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The free-to-air television that might have been

By Patricia Edgar - posted Friday, 14 December 2012

I would be foolish to attempt to say with certainty what free-to-air television will look like five to ten years from now but it is clearly struggling to maintain its dominance in the media marketplace. There are enormous challenges facing broadcasting and the economic model that has underpinned the industry is outdated. Yet, as with climate change science, denial and inertia are still pervasive within the commercial industry in Australia as well as the ABC.

These symptoms have been endemic in Australian broadcasting from the time television began in 1956, for life has been easy and governments have been malleable, fearing the networks' power and critique and their impact on the electorate. Commercial television has been a money making machine and licencees have been allowed to get away with the spoils. They have had to be forced by regulation to spend money on Australian content and children's programs. But the rules of the game have changed.

Technology has reshaped the media landscape dramatically. Google and DVDs appeared at the end of the 90s, Facebook 2003, YouTube 2005 and Twitter 2006. The game industry has outstripped revenue from cinema with many players coming from television's prime audience. But content providers remain very slow to respond to the challenges and TV managers remain averse to taking risks and providing the investment innovation requires, as their heads will roll if they fail.


The television industry has seen the tsunami coming but they seem at a loss to find an appropriate and viable response. Historically they have cried 'wolf' whenever the public has made demands. With their cries of poverty they have undermined and modified Australian quotas, delayed the introduction of digital television, won concessions on advertising regulations and pleaded for cuts to their licence fees. The latest concession by government is to halve fees to ease the financial difficulties all three commercial networks are experiencing. Even so, as the recent upheavals in print journalism demonstrate, no time should be lost in identifying solutions to find the appropriate place for free-to-air in the media marketplace as the digital revolution proceeds. There are already many unhappy shareholders.

It need not be this way. Television is after all simply a delivery system, one with a wide reach which has given it a natural advantage. But not only has the industry failed to adapt to the changes in the technology on which the delivery system is based, it has struggled with content innovation, failing to satisfy the demonstrated needs and interests of its audience while it clings to old habits and structures. If free-to-air fails it will be due to a failure of imagination and creativity for it is content that attracts the viewers who keep the industry afloat.

The old model of television broadcasting - selling eyeballs to advertisers - has long been irrelevant. The ability to record and view later began with the introduction of the VCR to living rooms in the late 70's. That technology was a clear threat to the broadcasting business model, but it took until December 2009, for the ratings collection body, OzTAM, to begin tracking 'time-shift' audiences. Viewer demand for flexible schedulinghas been clear for decades.Further evidence was the extent of streaming which followed the introduction of ninemsn and Yahoo7 in 2009 which approached five million online video streams a month, with Ten Network's Masterchef generating nine million streams.

Television has clung to a model that assumes the audience wants a scheduler to construct an evening's program viewing for them, but station loyalty belonged to a bygone age. Stations have tried to get around channel-switching by not sticking to advertised times and allowing a program to go overtime so a viewer will miss the start of the next program they want to see on an opposing channel. These techniques cause frustration and encourage piracy which is rife.

The technique of blurring advertising with programs, even using program actors in ads to confuse when you 'fast forward', is intensely annoying. Once upon a time such practices were outlawed by the regulator. Now product placement ads are integral to the program, but these tampering techniques will not save free-to-air TV. More radical and fundamental changes will be required.

The broadcasting regulator in Australia was always 'reluctant' but has become more and more so. When I was appointed to the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) in 1975 I was shocked by the complacency I encountered at the board table. The ABCB seemed to see their role as serving the interests of the industry rather than the public. This attitude set me on the path to reform of children's programming which became a 30 year project.


Australians took to television in the fifties so rapidly the grand promises made about serving the Australian community with quality programming were off the agenda, forgotten as program managers travelled to the US and UK cherry-picking the best of overseas programming they could obtain more cheaply than producing their own. When reform of Program Standards and Australian content requirements were mooted in 1975, by the ABCB responding to pressure from a Labor government in Canberra, the industry claimed they couldn't afford Australian drama and children's programming because of the high costs of the introduction of colour technology at that time. The Fraser Government on winning the election in 1975 announced it would abolish the troublesome ACBC, replacing it with the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT).

Colour proved to be a bonanza as audience numbers soared, but that did not prevent the commercial industry from challenging in the courts the new children's standards and quotas set by the ABT. The networks lost that battle eventually when the Hawke government introduced new legislation to close loopholes, but they continued to take the path of least resistance, doing the minimum required. That conservative approach over years has meant free-to-air networks have failed to adapt to changing conditions and encourage a culture of creativity. Most telling in this changed environment they have not developed relevant programs for the young including young adults who between them are the greatest consumers of media and the discriminating audience of the future.

The ABC has also dragged its feet. In November 2009 Kim Dalton, Head of ABC Television and Chair of Freeview, said, 'Free-to-air Australia was experiencing an explosion in the number of platforms, business models and technologies that could deliver TV to viewers and they posed significant risks to free-to-air TV and Australian production.' Yet when the ABC moved into digital television with an opportunity to break new ground for an audience heavily engaged with new media, they chose expediency over innovation, establishing a children's channel on a model that was more than two decades old.

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About the Author

Patricia Edgar is an author, television producer and educator. She was the founding director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation. She is also the author of In Praise of Ageing and an Ambassador for the National Ageing Research Institute.

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All articles by Patricia Edgar

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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