AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION
The ABC began radio (wireless) broadcasting via Postmaster-General’s (PMG) Department transmitters at 8 p.m. EST on 1 July 1932. Announcer Conrad Charlton intoned in a refined English Australian accent: ‘This is the Australian Broadcasting Commission.’ The signal generated reached as far away as Perth and Rockhampton. Australia’s population at the time was 6.5 million with an estimated 6 per cent able to receive the ABC’s broadcasts.
The ABC was created by the Commonwealth parliament through the Australian Broadcasting Commission Act 1932. The commission took control of the assets of the Australian Broadcasting Company, a collection of former private radio licences acquired for the purpose. Coalition Prime Minister Joseph Lyons had been prevailed upon by radio manufacturers and retailers, along with other influential figures—including (Sir) Robert Menzies (then a Victorian MP and barrister)—not to abandon the recently defeated Scullin Labor government’s draft broadcasting Bill.
Like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the ABC was banned from advertising to defray its operating costs; although there was no objection to paid sponsorship of programs, political pressure exerted by private radio licensees meant it did not eventuate. Instead (again, as with the BBC), the ABC was funded through a substantial proportion of an annual licence fee collected from the owners of radio receivers, with fines imposed on those caught without one. This funding mechanism prevailed until 1948, when the Chifley Labor government determined that the broadcaster would be funded from annual federal Budget appropriations.
Unlike the BBC, established by a Royal Charter, the ABC’s role and functions were prescribed by Act of parliament. Yet the ABC was not ‘independent’ of government. From the outset, the PMG had the power to compel or forbid the broadcasting of any matter—a power used from time to time, although ABC management often excluded material or programs considered likely to provoke ministerial intervention.
The ‘independence’ of the public broadcaster from the government of the day has been in contention from the very beginning. But the debate about its independence was just as important to its governance arrangements as the ABC’s role in Australia. The BBC’s founding director-general, Sir John (later Lord) Reith, famously clashed with the UK government over editorial independence and the term ‘Reithian’ denotes equal consideration to all viewpoints, probity, universality and a commitment to public service. This can be distinguished from the free-market approach to broadcasting, where programming aims to attract the largest audiences or amount of advertising revenue, regardless of artistic merit, impartiality, educative or entertainment values. In Australia, the ABC’s struggle for independence often embroiled the governing body and management in disputes with both government and staff.
In 1946, against the wishes of then general manager (Sir) Charles Moses but at the insistence of news editor Frank Dixon, the ABC was allowed to establish its own independent news service. Previously the ABC had broadcast (at program times agreed to by newspaper proprietors) domestic and international news taken from the papers. From 1946, the ABC became a major influence and leader in Australian news journalism, and eventually current affairs on television (Four Corners, This Day Tonight, 7.30, Lateline, Foreign Correspondent) and radio (with daily programs AM and PM).
The PMG’s power to direct ABC broadcasts was constrained by 1946 when the commission was allowed discretion over political and controversial material. This prevailed until the ABC Act was fundamentally changed in 1983 to establish the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The ABC’s board, appointed by government, and the board-appointed senior management remained highly sensitive to political controversy, leading to staff use of the term ‘the pre-emptive buckle’ to describe management interventions in some programs. While still dependent on Budget appropriations for its funding, the new corporation finally had its own borrowing capacity for its capital works and the power to form its own subsidiary companies, symphony orchestras and bands. Significantly, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 established the ABC’s statutory independence. The Act maintained the prohibition on advertising on domestic services (section 31) but exempted its international radio and television channels. The Act also defined the functions of the ABC under the title ‘Charter of the Corporation’: to provide ‘innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard’, including programs that contribute to a ‘sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community’.
The ABC narrative is primarily about its own creative exploitation of mass communication technology in the 20th and 21st centuries. It developed its AM radio stations in capital cities and major centres alongside a profitable commercial radio sector through Radio One for more populist fare and Radio Two (renamed Radio National in 1985) for highbrow specialist genres. Proceedings of federal parliament were broadcast on radio from 1946 and on television from 1990. The industry moved to higher quality FM stations in earnest from 1975, with the ABC establishing classical and youth (rock) music FM stations.
Prime Minister Robert Menzies officially inaugurated ABC Television in Sydney on 5 November 1956. Programs were to be broadcast in monochrome (black and white) from television transmission towers in the capital cities. As with radio, all television transmissions were provided by the Department of Communications with the ABC’s transmission costs covered in the Budget appropriation, even after the transmission system was leased to private sector investors in 1998. Colour television came in 1975 with rapid consumer uptake in almost all Australian households.
The ‘digital revolution’ was the next technological challenge, with free-to-air multi-channelling via the frequency precision in digital transmission from 2001 and digital radio from 2009. The ABC’s old analogue station, Channel 2 (renamed ABC1), was joined by multi-channels ABC2 (time-shifted repeat programs), ABC3 (a children’s channel) and ABC News 24 (continuous news) in 2010.
With the internet in 1973 and the World Wide Web came a new form of mass and, most significantly, interactive communication through the limitless capacity of ‘cyberspace’. Broadcasting was morphing into cybercasting. The ABC began its online services in 1995 and its broadband portal in 2001. Live video and audio streaming of its radio and television output followed, and an active innovation department developed content for mobiles and smartphones, and ABC iView for playing programs at the viewer’s convenience. The rapid Australian consumer uptake of smartphones and tablet devices brought another high audience-penetrating content platform, with the ABC capable of delivering audio and video on such devices.
The ABC’s creative contribution, within the constraints of its legislated role and functions, has helped to embed the broadcaster in the nation’s affections. From the memorable radio days of ‘synthetic’ Test cricket broadcasts in the 1930s, to often contentious news commentary, to engrossing radio serials, to great orchestral performances, the ABC’s distinctive content has complemented the efforts of the Australian commercial sector.
In positioning itself as a key contributor to sectoral diversity, the ABC’s non-commercial character in radio and television has helped to establish it as a trusted national institution—particularly at times of natural disasters.
In 1965, ABC graphic designer Bill Kennard submitted a design for a logo to be used as station identification for television. Taken from a cathode ray oscilloscope, the waveform Lissajous curve image has become one of the most recognisable logos in Australia.
On radio, The Country Hour (1945– ) engaged rural listeners, The Argonauts (1941–69) captivated youngsters and Blue Hills (1949–76) by Gwen Meredith deferred nostalgically to traditional notions of Australian character. The ABC was not a secular broadcaster, finishing nightly transmissions on radio and television with an Epilogue (renamed Evening Meditation in 1947) and broadcasting Sunday services from Christian churches for many decades. The long-running Notes on the News, The Village Glee Club (1942–71), Relax with Me (1964–72, formerly on commercial radio), Singers of Renown (1966–2008), All Ways on Sunday/ Australia All Over (1969– ), The Science Report (1975– ), Ockham’s Razor (1984– ), The Health Report (1985– ), The Search for Meaning (1987–94), Late Night Live (1991– ) and Life Matters (1992– ) were radio milestones. Sport— particularly cricket—was the ABC’s defining service from the start, until the commercialisation of sport from the late 1970s left the ABC on the margins—although still a player through coverage of minority and women’s sport, and Test cricket.
On television, content creation was expen- sive and categorised into ‘genres’—children’s, documentary, drama, news and current affairs, and comedy. In drama, ABC Television started with live broadcasts using sets constructed at its Gore Hill (Sydney) studios to evolve into award-winning series: Bellbird (1967–77), Seven Little Australians (1973), Certain Women (1973–76), Rush (1974–76), Power Without Glory (1976), Scales of Justice (1983), Palace of Dreams (1985), GP (1989–96), Brides of Christ (1991), The Leaving of Liverpool (1992), Blue Murder (1995), Sea Change (1998–2000), Grass Roots (2000–03), Changi (2001), Bed of Roses (2008–11), The Slap (2011) and Redfern Now (2012–13).
In comedy, it screened Aunty Jack (1972–73), The Norman Gunston Show (1975–76), The Gillies Report (1984–85), Mother and Son (1984–94), Frontline (1994–97), The Games (1998, 2000), The Chaser (1999– ), Kath and Kim (2002–04) and Chris Lilley’s We Can Be Heroes (2005), Summer Heights High (2007), Angry Boys (2011) and J’Amie: Private School Girl (2013), among many others.
For children, there were shows like Mr Squiggle (1959–99), Play School (1966– ), Adventure Island (1967–72) and Bananas in Pyjamas (1992– ). In music, Six O’Clock Rock (1959–62), GTK (1969–74), Countdown (1974–87) and Rage (1987– ) appealed to a younger audience.
In natural history, the ABC was responsible for In the Wild with Harry Butler (1976–81) and Wolves of the Sea (1993). In science, Why is It So? (1963–86), Quantum (1985–2001) and Catalyst (2001– ) became iconic programs.
Studio-based entertainment included The Money or the Gun (1989–90),The Big Gig (1989–92), Roy and HG’s Club Buggery (1996–97) and Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope (2003–08). And in documentary and public and current affairs, programs such as Four Corners (1961– ), This Day Tonight (1967–78), A Big Country (1968–92), Chequerboard (1969–75), Behind the News (1969–2003), Monday Conference (1971–78), The Investigators (1985–95), The 7.30 Report (now 7.30, 1986– ), Media Watch (1989– ), Lateline (1990– ), Foreign Correspondent (1992– ), Australian Story (1996– ) and Q&A (2008– ) revealed the national broadcaster at its best.
The ABC has been an international broadcaster since 1950. From wartime government control of international radio broadcasting, it developed the short-wave radio service Radio Australia (RA), funded by the Department of External Affairs. Twenty-five years of dispute between the ABC and its international paymaster over editorial control followed. Editorial independence was effectively established from 1975. Through transmitters in Shepparton (Victoria), Carnarvon (Western Australia), Cox (Northern Territory) and Brandon (Queensland), RA grew an audience of an estimated 50 million through Asia and the Pacific, broadcasting in nine languages.
Carnarvon was closed in 1996 and its subsidy transferred to a new satellite television service (Australian Television International), which had been established in 1993 through federal start-up funds but with a commercial business plan to develop revenues through sponsorship. ATVI carried a half-hour nightly news bulletin produced from Darwin and general and sports programming. The service faltered through inadequate operating funds and was sold to the Seven Network in 1997. From 1996, the then federal government cut RA’s budget in half and sold the Cox transmitter to a Christian broadcaster, leaving the ABC to reconstruct its short-wave radio service through rebroadcast arrangements with domestic broadcasters in the region. By 1998, 76 local radio stations in 20 countries in the Asia-Pacific region took RA programs in various languages.
Australia’s satellite television broadcasting returned to the ABC in 2001, through a tender process for a five-year contract with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The new service was called ABC Asia Pacific, with an evolving footprint rising from 14 countries and progressively adding Japan, Solomon Islands, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and French Polynesia. The DFAT tender was reopened in 2005. The contract again went to the ABC, but only after a dispute in which the ABC threatened not to bid until the department withdrew a clause giving it the power to remove any program considered not to be in the national interest. In 2006, the service was renamed the Australia Network. When the contract was again opened to tender in 2011, the ABC faced a competitive bid from Sky News Australia but the assessment of the bids was abandoned when the Rudd Labor government claimed leaks had compromised the process. Competitive tendering for the service was abandoned when the federal Cabinet decided to make the Australia Network a permanent feature of the ABC’s role and functions. The ABC’s Australia Network contract was terminated by the new Abbott Coalition government in May 2014, leaving the ABC to pursue international broadcasting through its own now limited resources.
By far the greatest contribution of the ABC to the cultural life of Australia has been its involvement in the development and promotion of concert music through the nation’s symphony orchestras. From 1932–35, the ABC annually broadcast tens of thousands of hours of live musical performances, and until the 1980s, all or part of every ABC concert was broadcast—usually live. With general manager Charles Moses, musical adviser Professor Bernard Heinze and federal controller of music William G. James directing the development of an ambitious ABC musical culture, permanent studio orchestras, dance bands and wireless choruses were established in all capital cities, and the ABC attracted many of the world’s greatest musicians.
During World War II, the various ABC ensembles played a major role in maintaining morale, entertaining and educating the troops. After the war, an innovative partnership between the ABC and state and local governments resulted in full-sized permanent ABC symphony orchestras being established in all six state capitals. Over the next half-century, they would define the direction of Australian classical music. From 1947 to 1956, Eugene Goossens not only led the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to extraordinary international standards, but set the benchmark which all the ABC orchestras sought to match.
Regional touring had always been part of Moses, Heinze and James’ musical vision for the ABC, and the orchestras performed subscription seasons and hundreds of individual regional concerts annually from the late 1940s through to the 1980s. Concerts for schoolchildren were always a vital part of each regional visit. From the 1990s, the orchestras began to be corporatised under new local managements, but orchestral recordings are still released regularly on the ABC Music labels.
Two people are pivotal to the ABC’s governance and management: the chairman and the chief executive. Executive Council (the Governor-General advised by federal Cabinet) appoints the ABC chairman. The chairman and the ABC board appoint the chief executive. In 80 years of the ABC’s existence, attention has focused on the perceived leadership strengths and or weaknesses of these individuals. Chairmen have been (Sir) Charles Lloyd Jones (1932–34), William Cleary (1934–45), Sir Richard Boyer (1945–61), Dr James Darling (1961–67), Sir Robert Madgwick (1967–73), Professor Richard Downing (1973–75), Dr Earle Hackett (1975–76), Sir Henry Bland (1976), John Norgard (1977–81), Dame Leonie Kramer (1982–83), Kenneth B. Myer (1983–86), David Hill (1986–87), Robert Somervaille (1987–91), Professor Mark Armstrong (1991–96), Donald McDonald (1996–2006), Maurice Newman (2007–12) and James Spigelman (2012– ).
Chief executives (called general manager from 1932 to 1983 and managing directors on statutory five-year contracts from 1983) have been Harold Williams (1932–33), Walter Conder (1933–35), Sir Charles Moses (1935–65), Sir Talbot Duckmanton (1965–82), Keith Jennings (1982–83), Geoffrey Whitehead (1984–86), David Hill (1986–94), Brian Johns (1995–2000), Jonathan Shier (2000–01), Russell Balding (2001–06) and Mark Scott (2006– ).
The longevity in management of Moses and Duckmanton (in total, 47 years) was attributed to their leadership, authority and consequent political survival skills. Both were broadcasters in their early careers. With corporatisation from 1983 came greater concern about politicisation, both from the former political connections of some of the appointed chief executives and some contentious board appointments by governments of both persuasions. In June 2012, an amendment to the ABC Act prescribing board appointments only after a short-listing merit selection process was carried. The amendment also reinstated the staff-elected director position provided in the ABC Act from 1983 to 2006.
‘Aunty’s Nieces and Nephews’ was established in 1976 by a group of concerned Melbourne citizens in response to threats to the ABC’s budget. It later changed its name to ‘Friends of the ABC’.
The ABC’s governance and management objective has been to strive to maintain good relations with the federal minister responsible for the ABC Act, particularly through the triennial funding negotiations since 1983. The biggest recurrent cost is payroll, taking about 70 per cent of the annual parliamentary appropriation. The appropriation peaked at $434 million in 1985–86, rising to $500.5 million in 1997–98 and $800 million by 2011–12. Following the establishment of the first ABC Shop (in Sydney in 1981), in 1985 the ABC was allowed to establish its own subsidiary trading companies, including ABC Books, which in 2009 became a division of HarperCollins.
The ABC’s staffing rose to a peak of more than 7000 in 1985 and fell through various budget-driven restructures to a low of 4200 by 1999, rising through more recent budget enhancement to 4600 by 2010–11. Around half the staff work in Sydney leading to persistent complaints about the institution’s ‘Sydney centrism’.
The ABC structures its services to provide branded ‘bridges’ to audiences: Radio National, Classic FM, NewsRadio, Local Radio, Digital Radio, Triple J, ABC Online, ABC Open, ABC iView, ABC 1, ABC 2, News 24, ABC 3, Radio Australia, the Australia Network and ABC Shops. On radio, ‘market’ penetration through all outlets was reported to be 23.6 per cent by 2010. On television, the ABC’s five-city metropolitan prime-time (6 p.m. to midnight) share of audience was reported at 16.5 per cent, with 17.7 per cent in regional markets. ABC Online had a monthly reach of 3.5 million internet users with 56.5 million podcasts (audio) and 15 million vodcasts (video). Australia Network re- ported an estimated audience of 31 million ‘can see’ homes in 45 countries. ABC Commercial reported a net profit of $7.9 million.
The future strategic role of the ABC in Australia’s media is being redefined in the years following the federal government’s 2011–12 Convergence Review and the reductions in the ABC’s appropriation announced in the May 2014 Budget. A reshaping of the ABC into a digital service content provider to exploit mass audience movement to smart phones and tablets, known broadly as the digital revolution which merges text, audio and video content, is now underway. With optic fibre through a National Broadband Network, audiences will be able to watch, listen and engage with content from any global source with almost limitless capacity. Two issues confront the ABC: its role in sustaining a sense of national identity and the adequacy of operational base funding with which to do, to a high standard, all the tasks a multi-platform strategy would require of it.
REFs: M. Buzzacott, The Rite of Spring (2007); K.S. Inglis, This is The ABC 1932–1983 (1983) and Whose ABC? (2006); http://www.abc.net.au/corp/history/ 75years/timeline.