not to deny the intense competition within SMBA markets for American programming of all kinds prior to the changes - particularly after 9 and 7 in Sydney obtained direct satellite links to their studios in the USA after I982, and the importance to Murdoch's 10 stations in Sydney and Melbourne Or his company's international operations. At the very least the present intensification of the Australian TV industry's integration with the international TV system is dramatically shirting what checks and balances there were.

Also the concentration within a medium encourages direct negotiations for the entire national market and places the three major groups in the kind of position that Australian controlled cinema exhibitors were once placed in earlier. While at one level, these new groupings have unprecedented market power in terms of their size, reach and overall percentage of the Australian market - ie they should be dealing from strength - this can be deceptive. I'd argue that their power is conferred more at a local than an international level. It's conferred in relation to those groups constituting the other 40% Or the Australian market As far as international distributors are concerned the rise of large single media corporations within the Australian industry is to their advantage. Pressure can be applied directly, without the checks and balances provided by either cross-media ownership or the regional and Perth stations. The already intense competition for US programming has, if anything intensified, particularly as 7 and 10 attempt to build their market share. Each of the three network's new owners need to reclaim the enormous expenditure they outlaid to purchase those stations. This should make it easier for US suppliers to secure the kinds of prices they would expect Skase's move to secure US production companies and film libraries needs to be seen in this light.

Finally the old cross-media ownership permitted the development of corpora lions whose interests were principally in the media and media related industries whilst the move towards single media ownership has seen the emergence of diversified conglomerates whose non-media interests are more important than their media interests. This does not mean that their media holdings are not integrated into the overall mix of enterprises Or these groups. As Peter Morris, former editor of Broadcast magazine put it to me, the Bond and Skase operations particularly rely upon "the synergy of the different elements of their corporations to make the whole operation attractive and in some cases viable." These diverse interests - Skase has tourist resorts, Bond has breweries - raise the question of conflicts of interest.

Indeed it may well be that the days of Packer as a media proprietor will be looked back to with nostalgia as of a time when a media proprietor was by and large only concerned with the media. The new problem that is being identified is the impact of the non-media wings of companies upon media operations - upon their political standpoints and upon their programming decisions. Given the small size of Australia in terms of population and its markets, given that it is not large enough to have its own cultural products occupy the lion's share of the local market, might not a degree of cross-media ownership actually have been helpful in providing an Australian bargaining position and providing for the kind of cross subsidisation of Australian material that has occurred up to this point?

Shifting the Focus of Regulation

Accompanying and underwriting these profound changes has been a new discourse of regulation and a new set of competences/knowledges being formed around it. On all sides, from those who are trying to find a way around the current developments to those who want them to go further economistic ideas and notions are being advanced. These ideas have substantially displaced old social policy questions to do with broadcasting. Competition and removing barriers to it are in - economic efficiency and leaving the make-up and shape of the broadcasting sector to market forces rather than government policy are the preferred options. This is coupled with a hands off approach to broadcast regulation - as evidenced by the ABT's decision to lift restrictions on the amount of advertising shown on commercial TV.

These economistic ideas entail a significant shift in regulatory philosophy. Now social policy considerations, if acknowledged, will be seen as stemming from the adoption of a framework of economic regulation. Thus social policy ideals in broadcasting once explicitly regulated for will be mapped upon a particular set of economic and market-oriented notions. In this way competition and the market will be seen to lead to freedom of expression and diversity, and to take into account community expectations and outlooks. It's important to bear in mind that in the process social policy questions will be seen to flow automatically from the adoption of a market orientation. This will be a significant shift.

Hitherto it has been assumed that social policy considerations are separate from, rather than a natural consequence of, economic and market development. The important point is that this new regulatory philosophy entails a system of meaning - a set of propositions which assume in advance the effects, importance, and significance of their regulatory framework.

Perhaps the first word on the explicit adoption of economistic ideas to the arena of the communications industries and by extension the knowledge and information structures on the Australian continent should go to the Canadian economic historian H.A. Innis. Here Innis is criticising a purely economistic approach to issues of knowledge production:

Justice Holmes ... stated that 'the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market ' without appreciating that monopoly and oligopoly appear in this as in other markets. [16]

This quote is apposite because calls for complete de-regulation have been mounted by both the Financial Review and advertising lobbies. These calls are made without acknowledging the substantial de-regulation that has already taken place. Some on the left support these calls and look to a strengthening of anti-monopoly provisions as a counter balance to such a 'freeing up' of the system.

Innis points to the naivete of this kind of economistic, market-oriented approach that Australian communications policy now relies on. With 'de-regulation' occupying the centre point of the policy stage we need to ask to what extent are the economic models and the economistic solutions that it advocates suitable in the Australian context? This entails asking serious questions about economic knowledges and assumptions. Questions which have to do with where these theories originate, the appropriateness of their instruments to the Australian context; and paradoxically the place of the Australian in an international system.

In a de-regulated media policy environment the central institution which has overseen government communication policy - the ABT would seem to have a diminished role to play. In terms of industry, rather than program standards regulation, its place is being usurped to some extent by the Trade Practices Commission (TPC). The TPC is an economic regulatory body which unlike the ABT does not take on board social policy considerations in the first instance. (Concerns for the social good are assumed to flow from its monitoring of the business system for restrictive practices etc).

The change of direction involved is far reaching. It means firstly that social policy considerations will be mapped onto a particular economic structure; and secondly that assumptions will be made about the ability of economic rather than social regulation to achieve social policy goals. Furthermore this shift has occurred in an Australian context in which the social policy objectives associated with de regulation are not as clearly and rigorously articulated (nor as accepted) as they are in the USA.

The problem facing the mobilisation of public discussion and even political input is critical. We can probably go so far as to talk of the removal of government from the business sphere - leaving business' actions unaccountable in a way that would have been unthinkable a short time ago. In this scenario the TPC emerges all the more importantly as the arena in which TV stations with a 5% audience share will need to look to help them cope with the full pressures of a 60% audience share corporation. But at the moment the TPC recognises restraint of trade in terms of single markets. The TPC required Holmes a Court and Murdoch to divest themselves of a daily newspaper in the Herald and Weekly Times carve up because of the undue concentration of commercial power vested in a single market. The problem with this is that the TPC does not recognise national markets and so networking. Political priorities will now lie in agitating for the raising of the ambit and coverage of the TPC so that it can deal effectively with networking. Hopes for broadcast regulation may well need to focus on extending the TPC.

In this Australian broadcast criticism will increasingly look to the development and extension of an Australian version of anti-trust. Indeed those seeking changes in the media will now look to ways in which anti-trust could be brought to bear upon the media industries. With this will come a fundamentally different set Or arguments and things to recognise about Australian media industries. Critical discussion will then call for the economic regulation of business from a standpoint that implicitly endorses competition and anti-trust and assumes without good reason that a competitive framework will best be able to secure the policy goals of fairness, balance, and to provide for the social good.

Generally, understandings of TV and media will take new forms to accommodate this change of what is possible to contest politically. Already the discussion of media monopolies has progressively disappeared from the agenda of all but the academic sectors and radical left. With media monopolies now a reality rather than an argument for maintaining a broadcasting status quo (which it was in part before) the silence about media monopolies is already deafening.

Alongside these changes have come an important, but scarcely recognised, shift away from some of the planks which have guided the critical agenda on Australian broadcasting until now. It's no longer possible to dream of the 'information alternative' being enacted by a less concentrated media ownership; similarly the de-regulatory environment makes it difficult for regulatory controls over what is screened to be set in place. So too, traditional Australian ideas about networking which saw it as a positive good within the ABC and a negative in the commercial sector because it involved increased corporate power through a concentration of media ownership must change under the impact of a nationally networked system.


In this paper I have argued that changes within the media, when taken in conjunction with adjacent changes in business, politics and government regulation, have fundamentally reconstructed the social and cultural agenda. Audience boundaries are being drastically altered. A space binding emphasis in the media has developed redrawing cultural and political boundaries; confirming and disconfirming state boundaries; confirming and disconfirming regional autonomies and encouraging the further development of corridors of information. For better or worse the practices and policies of both the current Federal government and Australian business have set about developing an Australian version of a high communications policy. Theorising the consequences of these changes is the significant task that critical media studies now faces.

For their invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this paper I would like to thank Humphrey McQueen, Allan Brown, Peter Morris and Peter Cook. All provided critical comments which altered some of the extravagant claims made in earlier drafts. I should stress that the argument advanced here in no way should be construed as having their endorsement. For them the extravagances still remain.


Ownership limits in radio which had remained in place since 1936 were doubled going from 8 to 16 stations. Alongside this came a dramatic expansion in the number of stations in the FM band and the number of community stations (public subscription stations - allowed limited sponsorship) on air.

See Carey's remarkable essay "Culture, Geography, and Communications: The Work of Harold Innis in an American Context", in William Melody & Liora Salter eds Culture Communication and Dependency: The Tradition of H. A. Innis (Norwood, NJ Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1981) pp. 73-91. Carey argues that the USA has "at all levels of social structure pursued ... a high communications policy, one aimed at spreading messages further in space and reducing the cost of transmission". (p.84)

Carey, p. 84.

Carey, p 84.

STW 9 did in fact lock itself into the 9 Network leaving TVW to pick and choose from the 7 and 10 Network's programming. But this affiliation was very much to STW 9's advantage On this see Tom O'Regan & Ulla Hiltula, "Perth Commercial Television since 1965", in T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. The Moving Image: the History of Film and Television in Western Australia 189S-1985 (Perth History and Film Association of Australia, WA, 1985), pp 75-82.

As Gomery noted "One study found that between 1964 and 1976 network income increased 575% (some 44% per year while payments to affiliates rose only 34% (some 3% per year) " See Douglas Gomery, "Economic Change in the US Television Industry": Screen, v 25, n 2 (1984), p 63

Carey, p 82.

In so doing the satellite removed receiving shadows which were a feature of the terrestrial system (such that even in a relatively flat capital city like Perth the TV signal in large segments of Fremantle is less than adequate). It also represented a fundamental threat to regional TV whose signal quality can be poor over much of its viewing area. Part of the problem I have always had with criticism of the satellite is the fact that in my childhood I felt underprivileged and angry because my family lived in a reception shadow despite being only 20 kilometres from the transmission tower. I remember watching TV with only the voice and not the image being visible far too often to lake seriously the notion that the TV system that it was part of was an unmitigated good.

The US Channels magazine put the cost per head of viewers reached by Bond as being (US) $88; compared to $80 for Lowy and $49 for Skase. See Alex Ben Block, "Who is Christopher Skase?", Channels, Sept. 1988, p. 46.

These changes occurred despite the fact that legislation was not made law until a later date.

This is most graphically illustrated by the executive decision to generously settle out of court a Bjelke-Petersen libel claim directed against the Brisbane TV company that Bond subsequently acquired despite legal advice that the libel claim could be easily defended. This case is now before the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and could have disastrous consequences for the Bond companies.

Indeed Russell Ward's Australian Legend can in this context be seen as an Australian poetics of space.

Eric Michaels in The Aboriginal Invention of Television (Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1986) makes the point that the preferred CAAMA option - broadcasting to an Aboriginal population geographically made up of a quarter of the land mass of the continent amounts to the veritable decontextualisation of the local Aboriginal culture and a radical shift to a pan-Aboriginal set of politics and identities quite at odds with the traditional tribal structures.

See Ben Block, p.46.

Australia is not in the situation that the USA and Canada were in where cable operations developed before the satellite as a way of getting good signal from the networks. Indeed a proportion of cable services is still used to get a better signal. On top of this cable licences tend to be distributed in the USA by local authorities which often accept the successful tenderer on the basis of support offered for public broadcasters. Australia's nationally awarded telecommunications system would seem to work against this happening here.

H.A. Innis, The Bias of Communication (1951. Reprint Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), p.32.

Since this article was written, Channel 7, Perth has announced that State Affair will be replaced by the national program Hinch as at 23 January 1989.

New: 23 January, 1996 | Now: 9 March, 2015