Australian broadcasters have been running programs with a competitive element—from talent, quiz and game shows to reality television programs—for more than a century. There is also a long history of media outlets conducting competitions or contests to boost their profiles and engage with, and reward, their audiences.
Several competitions have had a cultural dimension and, indeed, a real cultural impact. The Bulletin’s first novel competition (in 1928) brought to light Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw’s A House is Built and Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo as equal winners. In 1933, as broadcasting hours and thus the demand for content increased, two commercial radio stations—2UE Sydney and 4BH Brisbane—conducted drama competitions in an effort to uncover play scripts. In 1941, the Australian Women’s Weekly, facing a shortage of fiction due to wartime import restrictions, conducted a £2000 fiction competition.
In 1945, the Lux Radio Theatre and the rival Authors’ Playhouse (backed by 2UE) conducted play competitions. These were followed by the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph competing to offer the most generous literary prizes. The 1946 Daily Telegraph novel competition, which Florence James and Dymphna Cusack’s Come in Spinner should have won, became a protracted controversy. From the same company, the Women’s Weekly staged an annual portraiture competition (1955–58), with the cash prizes worth more than the Archibald Prize; winners included Judy Cassab and William Dobell. Since 1979, the Australian has been co-sponsoring the Vogel Literary Award for unpublished manuscripts by writers under the age of 35. On SBS Television’s Race Around the World (1997–98), competitors were chosen from video auditions and undertook a brief course in documentary filmmaking; the experience established John Safran’s career as a documentary maker, comedian and radio presenter. Competitions were not just the preserve of major metropolitan media outlets; in the 1960s, 6VA ran an annual art competition for artists living within 100 miles of Albany.
R.C. Packer at the Sydney Daily Guardian inaugurated the popular Miss Australia contest in 1926. In mid-1933, the fledgling Women’s Weekly and Hollywood’s Paramount Studios staged a film and beauty competition to find ‘the most perfect young man and woman in Australia’. Magazines like the Women’s Weekly played a crucial role in promoting the studios and keeping movie stars as studio ‘products’ prominent in the everyday lives of fans. The magazine also benefited by aligning itself with ‘modernity’, helping it break the mould of traditional women’s magazines.
That quintessentially modern medium, radio, found ingenious ways to excite listeners. In 1933, the Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG) joined with the Commonwealth Broadcasting Network to reward the person who took out Australia’s 500,000th listener’s licence. The winner of £75, possibly to the network’s disappointment, was an elderly woman who posed for photographs in a dowdy hat. Radio magazines such as Wireless Weekly conducted their own competitions to reward readers.
Just like the Daily Telegraph, radio stations discovered that competitions could have unexpected consequences; a jumbled words competition at 5KA Adelaide was partly responsible for the Jehovah’s Witnesses station being closed down as ‘an essential measure of National Security’ in 1941.
That year, the Women’s Weekly managed to combine self-promotion with aiding the war effort. Gretel Packer coordinated a lottery that raised £50,000 for the Red Cross; the winner of the specially designed ‘Dream Home’, valued at £5000, was again, alas, an elderly widow, not a young homemaker. After the war, in 1950, 2UE conducted a bold quest to find the typical ‘Mr and Mrs Australia’—who would then be sent on a tour of England.
In 1958, with radio feeling pressure from the glamorous new medium of television, the Federation of Radio Broadcasters (now Commercial Radio Australia) sponsored Radio Week. At the centrepiece was a competition, ‘What Radio Means to Me’, with the winner awarded a car and a trip to Britain.
By the 1970s radio and television jackpots had increased. Melbourne radio stations were reported to constitute Australia’s most competitive radio market due to the industry’s predilection for giving away money, calculated at $150,000 in cash and prizes in 1973.
In 1978, Sydney’s 2SM ran a promotion telling listeners it was going to take a jumbo under the Harbour Bridge. Expecting to see a giant plane perform aerobatics, thousands turned out to watch, and still applauded as an elephant was floated on a barge under the bridge. ‘I don’t think giving away $100 an hour on the telephone is valid any more’, remarked the station manger, Ian Grace.
But still the competitions came, with both large and small prizes, on radio (often talkback radio) and to some extent television. Broadcasting executives seemed convinced that audiences enjoyed hearing or seeing people win money. Newspapers ran competitions which involved readers cutting out coupons (and therefore buying the paper) to redeem prizes. In 1989, the Canberra Times joined with Capital Television (CTC10) to run a competition rewarding winners with colour televisions.
Sometimes prizes weren’t necessary. In 1987, TV Week and Network Ten’s Neighbours ran a ‘Living Together Promotion’, canvassing readers’ views on whether popular teen characters Scott and Charlene should live together. During its long life, the ‘Red Faces’ segment on Hey Hey It’s Saturday (Nine, 1971–99) provided fun and foolery rather than money. Roy and HG’s The Cream (Seven, 2003) ran a video competition for the best Australian Haka. Two years earlier, the comedy duo had sent up both television competitions and quiz shows with the short-lived Win Roy and HG’s Money (Seven).
By the early 1990s, radio promotions were going off the boil. A 1991 survey by Quadrant Radio Strategies found that 89 per cent of respondents would not change to a different station in response to a competition; older listeners actually turned off the radio when the competition was announced. It also found that young people generally wanted cash, while older people wanted travel. At Nine, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush proved hugely expensive and lasted only one season (1995), with each member of the audience obliged to bring to the studio their passport and a packed suitcase.
Early in the 21st century, commercial radio unleashed edgier stunts. In Sydney in 2003, 2MMM hosted a promotion in which a private investigator kept a listener under surveillance for a week, and the controversial Kyle and Jackie O on 2Day-FM asked listeners to record themselves peeing into a plastic bucket. A few years later, someone from the marketing department at the same station proposed that a celebrity, such as the singer Guy Sebastian, donate his sperm for the winner to impregnate herself. The competition did not eventuate.
By 2014 a reality television website was promoting 22 audition competitions of a kind similar to the Women’s Weekly and Paramount competition 80 years earlier. There is a dedicated Australian website, TV Competitions—Win Free Stuff. Most media competitions now involve social media which optimises the potential for related advertising and targeted promotions.
REF: SMH, 24 May 1982.
BRIDGET GRIFFEN-FOLEY and CHRIS LAWE DAVIES