The Australian Media
& Communications Scene
20, 1994 06:07
9:20 Kingscliff, Australia :: 29 JUL 94
I'll start with an article from the features page of a Brisbane
daily, The Courier-Mail Thursday, July 28, 1994..
After what seems like years of debate, promises and wrangles,
Pay TV is finally coming to Brisbane. John Lehmann reports.
Imagine this: you pick up the television remote control-
whatever the hour-kick off your shoes, and dive into a sea of sports,
movies, news, cartoons and sitcoms.
This is the world of pay TV, no longer a fuzzy, far-off
plan: within four months some south-east Queenslanders will have it at
their fingertips-for $45 a month, plus an initial connection fee of between
$200 and $300.
Two pay TV operators-one headed by Australis Media and
the other by Cable Television Services (CTS)-have emerged from a series
of protracted government policy negotiations to lead the way into this
new realm of news and entertainment.
Several other groups, including the powerful Packer-Murdoch-Telecom
consortium are waiting in the wings, planning their strategies.
CTS will be the first operator to use Telecom's developing
network-a blend of optical and hybrid-fibre coaxial cable. CTS has contracted
to use 20 of the 64 channels available on the network.
About 15,000 south-east Queensland households, mainly
in Wooloongabba, New Farm, Toowong, Southport and Surfers Paradise, are
expected to have the first chance to subscribe.
Other high-density Brisbane and Gold Coast suburbs will
be next in line. Most Brisbane residents are expected to have access to
the CTS service within two years.
CTS national marketing manager Bruce Lewis says a comprehensive
advertising campaign, incorporating letter drops, shopping centre displays
and telemarketing will inform residents when they will have access to
the service and how to subscribe. "It will really be as simple as
hooking up a telephone," Lewis says.
CTS plans to launch in Brisbane in October with 10 channels
and work up to 20 within 12 months. Sydney residents will have access
It will cost between $225 and $275 to be connected to
the CTS-Telecom service, about $40 a month to subscribe to a 10-channel
package and $2 a month to rent a set-top unit (a smaller version of a
video player), needed to process the pay TV signals.
Lined up against CTS is Australis Media, A Sydney-based
company which has strong financial ties with American giant Telecommunications
Australis will start with five channels and expand rapidly
to 15, basing its initial service on a blend of microwave and satellite
technology in the hope of reaching more people more quickly than CTS.
Both groups are well aware of the advantages of being first in the marketplace.
Australis will set up a transmitter on a city high-rise,
like the MLC or Commonwealth Bank buildings to send microwave signals
within a 50km radius. Households with a "line of sight" to the
transmitter will take the signal through a television-type antenna. It
is believed subscribes will pay an up-front fee of about $300 to receive
this service, plus a monthly channel subscription of up to $50.
Australis is investing $1 billion in the project with
its colicensee American cable company Continental Century, and plans to
launch a satellite service in the last three months of the year with a
capacity to reach 5.5 million Australians.
Households which cannot receive the microwave service
because of Brisbane's hilly terrain will be offered a 65 cm. satellite
receiving dish and the necessary decoding equipment f about $300. "We'll
have 100 percent of the Greater Brisbane area covered by the first quarter
of next year," Australis new products manager Ross McCreath says.
"By the time CTS comes past people's doors with cable we'll already
have been through."
Australis also plans to negotiate to use about 15 of
Telecom's channels to eventually provide a cable service. Bruce Lewis
of CTS says microwave and satellite technology is restricted by the fact
that many planned interactive services, such as home shopping, can be
carried only by cable.
While the technology chosen to deliver pay TV will be
influential as to who knocks on most doors first, there is no doubt the
key choice factor will be content.
Both operators will devote one of the channels to the
American international news service Cable News Network (CNN) and another
to entertainment tycoon Ted Turner's TNT network which features classic
movies-mainly pre-1960's films from the MGM library [many of which Ted
has heinously colourized - pmj]. The second channel will be supplemented
with Hanna-Barbera cartoons like The Flintstones, Scoobie Doo, The Jetsons,
and Huckleberry Hound.
Another channel will feature first-release movies while
yet another movie dial may be used to screen major hits made after the
1960s. A fifth channel will be devoted to sport-a crucial component in
the pay TV battle.
Major sports and events including Test and one-day cricket,
rugby league, Australian rules, grand slam tennis tournaments like Wimbledon,
the Melbourne Cup and Formula One motor racing have been placed on a restricted
list by the Federal Government to ensure coverage remains on free-to-air
television for the next decade.
Pay TV operators plan to entice audiences from commercial
channels by showing a "fuller" coverage of such premier sports
as rugby league, Australian rules and cricket.
A sixth channel will feature a selection of predominantly
Australian, American and British sitcoms, serials and drama programmes.
Old Australian favourites such as The Paul Hogan Show, and Cop Shop might
be mixed with the likes of Hill Street Blues and Monty Python sketches.
Another channel will screen a variety of documentaries
while an eighth is likely broadcast music clips, interviews and shows.
The Australian Broadcasting Commission has been allocated
two channels-one broadcasting Australian and Asian-Pacific news and current
affairs and another concentrating on children's education and G-rated
sitcoms and dramas.
While it seems pay TV will give Australians the chance
to break out from the confines of commercial television, critics believe
viewers will be merely fed television junk.
Communication Research Institute of Australia professor
David Sless says that for most viewers pay TV will simply mean, "much
more of the same."
"We're not really going to be seeing radically
different styles of programmes . . . We'll just get a convergence toward
mediocrity," he says. "There is currently a worldwide shortage
of content because there simply aren't enough old movies, sports, events
and drama shows to fill up all of the capacity available."
Channel Nine Brisbane's chief executive Ian Muller says
he does not expect to see a substantial erosion of commercial television
audiences for at least five years.
Telecom is sinking at least $710 million into its cable
network and hopes to sign up about 20 percent of households as they a
given cable access.
But ultimately it will not be the executives television
critics who determine the success of pay TV-the real power-brokers will
be in suburbia with their hands on the remote control
Currently all television in Australia is broadcast through 5
national networks: Seven, Nine, Ten, ABC and SBS. The networks broadcast
from the major cities like Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Darwin
and Perth. Regional network affiliate stations broadcast the national
programmes to the rest of Australia with some regional substitutions.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), federally owned
and operated, operates much like Canada's CBC (except no commercials)
broadcasting a standard set of national programmes while the broadcast
centres in each state or territory augment the programme with local news
and other programmes. ABC also broadcasts radio programming.
Multiculturalism forms the basis of the federally funded SBS
mandate. Along with subtitled foreign films and documentaries it broadcasts
a mixed bag of international news and business reports (picked up from
Athens, Rome, Hong Kong, Beijing, Berlin, France and Washington via satellite-without
Seven, Nine and Ten are traditional commercial broadcast networks
like CBS, NBC and ABC in America or CTV in Canada. Regional affiliates
rebroadcast the signal with some programme modifications. Additionally,
the affiliates produce their own local news and sports programmes. However,
they do not generally create other forms of local content and do not often
purchase it either. Most content comes from the production studios of
the national network, or from foreign television/film production the bulk
of the latter originating in America or the UK.
Even when the National Australian networks produce their own
material it is often based on American television shows most notably exemplified
by the game shows The Price Is Right and Family Feud [originally, Wheel
of Fortune was included in this list-but I've been informed it originated
in Australia...pmj-11/97]. The formats and rules are similar with an Australian
flavour added. (Indeed, I can't imagine Bob Barker climbing into a bathtub
jacuzzi with the model-even if it was Dian Parkinson in the privacy of
their own love nest-as I've seen the Australian host do.)
There also exist independent networks and broadcast stations
that negotiate with Australian networks and other content producers for
broadcast rights to programmes.
Generally though Australians consider themselves fortunate to
pick up 4 or 5 stations. Kingscliffers count themselves blessed to pick
up a total of 9 broadcasts though two of them are the Queensland and New
South Wales broadcasts of ABC and another two are regional affiliates
of Nine and Ten, which are also picked up from their national broadcast
centre in Brisbane. This leaves 6 largely distinct broadcasts, the sixth
being an independent broadcaster out of the Gold Coast.
ABC provides the closest equivalent to America's Public Broadcasting
Service (PBS) with telecourses for children, adolescents and adults in
addition to news, current events some sports and various dramas and comedy
offerings. However, the vast PBS production network is unmatched in Australian
content. Additionally, the community and co-op broadcast opportunities
available through North American cable distribution simply do not exist
here in any form. In the article printed above, the conditions required
for these situations to improve are not considered. I haven't encountered
any information that brings me to believe this situation will improve.
North America contemplates the implementation of a 500 channel
universe. But it is not due to this alone that the introduction of a 20
channel cable system impresses me little. That the plans fail to include
public access channels of any kind and only expand opportunities for educational
programming by one or two channels distresses me. I find similarly unimpressive
the investment figures for improving the distribution infrastructure when
absolutely no one discusses the equally important investment required
to build a content provision industry equal to the capacity of the emerging
I don't see here in Oz the same concern for protecting cultural
industries-political, social or otherwise-that seems so much a part of
the everyday in Canadian broadcasting talk. To be sure, Australian broadcast
operates within federally defined Australian content guidelines. I see
this as short-sightedness, like that of Ireland and the UK when I was
there. I met in Dublin a staunch Irish Republican and over the course
of several hours we discussed British political and social dominance of
the Irish. He hadn't even recognized the Hollywood threat apparent to
me in the video stores that are stocked to the gills with the products
of the American cinema. While American film dominates both the theatres
and video stores in all these countries (and much of the remaining world)
Australia and Canada are both additionally guilty of allowing American
content to dominate their television sets as well.
As technology increases television channel bandwidth it becomes
increasingly tempting (and profitable) for distributors to simply distribute
available content rather than go through the expense of producing it locally.
The article above evidences this tendency all too well: most of the new
channels will feature old movies or television reruns and another channel
is to be devoted to CNN-the world according to Ted Turner. We all know
which culture has developed the most prolific English-language production
engine. Canadian English-language film and television production crews
work primarily on Hollywood projects. Ironically, Vancouver and Toronto
compete for the coveted title of "Hollywood North," a dubious
The real problem appears to be that audiences will swallow pretty
much any swill fed to it. If we fail to challenge content dependency then
we risk defacto cultural conversion. That's OK, so long as we all want
to be Americans.
18:41 Kingscliff, Australia :: 31 JUL 94
Whoops. Got political again. Sorry 'bout that. ;-)
The other thing going on the Australian communications scene
is cellular telephony. Analog is already here and digital is coming fast
as is satellite. Like Canada, Australia must deal with geographic realities:
sparsely populated wide-open spaces. Australia's east coastline houses
the majority of its populace and the various cellular networks (there
are at least three of them) concentrate on this thin strip.
A jaunt along the coast from Cairns in the north to Melbourne
in the south will bring you through zones of about 75% coverage, less
than 50% if you're using hand-held technology with its less powerful receiver/transmitter.
A turn inland and you can pretty much throw your hand unit away. And once
you get over the Great Dividing Range into the bush and Outback don't
bother with the car unit either;
Emerald and Mount Isa offer the only outback service in Queensland.
All this is likely to change in the next year when at least one
of the cellular providers will go to satellite and at that time the potential
will exist to cover 100% of the continent. Satellite units require higher
power to transmit and receive so the technology at the user end needs
some beefing up, particularly with hand-held units.
Unless you've experienced the remoteness of the Outback you can't
imagine the potential this kind of coverage promises.
- Responses Sought -