AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CONTROL BOARD
The Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) was responsible for most aspects of broadcasting regulation and planning from 1949 until 1977.
Although it was a separate corporation by law, the ABCB operated like a government department. A minister had final authority over licences and planning, and board officers saw themselves as servants of the government of the day. It was often difficult to discern which priorities came from the ABCB itself, and which from the government.
The ABCB was an offshoot of the Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG). Broadcasting grew rapidly through the 1930s and 1940s, but the PMG spared few resources for its broadcasting role, being preoccupied with building the nation’s telecommunications system. Broadcasters and the government wanted a separate body that could work on tasks such as the station planning backlog. The ABCB was created under the Australian Broadcasting Act 1948, staffed by officers transferred from the Wireless Branch of the PMG. They were led by L.B. Fanning, who was founding chairman of the board. Both the ABCB and the Wireless Branch were located in Melbourne.
Broadcasting companies had long advocated a separate organisation to act as a neutral ‘traffic cop’ for the airwaves. They had been calling for ‘security of investment’ following an attempt by the conservative Lyons government in 1935 to limit the number of commercial radio stations that could be owned by a single group. Their other goals were higher transmitter power to boost audiences and a reduction in political control of broadcasting. The ABCB delivered most of these goals in its first 20 years. However, there was no reduction in political control by successive ministers.
The primary role of the ABCB was planning and technical management for broadcasting. However, the 1948 Act gave it extensive powers over programs. The board could, for example, control advertising, prevent stations from broadcasting similar programs at the same time, require equitable opportunities for political broadcasts and censor any program. In practice, the ABCB had a consistent but unwritten policy to avoid compulsion. When dissatisfied with program performance, it almost never went beyond privately counselling stations to do better.
Timidity was encouraged by a setback in the first year. Following a specific duty in its Act, the board published a scheme to allocate time for political broadcasts in the 1949 federal election campaign. The scheme was castigated by commercial stations and the major parties. Objections included the possibility that minority parties—including communists—could receive free airtime. The ABCB withdrew its scheme and announced that it was vacating the field.
From 1949 to 1956, the ABCB was responsible for the ABC as well as commercial stations. It could have dictated ABC program policy, and even censored specific programs. In practice, however, it did not go beyond discussing ABC program policy and listener complaints on occasions. The ABC was less fortunate on planning issues. For example, the board was deaf to all requests for frequency enhancements to allow two nationwide ABC radio networks. This was in line with the Menzies Coalition government’s strong preference for commercial stations.
The start of television in 1956 brought new roles and recognition to the ABCB. The board chairman from 1952 to 1966, R.G. Osborne, was a member of the 1953–54 Royal Commission on Television. Board officers provided most of the support for the commission’s hearings and report. They were involved in drafting the Broadcasting and Television Act 1956, which set the framework for both radio and television through the next 20 years.
The Royal Commission report was optimistic about the cultural role of television, and even about new methods of regulation. It saw the granting and renewal of licences as the ultimate safeguard in areas ranging from the monopolisation of stations to children’s programs. New television Program Standards were to be the main reference point for what was expected of stations. Following the ABCB’s unwritten policy, the new television standards spoke about what stations should do, and generally avoided specific obligations. The commission recommended that most of the minister’s powers to give directions to the board should be removed, but no change was made.
The ABCB held public inquiries into the granting of television licences before making recommendations to the minister. The early applications were replete with proposals to enrich local culture—for example, to establish bands and orchestras, to provide special programs for children and to produce a variety of local programs. There was much argument in later years about whether the applicants should be held to account for the many proposals that did not materialise.
In 1958, the ABCB suffered a public rebuff, involving the first television licences for Brisbane and Adelaide. After public inquiries, it recommended that the original applications should be rejected because they were dominated by the Sydney and Melbourne media proprietors and said new applications should be called to allow independent, locally owned stations. The minister ignored the recommendation and granted the licences, thus confirming the structure of television into the next century.
Despite occasional rebuffs, these early years of television could be described as the golden years of the ABCB. It had a valued planning and technical role: to introduce television across the nation. There were good relations with government politicians and with radio and television stations. There was little scrutiny of its work—and little prospect of that occurring, because the ABCB published little, and closely guarded its information.
Compared with other countries, the radio and television plans of the ABCB featured a small number of stations with strong signals reaching large areas. This has often been criticised as anti-competitive and conservative. The ABCB maintained that Australia’s unique spread of population and terrain were unsuitable for the approach taken elsewhere. Even if the board had wanted a pro-competitive approach, it is unlikely that the Menzies government would have allowed it.
The first serious scrutiny of the ABCB came in 1963, when a Senate committee led by Liberal Senator Victor Vincent investigated the lack of Australian programs on television. The Vincent Report condemned the board for improper neglect of its powers and duties, and reliance on ‘sweet reasonableness’ without even threatening action against errant stations. Although ignored by the government in 1963, the report had a long-term influence.
The Vincent Report proposal for more board members with broadcasting experience was adopted, starting with the new chairman, Myles Wright, in 1966. A former manager of 3AW Melbourne, he remained until the ABCB was replaced in 1977. He had to manage a decade in which the culture of the board was under increasing challenge by advocates of greater competition, freedom of information, Australian content, children’s television and a host of other program and licensing issues.
During Wright’s tenure, several new commercial radio licences were granted after ABCB inquiries. The board also responded more to viewer and listener complaints, and was much more publicly active through advisory committees, public information and research. On a few occasions, it using long-dormant powers against offensive material on television. In the most widely publicised case, in 1975 it required that appearances by Graham Kennedy should be pre-recorded to prevent repetition of his gag featuring a ‘crow call’. Other television personalities appeared to revel in being pursued by the board, and ridiculing its efforts.
From 1949, the ABCB was the only source of information about most broadcasting issues. This changed in the 1970s, when many new sources appeared. In 1971, a Senate Standing Committee chaired by Senator James McClelland started hearings into all aspects of broadcasting. The submissions and hearings were a major information source, and a printing press for advocates of change. One of its reports led eventually to the ABCB planning for FM radio to be overturned in 1974.
In 1972, the new Labor government established the federal Department of the Media. For the first time since 1949, the executive government was not dependent on the ABCB for advice. However, there was little change to the board or its Act—partly because the government did not have a majority in the Senate. The government did circumvent the ABCB by granting a variety of non-commercial licences—mostly for community broadcasting—as ‘experimental licences’ under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1905.
The Fraser Coalition government made big changes in 1976. It abolished the ABCB, and gave some of its functions to the radically different Australian Broadcasting Tribunal.
REFs: M. Armstrong, ‘The Broadcasting and Television Act, 1948–1976: A Case Study of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board’, in R. Tomasic (ed.), Legislation and Society in Australia (1980); B. Cole, ‘The Australian Broadcasting Control Board and the Regulation of Australian Commercial Radio since 1948’ (PhD thesis, 1948).