Australia :: June 1994 - March 1995

Subject: The Australian Media & Communications Scene
Date: August 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 next month.
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 Incorporated.
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 subtitles).

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 distribution network.

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 distinction.

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.

Patrick. - Responses Sought -