Essays on Australian Television

'Television before television'

'Television before television'

Ann Curthoys


Research into the history of television in Australia is undeveloped, in contrast to the history of film and radio.1 Yet, as the January 1988 issue of Camera Obscura on early American TV reminds us, there is a rich cultural history to be investigated. My purpose in this article is to call attention to the very considerable debate over the cultural value and potentialities of TV which occurred even before its establishment in Sydney and Melbourne in 1956, a debate which influenced the nature of Australian TV and the regulatory framework within which it operates. The extensive arguments of the early 1950s, especially as put before the Royal Commission into Television of 1953, revealed attitudes that continue to be prominent in public debate today.

Public discussion of TV - its proper forms of ownership and control, its possible virtues and vices - began in Australia at least ten years, one could argue fifteen, before the introduction of TV itself. During this time, in North America and Europe, TV services for substantial audiences were becoming established. Expeditions overseas set out from Australia periodically during this period to investigate the new medium, and reported back to the government or private body which had sent them. There were private citizens as well who had seen TV in their homeland or on their travels, and some of these wrote letters to the newspapers. But by and large most of those who participated in the discussion about TV and its future in Australia had not seen it.

Part of the fascination of these debates lies in how fundamental were the issues raised, as the various cultural bodies, public interest groups and commercial interests struggled to define the kind of system that should be: whether Australia should have a TV service at all, whether it should have a publicly or private owned system, or some mixture of the two; whether any privately owned system would be tightly or loosely controlled by government agencies; whether there should be controls on ownership to prevent ownership by foreign companies or concentration of ownership by local companies (there was in fact little discussion of controls on cross-media ownership); and whether there should be protection of Australian-made television material against imported material. Around such questions of ownership, control, and regulation hovered broader cultural questions. Wherein did true cultural value lie? What should be the role of audience demand and response in determining the nature of TV programming? What was the desirable role for government in such matters in a liberal democracy? Were the appropriate models for Australia those of Britain or America? And political and cultural questions could combine in strange ways. Did allegiance to the US politically, as leader of the 'free world', also mean allegiance to American popular culture, particularly as embodied in American commercial TV? Was there a major contradiction here between politics and culture? Would such a contradiction present dilemmas for the political parties?

The debates took place in the overriding context of the cold war; the period of great tension between the newly emergent superpowers, the USSR and the USA, a global confrontation which had powerful repercussions for political and cultural debate within each sector, and certainly within Australia. A dominant concern was the fear of another major war "war in three years" said Menzies in 1950 - which, leading as it did to a brief but significant reorientation to a defence economy, had a substantial impact on TV debate. These years saw a particularly bitter conflict within the Labor party and the union movement, centred around the labour movement's attitude to communism and more precisely the Australian Communist Party. They saw too a major concern over issues of public and private ownership, expressed in the areas of banking, health, airlines and broadcasting. It could be argued that a major reason Labor lost power in 1949 was its nationalisation platform, and its ill-fated attempt to nationalise banking.

Elsewhere, I have focussed on the question of why Australia gained a dual TV system. 2 Why, further, did it gain TV so comparatively late (1956 as compared with 1946 or earlier in the US and Great Britain)? And how did the cold war affect these decisions? Here I want to focus not so much on the process of government decision-making (or, as it turned out, more often than not, non-decision making) as on the public discourses generated around the emergence of TV. But first a brief skeleton history of those decision-making processes.

The Establishment of TV in Australia 1941-1956

Serious government consideration of the introduction of TV began with the Joint Parliamentary Committee appointed by the soon-to-be-ousted Menzies government in July 1941. This was in the context of wartime, where although there was no coalition or bipartisan government, as in Britain, bipartisan committees were of greater than usual significance. The report of this committee was significant for the subsequent public regulation of radio, as it laid the basis for the Australian Broadcasting Act of 1942, and thus for both the modern system of issuing commercial radio licenses and the determination of the powers and functions of ABC radio. The committee heard witnesses also on the future of TV - witnesses from electronic equipment manufacturers, radio broadcasting interests, and the Postmaster Generals Department (responsible for broadcasting). In their submissions to the committee of enquiry, the government officials from the PMG were pessimistic that the new technology had any future as a mass medium of communication, while the manufacturers and broadcasters were optimistic. It was still early days for TV, and the committee reported that much further development was needed before the introduction of TV could be authorised.3

It was the year after the war ended, in 1946, that TV took off in both the US and the UK - in the US through the granting of licenses to commercial interests, and in the UK through the sole agency of the BBC. In Australia, meanwhile, government policy was to investigate overseas developments before proceeding. In June 1948 the Chifley Labor government opted to follow the British model. It agreed, on the basis of advice from the Department of the Postmaster General, which conducted these investigations, to establish a national TV station in each capital city, and publicly invited tenders for the building of the six TV transmitters.4 Further, the new Broadcasting Act, also passed in 1948, prohibited the granting of commercial TV licenses. This decision was decried by the Liberal and Country Party coalition opposition as authoritarian and socialistic. It was never put into practice. Despite its enthusiasm for state-owned TV, the Labor government - beset by a series of political crises during 1949 - was not able to get TV established on a non-commercial basis before it was ousted in December 1949. Menzies, at the head of a Liberal-Country Party coalition, was decisively elected, and there was not to be another Labor government for twenty-three years.

While it was clear that a Menzies-led conservative government would favour the granting of commercial TV licenses, the new government had no real TV policy at all and indeed no enthusiasm for the new medium. In the context of economic problems, including severe shortages of labour and materials and an underdeveloped heavy industrial base, all exacerbated by the constraints arising from the swing to a war economy in the intense cold war years, 1950 to 1953, TV was seen as a drain away from more fundamental projects. Television, the new government decided in June 1950, would be introduced very gradually indeed. 5 One of the techniques for delay was to send further expeditions overseas, and in 1951 a high level official delegation departed to investigate developments. The tactic backfired somewhat, for in its report of November 1951, the delegation favoured the British system with solely national TV, over the American commercial system, and warned that any commercial system would have to be strenuously supervised.6 The report was never published, presumably because Menzies did not want to strengthen the anti-commercial TV view.

But if the order of the day was delay and doubt, the advocates of TV, especially the commercial interests who had sought TV licenses since the end of the war, were becoming restive. In response to increasing pressure, the Menzies government in January 1953 amended the 1948 Broadcasting Act to allow the granting of commercial licenses, thus providing the legislative framework for a dual system of TV ownership. The delay, however, had already meant that the opponents of TV, especially of American-style commercial TV, had become more vocal and organised. Public debate really got going later in the same year when the Country Party Postmaster General, Larry Anthony, returned from a fact-finding tour of the US and the UK in November and announced that the government would definitely introduce commercial TV. 7 This announcement, one suspects not checked out with Menzies first, called into life the various groups and voices of opposition. Some of these opponents were simply the government's traditional enemies - the Labor Party. But much more damaging from the government's point of view was the anxiety being expressed by social groups traditionally sympathetic to it - the churches, conservative women's groups, and farmers' organisations who saw TV as a luxury for urban dwellers and a brake on the much more important task of completing the country's rural telephone system.

It was important to placate such traditional friends. Menzies established a Royal Commission of Enquiry to report on just how the dual system of ownership and control - which already held in radio - could be established for TV. This enquiry would not only provide a stage, a forum, for these anxieties to be expressed, but would also provide the government with guidance for a TV policy, something it did not have. The membership of the enquiry was stacked to ensure a report favourable to the establishment of commercial TV, though the inclusion of a Country Women's Association representative was probably meant to allow the often-expressed doubts about TV's moral influence an official presence.

The Royal Commission attracted a substantial public response, in written submissions and oral evidence. Views were given by artistic and cultural organisations, women's organisations, trade unions and the ACTU, by potential applicants for TV licenses (newspaper interests, radio broadcasters, and electronics manufacturers), by farmers' organisations, by the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (established for radio in 1948), the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and individuals including academics, particularly those involved in adult education. While many of the submissions opposed TV altogether, and commercial TV in particular, the Commission's Report, released in 1954, affirmed the need to introduce TV under the dual system of ownership that applied in radio, and the need for government regulation through the issuing and revocation of licenses. It recommended limits on the number of TV stations any one company or consortium could own, limits borrowed directly from the regulations governing radio, but recommended no limits on multi-media ownership.8

Finally, in September 1954, the government agreed that the time had come to introduce TV, especially in view of the forthcoming Olympic Games to be held in Melbourne in 1956. In the next two years, licence hearings were held by the Australian Broadcasting Control Board . Licenses were granted largely to consortia with radio and especially newspaper interests. In the Broadcasting and Television Act of 1956, a legislative basis was given to a comparatively mild system of government regulation of commercial TV, with the Australian Broadcasting Control Board being given power to determine and enforce program standards. There was, however, at this time to be no protection of Australian material through quotas or other mechanisms. In essence, the Australian TV system, like the Australian foreign policy of the period, would combine British and American allegiances and models. There was to be an American-dominated commercial system and a British-dominated national system.

I now want to amplify this narrative. How did the advocates and opponents of TV, and especially of commercial American-style TV, construct their arguments? In particular, how were notions of liberal democracy mobilised by both sides in the debate?

The Critics

Cultural and moral criticisms were usually a mixture of opposition to TV itself, and specifically to commercial TV. As the introduction of TV came to be seen as inevitable, the critics swung to oppose only commercial TV, and later still, when commercial TV also appeared inevitable, their emphasis turned to its regulation by the state.

In 1951 and 1952, the debate focussed on whether Australia should acquire TV at all. On the one hand, disquiet about the social effects of TV was growing. A spate of articles and studies on these effects had appeared in the US, and a sense that American TV was morally and culturally debased filtered through to Australia.9 Arguments against the introduction of TV as such stressed that TV would have worrying effects on children, on adult sociability and on women carrying out their domestic responsibilities. TV would keep children indoors, strain their eyes, reduce their reading, and interfere with their homework. It would lead to adults ceasing to talk to one another. It was anti-social, and would impoverish family life. Typical of this view was an article by W.A. Clarke in the Sydney Morning Herald in January 1951, based on the American example: "Television is going to be one of the big menaces of the future ... Children are refusing to study or eat because taking meals or studying is a waste of good viewing time ... Every night meals are hastily disposed of and the ritual in front of the TV screen commences". 10

Arguments that it was commercial TV in particular, rather than TV in general, that was the problem, were based on a view that commercial TV, in seeking the largest possible audience, would produce a debased form of culture. What was popular was not necessarily what was culturally desirable, and for this reason people should not necessarily be able to choose the kind of TV they wanted. This view was expressed in different ways by a whole range of cultural and educational groups participating in the debate in the early 1950s, especially at the Royal Commission.

J.J. Wilson, the director of tutorial classes at the University of Sydney, for example, told the Royal Commission that the problem was that people preferred bad art: "Given the choice between the slick, simple and obvious appeals to the emotions and the intellect of bad art cleverly presented, and the more subtle, less quickly apprehended, values and appeals of good art well presented, there is an inevitable application of Gresham's Law - the bad art will drive out the good". 11

In 1951, Richard Boyer, chair of the ABC, presented a detailed report to the government arguing with great energy the case for an ABC monopoly. Comparing the British and American systems, he concluded that the British system was entirely superior. In Britain, TV was being developed with an eye to its effect upon moral and cultural values, and particularly upon children, while in the US there was much cause for concern as to TV's effect upon American life. Australia, said Boyer, should avoid the American system at all costs: "we should go the way of Britain and not that of America". 12

By the time of the Royal Commission, Boyer was much less forthright, recognising that the decision to introduce commercial TV had already been made. He did continue to advance a critique of the quest for popularity: "the urge for securing and holding the largest possible audience is a snare". He now concentrated on the ABC's claim to run the national system, and on the need for strict regulation of the commercial stations. Commercial TV, he now argued, should be introduced on the model recently proposed for Britain - the erection of publicly owned transmitters which could then be rented out to private organisations. The retention of the infrastructure by the government would strengthen its hand in regulating the commercial operators.

Boyer's arguments were, perhaps, the most cogent and detailed given against commercial TV. 13 They rested on a form of liberalism which rejected the laissez-faire philosophy of classical liberalism, and urged a greater role for the state in guaranteeing a decent standard of living and the preservation of liberal freedoms. In the arena of culture, New Liberalism stressed the importance of a well-informed public as the basis for true democracy, and the role of "educated men" in helping to create that well-informed public and to counteract popular prejudice. New Liberals were not suspicious of the state, as were both their classical liberal and Marxist opponents, since the state was seen as transcending all sectional interests, political parties and socio-economic classes; the state, in effect, embodied the best interests of society as a whole, as a unified community. 14 This overall political philosophy provided Boyer with a basis on which to attack the classical liberal arguments put forward by the proponents of commercial TV, arguments which assumed the sovereignty of the individual.

The Labour Movement

The Labor Party also vigorously argued against commercial TV, from 1948 onwards. In particular, Arthur Calwell, who had been Minister for Information in the Curtin wartime Labor government, strenuously advocated a solely national system. Calwell was one of the few in the labour movement who anticipated the importance of TV, seeing it as likely to supplant other means of mass communication and as therefore vital to Labor's future relations with the media. During the debate in 1948 over the Broadcasting Bill, he read to the House of Representatives from a recent issue of the American Harper's Magazine which pointed out that TV would draw away advertising revenue from newspapers and magazines. Radio, Calwell added, was also in danger: "very few people will listen when they can watch a screen". For these reasons, he argued in the debate, "it is in the public interest to control TV in this country through the national stations".15

It is clear that Calwell, and the Labor Party generally, opposed commercial TV because they feared that private media entrepreneurs were always likely to support Labor's conservative opponents and to oppose Labor's nationalisation and social welfare policies. Yet Labor Party arguments were generally put in cultural terms. The Labor member for Fremantle, Kim Beazley (Snr), signalled the beginning of this approach in the 1948 debate. Beazley's speech in the House argued that events in the US showed that the desire of commercial interests to maximise profits, and therefore audiences, led to a proliferation on TV of popular, low-brow, entertainment. By contrast, said Beazley, forms of TV which did not rely on popularity, that is, those produced by statutory bodies such as the BBC, could avoid this debasement, and aim for good quality, informative, programs. 16

Labor spokespersons indeed saw cultural arguments as more compelling than those straightforwardly identifying private media owners as politically prejudiced against them. When Anthony made his announcement in November 1952 that the Menzies government would definitely introduce commercial TV, Calwell in his countering announcement that the next Labor government would cancel all commercial TV licenses, relied on the issue of cultural quality, not political bias, to sustain his case. A Labor government, he said, would refuse to allow private enterprise to debauch the minds of adults and children in the manner of American TV companies. 17

The Labor Party, however, was not able to sustain a stance of opposition to commercial TV. The Party was hopelessly split over the question of communism and how to deal with it, and was in the process of being tom apart by the conflict over the largely catholic-led industrial groups, established within the Party itself to challenge communist leadership of the trade unions. It had great difficulties in maintaining a strong position on anything, especially on issues related, as the TV was, to Labor's controversial nationalisation platform. The day after Calwell announced that a Labor government would revoke all commercial TV licenses, H.V. Evatt, the leader of the Party, publicly disagreed. 18 A Labor government, Evatt said, would indeed support a dual system, particularly in view of the likelihood that constitutional rulings in the courts would prevent a government monopoly, a lesson learned presumably from the damaging banking case of 1948. Evatt's stance was possibly based also on his desire at this time to maintain good relations with the right wing Industrial Groups (an attempt he abandoned a little later), a desire which led him for a period into anti-nationalisation stances. Evatt also disliked the ABC. Somewhat later he said that at least with commercial radio the Labor Party itself could own stations and attempt to redress the balance; with a solely national system there was no room for variety or reply. 19 Where Calwell perceived the ABC as more sympathetic than the commercial station to the ALP, Evatt perceived it as less so, and here lay much of the basis of their disagreement.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions agreed with Calwell, rather than Evatt, in opposing the introduction of commercial TV. The ACTU at this time had moved somewhat to the right of its left wing, communist-influenced position of the late 1940s. The election as secretary in 1949 of Reginald Broadby, who had been prominent in the Industrial Groups, was an indication of the change. Yet the ACTU was not controlled by the Industrial Groups, and continued to maintain a position in support of nationalised industries. It argued to the Royal Commission on Television that the ACTU favoured the introduction of TV into Australia on condition that the system "should be exclusively a publicly owned undertaking". The arguments advanced were economic and cultural - economic in that the Australian economy could not yet afford TV, and cultural in that in commercial television, programming would become incidental to the requirements of advertising. As had already happened in America, programs would have as their object the attraction of the widest possible audiences without regard to educational, cultural, or moral standards. Broadby acknowledged that commercial radio was far more popular with the working class than was the ABC, but then added that because "it is popular, it does not necessarily mean that it is best for the community at large". His objection was that, compared to the ABC, commercial radio devoted little or no time to the development of the "cultural side of radio broadcasting".20 We can see in this submission and Broadby's oral evidence to the Commission how far the labour movement had gone down the track of rejecting popular, including working class, tastes and preferences.

The Public Interest Groups

With its leader and deputy leader in public disagreement, the Labor Party was hardly likely to provide a strong opposition to the government's plans for commercial TV. The more effective critics during the debates from 1951 to 1954 were to be non party groups presenting cultural and moral arguments. These critics, from church, cultural, educational and women's groups, marshalled their forces for the 1953 Royal Commission. They wanted no commercial TV, and an independent statutory authority (like the ABC) to provide all TV services. Interestingly, this position was argued both by radical and conservative organisations. A common cultural position led widely divergent political groupings onto the same ground, as happened also in the case of the opposition to American comics in the same period. 21

In 1951 a large number of left wing cultural organisations and individuals formed the Australian Culture Defence Movement, based in Melbourne, which developed for the Royal Commission in 1953 a case for a solely national system, and for protection of Australian artists and cultural workers within that system. The organisation appears to have been a result of the particular initiative of Actors Equity, and its president was Hal Lashwood, the communist organiser of that union. Other members included the Fellowship of Australian Writers, the Children's National Theatre, the Australian Songwriters and Composers' Association, the Australian Journalists' Association, and individuals such as Alan Marshall, John Manifold, and Jindyworobak pioneer, Rex Ingamells. Oral evidence for the group was given by Max Keogh, who stressed that TV should be publicly owned and operated, though commercial interests could have access to a second channel. Australia should, Keogh said, "take as a model the BBC rather than the American commercial pattern", since BBC programs were superior to those produced in the US. The ACDM stressed the need to ensure that Australian productions for TV be protected, suggesting a minimum of 75% of transmission be Australian-made.22 This would help keep Australian talent in the country.

The Workers' Educational Association in its submission took a similar view. It opposed commercial TV on the basis that such TV, depending on public approval as it did, would become merely a form of entertainment, rather than Art and Culture.23 The Australian Branch of the British Drama League was similarly concerned, more specifically about the fate of drama. It much preferred the standard and type of drama produced on ABC radio to that produced by the commercial radio stations, with one or two exceptions. In particular, commercial breaks during the broadcast of a play were intrusive and destructive to enjoyment of the play itself.24 For all these groups, then, a major failing of commercial TV would be cultural.

The Churches

For the churches, there was a similar concern, expressed in moral as well as cultural terms. On 14 February 1951, the Australian Council for the World Council of Churches expressed grave concern at its annual meeting "at the possible influence of TV on the moral life of Australia". The Council argued that the control, selection, and presentation of TV programs should "ensure that TV shall not be allowed to become solely an instrument of mass entertainment and, therefore, a substitute for individual creative activity, but shall be used to stimulate creative thinking, cultural interest, and the development of Christian moral values". It did not, however, oppose the introduction of TV outright, nor of commercial TV, but rather sought strict controls. The churches saw the possibilities of religious programming; and the Victorian Catholic Church applied for a licence itself in 1952. The commercial interests were quick to point out to the Royal Commission that churches elsewhere, particularly in the US, had recognised the immense potential value of TV as a medium for communicating the Christian message. Gordon Powell pointed out in the religious column of the Sydney Morning Herald on 11 July 1953 that organised religion had made much more headway on TV in America than in Britain. Particularly effective were the religious programs of individuals like Bishop Fulton Sheen, who had a "gift for 'getting it across'".

The churches were well represented amongst the witnesses to the Royal Commission. As well as the Australian Council for the World Council of Churches, there were representatives of the Australian Religious Film Society, the Presbyterian Church, the United Churches Social Reform Board of South Australia, the Methodist Church of Australia, the Church of England, the Catholic Church in Australia, the Australasian Inter-Union Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, the Archbishop of Melbourne's Committee on Television and the Council of Churches in Victoria. These witnesses emphasised the need for government regulation to insist on strict controls on commercial TV stations, to ensure that normally questionable materials were not broadcast. They also sought regulations requiring both national and commercial stations to provide free of charge, as occurred with radio, religious programming. Time should be allocated on Sundays and on the "great occasions of the Christian year, such as Christmas Day". Their view of the moral effects of TV had become closely bound up with their own desire to convey their message through the new medium.

The Women's Groups

Organised women's groups were prominent amongst the list of witnesses to the Commission. They included the very active Women's Services Guild of Western Australia, the Country Women's Association, the National Council of Women, the Australian Federation of Women Voters, the League of Women Voters of South Australia, the Housewives Association, and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. These were generally fairly conservative in their politics, while the more labour-inclined women's organisations, such as the United Associations of Women, were not represented.

Like many other witnesses, especially those from educational groups, these groups stressed the possibly deleterious effects of TV on children: violent programs might encourage delinquency, and home discipline would worsen (it would be harder, for example, to get children to go to bed). The evidence of the women's groups dovetailed neatly with those of church and educational groups seeking strict controls on advertising.

We can easily see, then, that the debates which are still important in discussion of TV today were already well established in Australia before the arrival of TV itself. In particular, there was from the beginning concern about the effects of TV, especially TV violence, on children, and a conviction that popular commercial TV would be of a low cultural standard. There was concern also that TV material should be largely Australian, though this was, as yet, fairly incipient, and would emerge more clearly later, when Actors' Equity led the battle for protection of the Australian producers of TV material.

The Advocates: The Defence Lobby

Once it became clear that the Menzies government was going to be very slow indeed in introducing TV, the commercial interests began to argue their case vigorously, both privately and publicly. During 1951, these interests seem to have judged that their best and only chance of getting the go-ahead to introduce TV was to prove its relevance to defence. In the context of the cold war, and a widespread expectation of another world war any minute, a defence argument for TV would seem to guarantee its speedier introduction. And indeed a defence argument did emerge, the argument being that TV was the pilot industry in modem electronic armament production. It was suggested that it was because Britain had developed TV before World War II that it was able to develop military electronic capabilities during the war itself. The principal advocates of this argument were the electronics manufacturers, who saw TV as providing a substantial boost to their own industry.

Probably the most extended case was put by R.N. Hughes-Jones, for a company named Electronics Industries. He outlined the military uses of TV: "Missiles and rockets with television cameras mounted in the nose would be guided with deadly accuracy to their targets". 26 Television could be used for educating the public in war raid precautions and demonstrating proper procedures in the event of an atomic attack. Hughes-Jones circulated a copy of his speech to all members of parliament. Similar arguments were put in the Sydney Morning Herald in June 1951 by Ray Allsop, a high-ranking radio engineer in the navy, who was himself soon to become an applicant for a TV licence.27 Allan Fairhall, Liberal MHR for Paterson, with a background in broadcasting and radio engineering, also urged that the introduction of TV not be delayed, on the grounds of "the close association between television technology and modem defence".28 The government's overseas study delegation of 1951 also favoured the introduction of TV on defence grounds. Within months, however, the idea was shot down in flames by the government's own Joint War Production and Defence Committee, which concluded in March 1952 that the defence advantages of mass TV industry were limited.29

A few continued to argue the case for TV as a means of defence. One submission to the Royal Commission, by a private individual named Ernest Oliver, suggested that when the "close relationship in the electronic arts between TV and defence electronics is appreciated, the reasons why impoverished countries in Europe are investing millions of pounds in television, and why such investments are so benevolently regarded by their respective governments, becomes easy to see. It becomes doubtful if the Russian interest in television is purely to provide amusement for the Russian people ..." In Australia, a television industry would provide the training ground in electronics, which could be immediately applied to the defence of the Commonwealth should the need arise.30

The Commercial Interests

With Anthony's announcement in November 1952 that the Government would introduce television, the change in legislation in 1953 to allow for the granting of commercial TV licenses, and the establishment that same year of the Royal Commission, the introduction of both commercial and national TV appeared inevitable. Yet, despite the Royal Commission's limited terms of reference, many witnesses to it continued to argue strenuously against commercial TV. As a result the commercial interests who gave evidence to the Commission replied by stating the general case for commercial TV, as well as the particular case against government regulation of commercial TV programming.

H.E. Beaver, president of the Australian Federation of Commercial Broadcasting Stations, appeared on behalf of the commercial radio stations. He argued for a self-regulated competitive system, with more than one TV station per city or region, in order to be able to present a variety of programs, and so improve the attractiveness of the medium as a whole. He was particularly opposed to the arguments which had been presented to the Commission by Boyer.

Beaver presented the classic liberal case that the audience chooses what to watch or listen to. It cannot be chosen for you: "you cannot reach the people by it - they must reach for it. The broadcaster must provide a program fare which will prompt listeners to tune in ... You cannot, by restrictive controls, force the listener to accept certain forms of broadcasting or certain types of programs". 31

To opponents of commercial TV like Boyer, Beaver replied that "the chief virtue of commercial broadcasting, as practiced in Australia, is that it is essentially democratic. First and foremost, it tries to please the general public, whose interest it serves ... it depends for its very existence upon maintaining the goodwill of the whole body of listeners". 2 Further, "unless the types of programs we broadcast and the content of our programs meet with the approval of our audiences, we cannot attract advertisers to use our facilities". Commercial TV had, then, if it were to be profitable, to be responsive to audience demand and preference. The national service, by contrast, had no such checks: "It is not difficult to imagine a national service reflecting the highest standards, to which no-one would listen".33

Beaver also challenged the notion that commercial TV was forced to appeal to a "lowest common denominator audience", in order to maximise audiences and therefore advertising revenue. Many commercial radio programs, he argued, were designed to appeal to specialised audiences, depending on the nature of the product advertised. The same would apply to TV. He disagreed also with the view, presented by his 'cultural' opponents, that good programs were necessarily expensive to produce, and so would not be produced by commercial TV broadcasters. It was possible, he said, to "devise television programs of comparatively low cost and yet of worthy quality".34

Beaver also argued against those who saw Australian commercial television as likely to slavishly follow American lines of programming. This had not happened in the case of radio, and he could not see why it should happen in TV. (He was, perhaps, not sufficiently alive to the particular problems created by TV's greater cost, problems which did lead the Australian industry in its early years to rely largely on imported American programs). The argument that TV was bad for children was also tackled: "The problem of the effect of entertainment (including radio, films, comics and books) on the morals of youth is older than any of us. Certainly it will not be created by TV. Children become acquainted with violence and horror in their very tender years in the various nursery stories and fairy tales which have been the heritage of children for centuries".35

W. Dunstan, general manager of the Herald and Weekly Times print media group, argued against the puritanism of many of the critics of commercial TV: "If it is decided that program standards should be defined for Australian television, it is submitted strongly that these should not be based on the theory that only stern puritanism is good for the people ...". He thought "cultural telecasts" (e.g. arts programs) had a place on TV, but pointed out that overseas evidence showed that most people preferred "more popular entertainment".36 Dunstan argued generally for self-regulation within a certain code of agreed standards. For example, that "the institution of marriage and the value of family life were always to be treated with respect" and "divorce not to be presented as a solution for marital problems ... Adultery never to be presented as excusable ... Suggestive double meanings not to be used in dialogue or song ... Sex crimes not to be the basis for programs. Killing never to be presented as justifiable in any circumstances ... Scenes showing adults undressing to be avoided", and so on. Dunstan was seeking to show that the standards the commercial interests would themselves abide by, without any government interference, were sufficiently strict. That he could regard such standards as non-puritanical gives, perhaps, some idea of the degree to which sexual and social mores have changed in the thirty-five years since these debates took place.

Arthur George Warner, for Electronic Industries, foreseeing a profitable business in the production and sale of TV sets, argued, like Beaver, against the cultural critics of commercial TV. Many of them, he suggested, are people "who would not buy and would not view TV if it were in Australia". The "highly intellectual type" did not listen to a great deal of radio. It was in the poorer districts that both radio and TV would have the most impact. Warner, in fact, favoured a commercial system only.38

Sir Ernest Fisk, founder of Amalgamated Wireless Australasia Ltd, expressed the view that a commercial industry could not in practice be heavily regulated, though it should certainly be open to criticism and pressure. Community pressure, rather than government regulation, would have an effect. Fisk, like Beaver, presented a thoroughly liberal argument against state intervention: "There is nothing seriously wrong with the morals and ethics of the community. If things are really bad sooner or later there will be protests, churches and other bodies will take it up, there will be public protest. You want plenty of that, you want a few bodies who are going to harass these fellows you know, but, as to that, if you are going to have commercial and competitive (TV) you have to leave it there".


At the end of "The Getting of Television", I said in a throwaway remark that I was glad that those who tried to stop the establishment of commercial TV had failed to do so, "given the immense popularity of commercial TV entertainment since its introduction". I'd like to pick up that comment now, and outline some arguments to support it.

The establishment of the dual system for TV meant that in Australian cultural history, popular TV has been allowed to develop more freely than would have been the case if the Australian Broadcasting Commission had gained a monopoly. Further, while the regulations have acted to shape popular entertainment in certain ways, they have never been as restrictive as those promulgated by the comparable regulatory body in Britain, the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Popular TV has, in consequence, grown, developed, and flourished. It is very different as I write from its beginnings in 1956.

The presence of commercial TV has given American popular culture much freer play in Australia than would have happened with a purely national system. Part of the distinctiveness of Australian cultural history, in TV as much as in film and theatre - and indeed in screen and cultural theory themselves - has been that in a creative sense it has been Janus-faced, looking both to American and British cultural forms, innovations, and influences. This is to say, a lot of Australian cultural history is distinctive, not in being unique or entirely 'new', but in always negotiating between, rejecting, modifying, adding to, changing, and transforming, British and American cultural forms and arguments. The dual system in broadcasting, first in radio and then in TV, has helped and enriched this process.

In most histories of the Australian media, the cultural arguments of those who oppose commercial culture are treated with warmth and sympathy, where the arguments of those who support or produce popular culture are treated with irony and scepticism. Yet I have the feeling that this is changing. Aesthetic postmodernism in particular, in its mixing of 'high' and 'low' (the mass produced popular), makes it possible for us to be more receptive to the actual arguments put forward by the commercial culture industries in their own defence and their own interests. Clearly, in the early 1950s, the public interest groups, Richard Boyer, and the ABC, did not take the cultural and classical liberal arguments of industry representatives such as Beaver and Fisk seriously, seeing them purely as the expression of commercial self-interest. Yet it is time to take seriously their argument that audiences are extremely powerful in influencing the kinds of popular screen culture presented to them, in terms of genres and 'flow', the construction of a day and evening's entertainment as a whole. Recent ethnographic research into TV watching has argued that popular audiences are indeed powerful in securing, negotiating, and modifying the continued production of texts they delight in.39 Beaver's and Fisk's voices from the past on this issue have not been sufficiently answered, even now.

At the time, Boyer had full cultural authority, as the voice of BBC/ABC broadcasting, and Beaver had none. Now with cultural theory itself leaning more to the popular, matters are not so simple. We can now see the 1950s debates in a new and interesting light.

Notes 1. For references on film history see, for example, John Tulloch, Legends on the Screen (Sydney: Currency Press, 1981) and Ina Bertrand ed., Cinema in Australia (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1989). For important historical overviews of broadcasting on TV in the period discussed here, see Cameron Hazlehurst, "The Advent of Commercial Television" in Australian Cultural History, no. 2 (1982/3), pp.104-119; Sandra Hall, Supertoy: 20 Years of Australian Television (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1976); and Geoffrey Bolton, Dick Boyer, An Australian Humanist (Canberra: ANU Press, 1967); Ken Inglis, This is the ABC (Melbourne: MUP, 1983). For other important historical overviews of Australian TV history see Albert Moran, Images ~ Industry: Television Drama Production in Australia (Sydney: Currency Press, 1985); Mark Armstrong, "Historical Outline", in Broadcasting Law and Policy (Sydney: Butterworths, 1982), pp.35-48; Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, "Commercial Television - the Past", in Satellite Program Services: Report of the Inquiry by the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal into the Regulation of the Use of Satellite Program Services by Broadcasters, v. 1 (Canberra: AGPS, July 1984), pp.24-60; Tom O'Regan & Brian Shoesmith eds., The Moving Image: the History of Film and Television in Western Australia (Perth: History and Film Association of Australia, 1985), pp.55-87; and G. Turner and J. Tulloch eds., Australian Television (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989).

2. "The Getting of Television: Dilemmas in Ownership, Control, and Culture 1941-1956", in Ann Curthoys & John Merritt eds., Better Dead than Red: Australia's First Cold War 1945-1959, v.II (Sydney. Allen and Unwin, 1986).

3. The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Report of the Joint Committee on Wireless Broadcasting (Canberra: Commonwealth Government Printer, 1942).

4. The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, First Annual Report of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board. 15 Mar.-30 Jun. 1949, (Canberra: Commonwealth Government Printer, 1949), par. 85.

5. Cabinet Minutes, Agendum 51A (29 June 1950) Australian Archives (AA) A4639 XMI.

6. C. Moses, J.M. Donovan & J.H.T. Fisher, Report on Television, copy in files of the Royal Commission of Enquiry into Television (1953) (hereinafter RCTV Records) AA CP357/8, Bundle 1.

7. Sydney Morning Herald (23 November 1952).

8. Report of the Royal Commission of Enquiry into Television (hereinafter RCTV Report) (Canberra: Commonwealth Printer, 1954).

9. The RCTV Report listed at the end a bibliography of overseas articles on TV, including, interestingly, several by Dallas Smythe, later to become something of a guru in the late 1970s for the emerging field of marxist-influenced media studies, focussing on ownership and control.

10. Sydney Morning Herald (13 January 1951)- 36

11. RCTV Records, AA CP357/10, Bundle 3, TV253/53.

12. "The Implications of TV as a Public Medium", copy in RCTV Records, AA CP357/8, Bundle 1.

13. Written submission by R.J.F. Boyer (11 March 1953) RCTV Records, AA CP357/10, Bundle 2, TV53/205.

14. For an analysis of New Liberalism in Australia, see John Docker, "Can the Centre Hold? Conceptions of the State, 1890-1925", in Sydney Labour History Group, What Rough Best? The State and Social Order in Australia (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1982); Tim Rowse, Australian Liberalism and National Character (Melbourne: Kibble Books, 1978). Geoffrey Bolton, in Dick Boyer, draws attention to the phrase "educated men".

15. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, v.199 (24 November 1948).

16. Ibid.

17. Sydney Morning Herald (25 November 1952).

18. Sydney Morning Herald (26 November 1952).

19. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, v.221(18 February 1953), pp.278-285.

20. RCTV Records, Broadby's evidence, transcript of oral evidence (2 July 1953), p.1694.

21. Martin Barker, A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign (London: Pluto Press, 1984); John Docker, "Culture, Society and the Communist Party", in Ann Curthoys & John Merritt eds., Australia's First Cold War: Vol. 1, Society, Communism and Culture (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1984).

22. For a history and analysis of the subsequent Australian content regulations, see John Docker, Australian Content Regulations: the quality/quantity distinction and the place of drama, report prepared for the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations (Sydney,1988).

23. Written submission by D. Stewart, General Secretary of the WEA, RCTV Records, AA CP 357/10, Bundle 3, TV53/254.

24. Written submission by Australian Branch of the British Drama League, RCTV Records, AA CP357/10, Bundle 2, TV53/214.

25. RCTV Records, AA CP357/1, Exhibit 5.

26. A copy of Hughes-Jones' letter is in P.M.'s Dept., Corr., Item 547/2 AA A462.

27. Sydney Morning Herald (15 February 1951).

28. Fairhall Papers, AA M40, File 3.

29. Referred to in Cabinet Minutes, v.9, Agendum No. 217, AA A4905 XM.

30. Written Submission by Ernest Oliver, Engineer, RCTV Records, AA 357/10, Bundle 5, TV53/407.

31. Written Submission by H.E. Beaver, on behalf of the Australian Federation of Commercial Broadcasting Stations, RCTV Records, AA CP357/10, Bundle 2, TV53/211, pp.l5-16. Ibid, p.4. Ibid, pp.4-5. Ibid, p.l8. Ibid, p.22. RCTV Records, AA CP357/10, Item TV53/322, p.15.

37. RCTV Records, AA CP357/10, Bundle 4, Item TV53/322.

38. RCTV Records, AA CP357/8, Bundle 1, no. 115.

39. Dorothy Hobson, Crossroads: The Drama of a Soap Opera (London: Methuen, 1982); Ien Ang, Watching Dallas (London: Methuen, 1985). For similar work in relation to romance readers, see Janice Radway, Reading the Romance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984); Carol Thurston, The Romance Revolution (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987).

Source: Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture vol. 4 no 2 (1991) Television and .... Edited by John Hartley

New: 20 December 1995

HTML author: Garry Gillard

Source: http://humpc61.murdoch.edu.au/~cntinuum/4.2/Curthoys.html

Archived to this site 20 December 1999

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