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The History of Australian Television

Planning for Australian television began only in the late 1940s, more than a decade after the first television services were introduced overseas. In 1954, the Federal Government announced that a Government-funded service and two commercial services would be introduced in Sydney and Melbourne in 1956. Services in other cities and regions were to be introduced in stages. This broadly followed the recommendations of a Royal Commission.

Australians took to television enthusiastically. By 1960, 70 per cent of homes in Sydney and Melbourne had a television set. As television was introduced to other capital cities in the late 1950s and to regional centres from the early 1960s, the reaction was just as enthusiastic. By the mid-1960s, television was available in most of Australia and 90 per cent of homes in established markets had a television set. Television had become the main form of entertainment and information for most Australians, supplanting radio and cinema, and challenging newspapers and magazines. It had also become a major advertising medium.

As television was making its way into smaller markets in the mid-1960s – in the form of a national (ABC) service and a single commercial station – third commercial services were licensed in most capital cities. By the time colour television was introduced in 1975, only the most remote areas remained unserved by television. Virtually every home had at least one television set. Within five years, almost 80 per cent of homes had a colour television set –the fastest adoption of colour television in the world.

There were significant changes in the structure of Australian television in the 1980s:


•    In 1980, a second Government-funded television service was introduced (the multicultural Special Broadcasting Service)

•    From 1985, ABC and commercial television services were extended to remote areas, by means of the new domestic satellite

•    In 1987, legislation paved the way for much larger ownership groups and for additional commercial services in regional markets (which had only one service).


Most commercial television stations changed hands in the late 1980s as a result of these legislative changes. Three ownership groups controlled most metropolitan stations. As small regional markets were combined into much larger “aggregated” markets to support competitive commercial services, three main regional station ownership groups also emerged.

By 1995, almost 90 per cent of homes outside the capital cities could receive three commercial services. In many regional markets considered too small or remote to be included in the new aggregated markets, second commercial services were introduced.

In metropolitan and regional markets, commercial television accounts for over 80 per cent of viewing. Although overseas – particularly American – programs remain popular, Australian viewers generally prefer locally made drama, light entertainment, news, sport and current affairs programs. Audience demand – together with mandatory quotas for local drama and some other kinds of programs – stimulated development of a program production industry that now exports television programs all over the world.

In 1995 Pay TV was introduced and is in around 25 per cent of Australian homes. Pay services make up less than 15 per cent of all television viewing.

In 1998, Federal Parliament approved legislation to permit Australian television to begin digital television services. Metropolitan commercial and national stations began digital transmission in parallel with their existing analogue services in January 2001. Regional services were required to begin digital transmission by 2004. Under this legislation, digital and analogue services will be simulcast until analogue services cease. This will not be before 2008. The Government has indicated that analogue services will not be discontinued until most viewers have digital receivers.


What Australian audiences watch
In the early years of Australian television, viewers watched American series and serials and a wide range of local live programs. At the time there was no convenient or economical way of recording local programs, or transmitting them between cities. Most were live and local, and often based on popular radio formats. Musical variety and quiz programs were very popular.

By the 1960s, the introduction of videotape and of coaxial cable links between Australian cities spurred the expansion of news and current affairs and of higher-budget entertainment programs. Televised sport also benefited from these technological advances, and the introduction of international satellite links.

The pioneer police series of the 1960s made local drama a program staple.  Program quotas helped spur the expansion of drama in the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s expensive mini-series and telemovies had become a regular feature of commercial television.

By the 1990s, commercial television supported a significant local program production industry. While American programs and movies retained strong appeal for local audiences, Australia programs accounted for most prime-time viewing. Australian drama and children’s programs were exported to scores of countries.  Australian sporting coverage set international technical and creative benchmarks. Commercial television news and current affairs programs had long since replaced newspapers as the main source of news and information for most Australians.


Television becomes the main advertising medium
Commercial television attracted advertisers from print media and radio from the start. In 1962 – when commercial services were just being introduced to regional markets – commercial television already accounted for almost 15 per cent of advertising expenditure. This rose to 24 per cent in 1965, 28 per cent in 1975, and 33 per cent in 1980. Television’s advertising share has averaged around 35 per cent of advertising revenue since then.
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