In the first of several articles we'll be bringing you in 2006 about half a century of television in Australia, James Barrington outlines the growth of commercial TV down under.
So ITV has reached 50: well, so too have Australian TV's commercial channels, with both Channel 7 and Channel 9 celebrating the milestone in 2006. Australia has two state-run channels: ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which also has ABC2 on digital) and SBS (Special Broadcasting Service, using multi-cultural programmes from around the world); plus three commercial networks, channels 7, 9 and Ten. And it is the commercial stations that have grown up.
Australian commercial television has never had any quality threshold to look up to, and stations' programmes, in an industry sector that is mainly self regulated, have often got into trouble with the ABA (Australian Broadcasting Authority, a sort of lighter version of the old IBA). The 70s saw many awful programmes produced with weak acting, often criticised in the UK when shown there a decade later - but bear in mind that there were similar shows in the UK with weak acting, such as Crossroads, which the IBA had also criticised.
By the mid 80s, as television was changing, the commercial networks started to make mini series for the world market such as Bangkok Hilton, with both superb casts and acting. Meanwhile Australia's Auntie', the ABC - often more English than England - offered a superb mix of quality drama such as the highly controversial ABC-made The Leaving Of Liverpool, mixed with quality UK shows. Meanwhile, ABC's flagship news and current affairs coverage resembled that of the BBC: strong on facts, whilst remaining impartial.
In the 90s, the ABC re-ran Mr Bean, Heartbeat, The Bill and Fawlty Towers, whilst producing, in the late 90s, the funny Kath and Kim. All were ratings winners for the commercial-free state-run service.
With a country populated by 20 million people, Australia commercial networks began a trend that was to follow to some extent that in the UK. The networks began Monday to Friday shows, such as Sale of the Century and Perfect Match (which LWT re-worked into Blind Date), along with The Price is Right, Wheel of Fortune, Catch Phrase etc and other shows, mainly designed for the 5.30 timeslot each day. The game shows offered high prizes in advance of the networks' flagship programme, the 6.00 O'clock News: each then followed with a current affairs programme at 6.30pm to continue the theme.
This Monday-to-Friday blocking of the same shows enabled the commercial networks to spend more money on studio sets due to the longevity of the productions and constant use, whilst rating well, delivering advertising dollars into the 6.00pm news spots. At 7.00pm the Mon-Fri shows continued with Neighbours (Channel 10) and Home and Away (Channel 7), also rating well and adding to the 40% Australian content quota required by the ABA. At 7.30 another locally-produced show - different each day across the networks and ranging from DIY shows to travel to cookery - represented the stations' lifestyle' series. The 8.30pm timeslot often featured an overseas production.
Channel 7 often broadcast shows such as Inspector Morse, Cracker, and Darling Buds of May, whilst Channel Ten called itself the Movie Network' for the 8.30pm timeslot.
Channel Nine, realising that Foxtel, the multichannel Pay-TV service, was buying up all the movies and miniseries, made a gamble for more local drama in the 8.30pm timeslot, with miniseries to replace movies that Foxtel had snapped up. Twenty years later and today, the booking of programmes and timeslots from 5.30 - 7.00 pm continues to grab the ratings, and continues to attract viewers. From 7.30pm, the local productions continue - but by 8.30pm, the Americanisation of TV has returned, with CSI, Numbers, House, Law and Order - SVU, Law and Order - Criminal Intent all chart-topping winners.
For over 20 years, the Kerry Packer-owned Channel Nine rated first, Channel Seven second, a distant third was Channel Ten, whilst the ABC rated fourth, and the multi-cultural SBS came home last. Funnily enough Channel Ten was often the most profitable station in the country, despite being the least popular of the three commercial networks, and at the turn of the century it began to capture the youth market and win audiences around the country, breaking with tradition they began the news as First at Five, an hour-long extended bulletin that enabled the network to be first on air with all the breaking stories. No current affairs followed, but Monday to Friday The Simpsons took a commanding lead with the youth of the country. Neighbours at 6.30pm, followed by Everybody Loves Raymond or Becker led the country's youth as Reality Television hit the world.
Ten capitalised on the craze. Big Brother ran for three months, six days a week. Australian Idol, using sets based on the UK and US versions, also ran for three months, three nights per week - but by using Ten's brilliant musical director, John Foreman, added a full orchestra to Australian Idol, for an added spice of variety. The first year of the show, three years ago now, made Channel Ten a hefty $20 million dollars profit. Nine has the rights to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, which utilises the same sets and format as the UK. Nine recently had its first millionaire winner in dramatic style, the presenters to these shows, polished performers, often out-classing their UK counterparts.
Australian Television was growing up, and was not afraid to show the world. Ten, once the least-watched commercial station, is now the most professional of them all, with classy productions and set designs. None of the commercial networks are seemingly worried about multichannel Pay-TV anymore, having prepared for the inevitable onslaught with new quality home-made and imported shows - something ITV could perhaps learn from.
Yes, there's still rubbish on Australian TV, but that is starting to dwindle; and yes, over the summer season the networks do go to sleep between November and February - there's only so many times you can watch movies like The Great Escape, The Sound of Music or early James Bond - but in a country famed for beaches, babes and barbies, few will watch TV during the summer, and those that do, turn to Foxtel. November to February is Pay-TV's busiest subscription time.
All the commercial stations cover major sporting events, from cricket to rugby (not bought by Pay-TV and protected by legislation for some time). This sports-mad nation always has plenty of coverage at weekends, winter or summer. Even English soccer has made it to the local stations and Foxtel.
The presentation departments of each of the commercial stations has always ensured, from the seventies on, that their logos were all eye-catching examples of world-class graphics. Back in the 1980s, when the UK was often still using pieces of card, the Australian networks were all running animated logos and jingles that made those famous ITV still frames look dull and boring.
TV presentation in Australia has always been professional, but in a country of only 20 million, about 30 times the size of the UK, spread over 4 time zones and 8 different states, territories and governments, the biggest island in the world has seen excessive advertising spoil Australian TV. The situation - in which there were up to 3 commercial breaks in a half hour, and up to six in an hour - drew a scathing attack from the ABA, as the self-regulating stations pumped out ad after ad, time and time again. Up to 10 minutes in a half hour show (that's why Neighbours and Home and Away only run 20 minutes) and up to 20 minutes in a given hour, has seen the good times roll for Australian TV - at least as far as the commercial sector is concerned.
As the stations continue to broadcast high-rating programming from around the world - and make similarly popular locally-produced fare - for Australian viewers, the future looks safe, and even secure, for Australia's commercial networks.