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Chapter Five

Content Regulation and Cultural Policy: The

ABT’s Australian Content Inquiry 1983-1989

Background to the ABT Australian Content Inquiry

The idea that Australian broadcast media should contain Australian content has

existed for as long as the media themselves. As communications technologies

with considerable public reach and cultural significance, it has been a widely held

view that Australian broadcast media - and Australian television in particular -

should utilise local creative talent, be under predominantly Australian ownership

and control, and contribute to the development of national culture. In the case of

commercial broadcasters, this has required the regulatory intervention of

government to secure these goals, as part of the public trust obligations involved

in granting private institutions the right to the means of public communication.

Australian content regulations have been the responsibility of the Australian

Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) (1948-1976), the Australian Broadcasting

Tribunal (ABT) (1977-1992), and the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA)

from 1993. The Australian content requirements have involved a mix of overall

levels of Australian content (also known as transmission quotas) and requirements

for the broadcast of particular program types, most notably drama and children’s

programs. There have also been particular requirements of Australian content in

the evening ‘prime time’ schedule, on the basis that this is the period with the

largest audience, and thus when locally produced material may have the widest

cultural impact.

In contrast to the weak commitments to political citizenship in Australian

broadcasting policy, indicated by the patchy history of commitments to public

participation in broadcast media policy formation, the commitment to national

citizenship found in the Australian content regulations for commercial television

has been relatively consistent, although the levels, forms and objectives of

regulation have varied over time. The goal of promoting Australian content has

been enshrined in the conditions of operation of both the national broadcasting

service (ABC) and the commercial broadcasters from their inception. The

Broadcasting Act 1942 enshrined Australian content provision as a condition of

holding a broadcasting licence, for commercial as well as public service

broadcasters, in Section 114 (1) of the Act:

The [Australian Broadcasting] Corporation and licensees shall, as far as

possible, use the services of Australians in the production and presentation

of radio and television programs.


The Broadcasting Services Act 1992 states in the Objects of the Act the necessity

of ‘facilitating the development of a broadcasting industry in Australia’ (s. 3 (b)),

ensuring ‘that Australians have effective control of the more influential

broadcasting services’ (s. 3 (d)) and promoting ‘the role of broadcasting services

in developing and reflecting a sense of Australian identity, character and cultural

diversity’ (s. 3 (e)).

The argument that quota-setting by regulatory bodies was a necessary

condition for achieving appropriate levels of Australian content on commercial

television had been a long-standing one. The basic arguments have had majority

support among industry participants since the decision in 1960 to set a 40 per cent

Australian content quota (increased to 45 per cent in 1962 and 50 per cent in

1965). Groups representing the audiovisual production industry had argued, since

the 1963 Vincent Report, that local content requirements placed upon commercial

broadcasters were inadequate in light of both the profitability of the commercial

broadcasters and the cultural dimensions of the medium. The ABT’s Self-

Regulation for Broadcasters inquiry in 1977 argued that ‘a distinctively

Australian look for television’ was a desirable ideal, but Tribunal members

disagreed on the appropriateness of Australian content quotas as a means of

achieving this goal (ABT 1977: 29). Even the commercial broadcasters

themselves, while rhetorically opposed to quotas per se, have accepted their

existence as a performance condition, with the important proviso that restrictions


on the entry of new competitors are recognised as a quid pro quo for meeting such

‘pro-social’ content regulations.

The politics of local content regulation, and media content regulation

generally, are different to those surrounding other areas of media policy such as

media ownership, for two important reasons. First, the ceding of responsibility for

policy development, as well as regulatory oversight, from the government of the

day to the regulatory agency is indicative of the lack of an investment by

government in the outcomes of such processes. There has been considerable

political bipartisanship on the issue of local content regulations, which has also

created the potential for considerable flexibility and autonomy in the policy

process on the part of the responsible regulatory agency. Such autonomy on the

part of regulatory agencies can be contrasted with the approach taken by

governments from both major political parties to media ownership issues. Media

ownership laws in Australia have been characterised by what Anna Yeatman has

termed executive models of policy, where the scope for policy activism outside of

government, narrowly conceived as the Minister and their Department, is

minimised. By contrast, laws governing media content have, since the early

1970s, been more open to what Yeatman describes as a policy process, where

‘policy is conceived as a complex, multi-layered process involving a whole host

of different actors [and] policy activism of various kinds is invoked into being’

(Yeatman 1998: 17). Such bureaucratic autonomy arises at a cost, however, since

policies concerned with infrastructure, ownership, service provision and market


development have been privileged as the primary concerns of Australian

communications policy, while policies relating to content, users, diversity, quality

and access have been treated as ‘second-order’ policy problems (Spurgeon 1997).

The other significant element with regard to media content regulations in

Australia is that they have been developed in the context of the social contract in

broadcasting. The social contract has been defined as a policy settlement where

high profits for commercial broadcasters arising from oligopolistic market

structures are seen as providing a surplus able to be ‘traded off’ for pro-social

content regulations in areas such as Australian content and children’s

programming. Such a policy trade off occurs in a context where the ‘public trust’

obligations of commercial broadcasters legitimate citizen involvement in

broadcast policy-making, as mediated through regulatory agencies and relevant

interest groups. As a result, the coalition of interests supporting Australian content

regulations is typically a broad one, involving an alliance between the production

industry, public interest and advocacy groups and, in most instances, the

regulatory agency itself.

Arguments for Australian content regulations are characteristically framed

around a metanarrative of cultural nationalism, whereby Australia realises itself as

a culture through the development of local drama and other forms of television

content, and the growing self-awareness and self-recognition of the Australian

national community that results from exposure to national cultural forms. In 1968,

Mungo MacCallum argued that ‘drama … reflects us to ourselves, helps us to

know ourselves, and passes on the information to the rest of the world. A

community without drama is undeveloped’ (MacCallum 1968: 67). Similarly, in

the late 1980s, Gil Appleton would argue that that ‘the shock of self-recognition

... had been the key to the success of Australian programs’ (Appleton 1988: 203).

While the development of a local audiovisual production industry is clearly a

significant outcome of such regulations, this is generally downplayed in contrast

to the cultural dimension. Moreover, in spite of their characteristically ‘principled’

opposition to program quotas on the basis of their adverse effects on public

choice, requirements such as the Australian content quota have their uses for the

commercial broadcasters, as they can be presented as a potential casualty of any

moves to increase the amount of competition in the broadcasting industry through

permitting new entrants or the development of new services.

Arguments for Australian Content Regulations for Commercial

Television Broadcasters

Five sets of arguments have been put forward in favour of Australian content

regulations for Australian commercial television broadcasters. First, there is the

argument for such regulations on the basis of the large cost differential between

producing local programs and importing programs from overseas. It has been

estimated that the average cost of imported programs is in the range of 10-30 per

cent of the cost of the equivalent locally produced material (BTCE 1991: 124-

126), and that, in the absence of regulation to guarantee minimum levels of local

production, profit-maximising commercial television stations will primarily

purchase and screen imported material. There is the additional but related concern

that the world market for television products provides unfair benefits to television

program producers from the United States, who can export programs at low

marginal costs (close to marginal cost of reproduction), due to the size of their

domestic market, dominance of international distribution, and the fact that

successful product realises its costs in the North American television market prior

to its export (Hoskins and Mirus 1988; Collins 1990a; O’Regan 1992).

Second, there are arguments for local content regulations in order to

promote the development of a local audiovisual production industry able to

provide regular employment for Australian creative personnel in both on- and off-

screen roles. It had become apparent by the early 1960s that employment

regulations for the use of Australians would only be implemented if local

production took place across a range of sectors. For such local film and television

production to occur, however, there needed to be trained local personnel, in order

to develop the linkages between the television industry and a series of other

industries, and thus promote a national cultural infrastructure in the audiovisual

sector (Cunningham 1992; cf. Moran 1985). In this light, arguably the first major

local content decision in Australia came in 1960 with the requirement (later to be

codified as Television Production Standards (TPS) 18 and 19) that no more than

20 per cent of material in any advertisement screened on Australian television

may be produced outside of Australia, unless Australian creative personnel were

used. This effective prohibition on the importation of television advertisements as

an explicit industry and employment protection policy, which remained in place

until 1990, played a very important role in underwriting all forms of audiovisual

production in Australia, as Cunningham pointed out when he argued that

‘television drama production in Australian could not have developed its present

scope and depth without the industrial infrastructure of the advertising industry’

(Cunningham 1992: 72).

The promotion of diversity and innovation in the production and

scheduling of Australian programs on Australian commercial television is a third

principle underpinning Australian content regulations. This principle was part of

the reasoning behind the introduction of a ‘points system’ in 1973 to allocate

different amounts of points to different program categories, and require

commercial stations to meet the points targets as well as transmission quotas. The

intention has been to ensure that local production is encouraged in areas which are

under-represented in current program schedules, are deemed to be of higher

‘quality’ or to have cultural significance, or which are costlier and/or riskier than

other program types. The flip side has been a desire to minimise reliance upon

televised sport, quiz and game shows, or low-cost studio-based programs in order

to meet the Australian content quota.


The promotion of Australian national culture has been the fourth, and

most significant, force behind calls for Australian content regulations. The view

that locally produced television, and particularly local drama, contributed to

Australian audiences’ ‘shock of self-recognition’ and greater self-awareness of

their own culture, had been put in a number of statements since the 1960s, and has

usually been tied to the development of local content quotas for drama. By the

1980s, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal was arguing that greater national

cultural self-awareness had been achieved in Australia, in part because of the

success of Australian content regulations, which have forced the commercial

stations to meet the demand of local audiences for local programming (Appleton

1988). Moreover, this ‘cultural’ argument for Australian content regulations came

to be associated with the proposition that Australian television should have a

recognisably Australian ‘look’, as part of its role in promoting a distinctively

Australian national culture. This latter development would prove to be


Finally, Australian content quotas were seen as a measure of the

willingness of Australian governments and policy-makers to oppose ‘cultural

domination’ and ‘cultural imperialism’. This argument for Australian content

regulation has strong links to arguments about the role of culture in developing

national citizenship and identity, and the cultural nationalist belief that an

independent Australian society - in the political, economic and cultural spheres -

was the condition for social justice and societal development (Turner 1979).

Cultural nationalists believed that the lack of a local film and television

production industry prevented the cultivation of a distinctive national imaginary,

and linked this to concerns about American ‘cultural imperialism’ and the

‘dependency’ theory of Australian capitalist development, arguing that in the

absence of protectionist economic policies, Australia was simply a ‘client state’ of

multinational capitalism (Crough and Wheelwright 1983; Rohdie 1987).

Australian Content: Industry Policy and Cultural Policy

The first three arguments listed above for Australian content regulations -

comparative cost disadvantage, industry development and diversity of product -

can be classified as economic or industry policy goals, with only the latter two -

development of national culture, and resistance to cultural domination - having an

explicitly cultural remit. In spite of the significance of economic factors in

providing a rationale for Australian content regulations, the stress has

characteristically been upon their cultural significance. Over the course of the

1980s, however, economic arguments would acquire a growing significance in the

framing of public policy in Australia, and this had an impact on the Australian

Content inquiry.

Economic analysis has been used to evaluate Australian commercial

broadcast television content regulation, most notably by Papandrea (1997), but

also by Brown and Cave (1992), Burgin and Molloy (1993) and the Bureau of

Transport and Communications Economics (1991). Brown and Cave distinguish

between economic regulation, involving government intervention to compensate

for market failure, and social regulation, involving the pursuit by government of

‘public interest’ objectives through intervention, such as protection from

unsuitable material or the development of national culture. They note that

Australian content rules ‘have both the economic function of protecting domestic

industry, and the social functions of promoting national pride and cultural values’

(Brown and Cave 1992: 379). Franco Papandrea (1997) draws upon the growing

body of literature dealing with the economics of art and culture, to identify four

areas of ‘market failure’ that form the basis of content-based government

intervention in broadcasting markets:

1. public good arguments, which propose that the there are collective benefits

to a community from the availability of artistic and cultural goods and


2. merit good arguments, which propose that collective benefits may be

derived from the availability of artistic and cultural goods and services that

are inadequately registered under current consumption decisions, due to a

lack of awareness of the value of artistic and cultural goods and services in

the community;

3. option value or existence value arguments, which propose that the

community as a whole values the existence of artistic and cultural goods

and services, in order that they can be consumed at a later point in time, or

because the good or service is seen to add to the collective well-being of

the community, even if particular individuals do not use or consume it.

4. externality arguments, which stress the benefits of artistic and cultural

goods and services being available to the community as a whole, including

enhancement of local or national tourism industries, benefits to the local or

national economy from an economically viable arts and cultural industries

sector, the educative role of the arts and culture, and the movement of

creative personnel between the ‘subsidised’ and ‘commercial’ sectors as

part of their lifetime employment trajectories.

Economic policy discourse and cultural policy discourse work from

different frames of reference, which in turn influence their understanding of

policies such as Australian content regulation. Economists have tended, in the

majority of cases, to be sceptical of traditional arguments for public support for

the arts and cultural industries, being particularly concerned that ‘market failure’

arguments for public support of the arts and cultural industries may entail a

combination of paternalism and special pleading to use public revenue for the

benefit of particular well-organised interests (Peacock 1997; Norton 1996; Court

1994). For its critics, which include some economists, the analytical bases of

cultural economics in methodological individualism, consumer sovereignty and

rational choice theory are seen as generating an inherent bias against ‘culture’,

since it is a concept that is inherently intangible in form and content, collective in

orientation, and difficult to measure in terms of outcomes (Throsby 1997). By


contrast, cultural nationalist perspectives typically take the society or the nation,

rather than the individual, as their analytical point of reference, and frame cultural

policy in terms of serving social collectivities rather than individual consumers. In

the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the debate over Australian content regulations

for commercial television increasingly became a competition between these two

forms of policy discourse, their associated debate cultures and their distinctive

understandings of cultural citizenship.

The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal’s Australian Content

Inquiry 1983-1989

The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal announced in March 1983 that it would be

undertaking an inquiry to determine program standards in respect of the

Australian content of television programs and advertisements, as part of its overall

revision of television program standards. Announcement of the initial inquiry was

accompanied by the release of a Discussion Paper and a Background Paper. These

papers argued that the introduction of the points system for Australian content in

1973 had led to an increase in the amount of local programming broadcast, an

increase in the prime-time broadcast of locally produced drama, and an increase

in the percentage of revenues spent by the commercial networks on locally

produced material from 68 per cent in 1973-74 to 78 per cent in 1980-81 (ABT

1991a: 136-137). These findings indicated that, in general terms, Australian


content regulations were achieving policy objectives. Nonetheless, there was a

concern that the points system had set compliance levels below those which were

desirable or achievable by the commercial stations, in terms of quantity of

Australian programs, and particularly in terms of diversity of program types. This

conclusion echoed Kate Harrison’s influential critique of the points system as

constituting a form of ‘symbolic policy’, where the regulator was seen to enforce

a set of outcomes which would in fact have been achieved in the absence of

regulation, as an alternative to greater public scrutiny or more rigorous regulation

of broadcaster conduct (Harrison 1980).

One consistent feature of the ABT’s conduct of the inquiry was the strong

emphasis placed upon the wide dissemination of detailed information on matters

relevant to the inquiry. A second, and related, feature of the Australian Content

Inquiry was that the ABT had considerable scope to direct the timing of its

process and the direction of its findings, as governmental scrutiny was not high.

Julie James Bailey, who joined the ABT in 1983 when the inquiry commenced,

was of the view that the inquiry would involve a ‘long learning process’ for

Tribunal members, and that a priority was ‘to get a lot of Background Papers,

because what you could do at the Tribunal was to get a lot of information out’.1

The inquiry was deferred in November 1984 by the appeal by the multinational

advertising organisation Saatchi & Saatchi, challenging the power of the Tribunal

to conduct an inquiry into Australian content standards for advertisements, which

led to an amendment to the Broadcasting and Television Act in July 1985 that

ensured the Tribunal was able to set and administer advertising standards as well

as program standards.

The Saatchi & Saatchi appeal provides an interesting case study in how

the media policy activism of the 1970s had transformed the behaviour of the ABT

as a regulatory agency. As media policy activists such as Julie James Bailey,

Mark Armstrong and Ray Watterson came to be Tribunal members in the 1980s,

they brought with them a strong sense of the dangers of regulatory capture by the

broadcasting industry, and a willingness to ‘tilt the playing field’ towards the

interest groups as a means of promoting countervailing power. Bailey provides an

interesting example of how Tribunal members could develop a ‘public interest’

orientation in areas which required adjudication through the courts, in the case of

the 1984 Saatchi & Saatchi appeal about the ABT’s powers to set advertising


The Saatchi & Saatchi appeal ... was all about standards and regulation,

and it went all the way up to the High Court, and it turned out the Tribunal

did not have the power. Now Mark [Armstrong] had always said that he

wasn't sure, and ... he said there was a 60/40 chance the Tribunal did not

have the power, so in fact he was vindicated. Part of the reason [why]

there were, if you look at that period with the Tribunal, far more [legal]

challenges ... is that you would always have two opinions. You'll have the

commercial licensee’s lawyers’ opinion, in their favour, and you'll have a


public interest opinion. We made a decision, I did, and Mark and Ray

[Watterson] did, that we would always take the public interest opinion,

because the commercial stations could always afford to take us to court,

and we could get the thing ironed out in the court. But if you took the

reverse, which the [Australian Broadcasting] Control Board had always

done, then the public can never challenge it in the courts. So you never get

legally clear indications of where the law stands. So it was very much a

decision, and that is why there was so much litigation in that period.2

When the Australian Content Inquiry resumed in January 1986, a call for

submissions led to the receipt of 570 public submissions and 61 industry

submissions by August 1986. In addition, the Tribunal circulated a pamphlet,

titled ‘Seen anything good on telly lately?’, and also placed an advertisement in

several capital city newspapers titled ‘What do you think of Australian programs

on commercial television?’, inviting people to comment on Australian TV

programs currently screening, their likes and dislikes, and whether they would

like to see more - and less - of particular program types. By early 1987, the

Tribunal had received 653 responses through this community outreach campaign.

By 1987, a bifurcation in the Tribunal’s approach to evidence could be seen,

between the public submissions, which increasingly constituted empirical data to

assist the Tribunal in its deliberations, and the submissions of industry

organisations and interest groups with an ongoing interest in policy in the area of

Australian content rules. In contrast to the difficulties faced by the ABT in the

licence renewal hearings to effectively integrate its findings and decisions in

individual licence renewal hearings with its overarching administrative,

regulatory and policy-making roles, the ABT was now developing a more ongoing

and consistent approach to its dealings with the broad range of interest groups and

industry organisations who were stakeholders in Australian broadcasting policy,

that included a stress upon information provision and promoting opportunities for

dialogue between competing interests. The Tribunal’s conduct of the Australian

Content Inquiry offered considerable opportunity for organised groups with an

ongoing interest in media reform to participate in the policy formation process,

giving those participant groups involved the opportunity to develop their

organisational, informational and lobbying skills in media policy.

Industry and Interest Group Positions

The ABT’s Australian Content Inquiry had seen the consolidation of a pattern that

had emerged in the 1960s, where the production industry representatives and the

variety of media interest and advocacy groups formed a coalition of interests

around support for strengthening Australian content requirements for commercial

television, in opposition to the commercial networks and FACTS as their

representative body. The preferences of the production industry/media interest

groups were also largely consistent with those of the Tribunal. They saw the

primary objective of Australian content standards as cultural, and shared with the

ABT the virtuous circle argument that forms of cultural regulation such as

program quotas had brought forth a supply of local television program production,

which had in turn proved popular with local audiences and thus contributed to the

development of national culture and national self-awareness. The development of

a local television production industry was, in this analysis, a happy by-product of

this cultural policy (Appleton 1988).

While it is difficult to generalise on the perspective of the production

industry, given the diversity of roles and interests and the differing size and

influence of individuals and organisations in the sector, there was a consistent

position put forward by organisations and individuals representing the film and

television production industry to the Australian Content Inquiry. The preferences

of the production industry were for: a strengthening of overall local content

requirements; intensified focus upon particular program formats, such as drama

and children’s programming; use of regulation to achieve greater quality and

diversity of local content; and a stress upon ‘prime time’ (6.00 pm to 10.00 pm) as

the period in which the operation of effective quotas was most important. Some

submissions placed a greater emphasis upon the promotion of particular program

formats, such as SPAA’s response to the Tribunal’s paper on documentary, which

called for a quota of 104 hours of first-release, independently produced

documentary for all Australian commercial stations, comparable to the drama

quota under the points system (Broad 1987). Others, such as the Film and

Television Institute (WA), the Australian Writers Guild (WA) and the Australian

Writers Guild (Queensland) called for regional as well as national quotas, in


response to the perceived decline in ‘localism’ in programming since national

networking had been introduced (FTI (WA Branch) 1986; AWG (WA Branch)

1986; AWG (Qld Branch) 1986). A consistent feature of the production industry

submissions and contributions was an abiding discontent with the conduct of the

Australian commercial networks, who were perceived as pushing all program

development costs on to independent producers, being narrow in their perception

of what was acceptable programming for Australian TV audiences, and even their

ability to threaten the livelihood of producers who gave detailed evidence to the


The Australian Content Inquiry triggered the re-emergence of older media

interest and advocacy groups, such as the ‘TV - Make it Australian’ Committee,

and the emergence of relatively new organisations such as the Communications

Law Centre (CLC). There was a lot of overlap and crossover between these

interest groups, as indicated by the role played by Actors Equity in re-establishing

‘TV - Make it Australian’,4 and the Communications Law Centre’s role in

preparing its submission. The case for Australian content regulations made in the

CLC and ‘TV - Make It Australian’ submissions emphasised the ‘public trust’

nature of television licences and how it legitimated such regulations in exchange

for private access to scarce spectrum space; the significant social and cultural role

played by Australian television in reflecting Australia for Australians; the

importance of Australian TV program production to development of the arts and

Australian cultural life, given the importance of the sector as an employer of


creative personnel and its reach to large audiences; and the need for regulation to

provide the stability necessary to build a strong local production industry in the

context of structural and regulatory change (Spurgeon 1987).

As the major institutional agents in a structure of regulated oligopoly, the

statements of commercial television broadcasters in public inquiries typically

have both a moral or normative dimension, alongside a more pragmatic or

strategic set of arguments. The Federation of Australian Commercial Television

Stations (FACTS) argued against revising the current Australian content standards

on the basis that the commercial TV networks were in fact meeting the revealed

preference of Australian TV viewers for local content, and that the failure of the

Tribunal to update Australian content standards has in fact been ‘a benign neglect

which has served to show that competition, rather than regulatory intervention, is

best qualified to provide the quantity, range and quality of programs that best

accord with the tastes and preferences of the public’ (FACTS 1988: 85). The

FACTS submission also argued that the commercial TV industry was currently

operating at full capacity and at what economists would call ‘normal’ profit levels,

so that there would be a ‘zero-sum’ logic to any increase in Australian content

quotas, with an increase in quantity leading to a reduction in quality or in the

number of locally produced programs in unregulated areas. Finally, the FACTS

submission contained what may be described as a ‘fall-back’ position, where it

indicated that should a strengthened Australian drama quota be introduced

anyway, its members’ preference was for one which maximised network

flexibility in commissioning, producing and scheduling Australian drama

programs, and which gave an enhanced weighting to more expensive drama

formats or to ‘one-off’ drama programs.

The FACTS submission raises a perennial issue in this debate, which is

whether commercial networks would have commissioned new Australian

programming, particularly in higher-cost areas such as drama where import

competition is strongest, in the absence of regulations requiring them to. The

answer given by FACTS is that they would have been responsive to consumer

preferences for such material. The counter-argument, put by the interest groups,

was that they failed to broadcast such material until forced to, at which point

consumer preference for such material was revealed. Another issue raised is the

extent to which broadcasters can increase the amount of local programs in their

schedule and reduce the amount of imported programs, or change the mix of

programs within local and import categories, without there being such an adverse

impact upon profits that it inhibits future investment decisions. This raised the

issue for the Tribunal of acquiring reliable information on the relative costs of

different programming types, both domestic and imported. Sandra Alexander’s

consultant’s report for the Tribunal, released in November 1987, was a detailed

attempt to develop data on the person-hours involved in production of Australian

programs across the range of program types, based upon questionnaires and face-

to-face interviews with 200 program production personnel (ABT 1991). The

results are shown in Table 5.1:


Table 5.1

Average Person Hours Per Hour of Screen Time of Various

Program Types 1987

Studio only (eg. chat shows) 124.2

Sport outside broadcast 183.9
News 202.9
Studio game show 874.9
Studio drama 4452.4
Documentary 6250.8
Major outside broadcast 6543.4
Telemovie 12133.3
Miniseries 14836.1
Feature film 29140.5

Source: ABT 1991: 98-99.

Constituting Public Process in Media Policy: Institutional

Pluralism and the Professionalisation of Media Activism

Media policy formation has been assessed not only in terms of its outcomes, but

also through the extent to which policy processes are open to participation,

intervention and formal scrutiny. While the Whitlam Labor government (1972-75)

delivered on its promises in terms of policy outcomes such as strengthened local

content requirements, critics pointed to its failure to reform and open up the

institutions of media policy formation and regulation to greater public

participation and external scrutiny. By contrast, the Australian Broadcasting


Tribunal was founded with a strong commitment to open and inclusive processes

of decision-making through licence renewal processes. It had, however, come to

be characterised by uncertainty about its objectives, performance criteria and

anticipated outcomes in these activities, and was unable to articulate its

adjudications toward individual broadcasting licensees to a broader set of policy

formation principles. By the time of the Australian Content Inquiry, the Tribunal

was being criticised as ineffectual, not just by the broadcasting industry and

government, but also by the constituency of media reformers and activist

organisations that had emerged since the 1960s, which drew upon ‘public interest’

or ‘consumer rights’ discourses to lobby for media reform.

The ABT had sought to fashion a role for itself in facilitating and

promoting the participation of community-based and ‘public interest’ groups, as

well as other industry groups such as the film and TV production sector, or

industry unions. This can be seen as part of a conscious process by Tribunal

members to make the agency less of what Dunleavy and O’Leary (1987) have

termed a ‘cipher’, or an advocate of broadcasting industry interests by default in

the absence of countervailing interests, more of a ‘broker’ of competing interests

and a ‘guardian’ of the ‘public interest’, operationalised through forms of

selective assistance in order to strengthen the role of non-dominant interests.

The development of ‘insider’ policy activism in the Tribunal through the

Australian Content Inquiry arose out of a number of related factors. One was the

role played by the Tribunal’s licence renewal inquiries. While they were largely

ineffectual in modifying broadcaster performance, their existence had meant that

the groups that chose to remain involved in such processes had developed

political lobbying skills and broadened their involvement in media policy issues.

The Australian Content Inquiry also marked a continuation of the process of

professionalisation of research and policy participation functions within media

organisations and their representative agencies. Responsibility for contributing to

policy formation processes had, in the 1980s, gradually been shifting from

organisation directors and board members, full-time activists and freelance

academics to a professional cadre of research and policy professionals, who could

be employed on a full-time basis to monitor and contribute to policy formation on

behalf of their organisations. An indicator of this trend can be seen at the

Tribunal’s The Price of Being Australian (ABT 1988) where, of the 178

conference registrants, 11 (6 per cent) were there on the basis of their research

and/or policy roles within their organisations. For Anne Britton, former National

Secretary of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), such

involvement in policy processes is ‘good self-interest’. Britton observed that

Actors’ Equity had in the late 1980s a principle of ‘spending about 40 per cent of

our resources on policy, or so-called job creation issues’, as part of serving its

members’ interests, since ‘it’s good that actors are interested in working in their

own country, because that translates into a national audiovisual policy’. 5


The Communications Law Centre provides an important case study in the

development of an organisation that sought to systematically engage with the

policy process from a ‘public interest’ perspective. The CLC was established in

1988, as a result of the sustained involvement of the Public Interest Advocacy

Centre (PIAC) in media-related activities through the licence renewal process. Its

establishment was driven by the desire of its founding director, Kate Harrison, to

develop a Centre that could have sustained involvement as activists in policy on a

‘public interest’ basis. The CLC could do this by linking on the one hand with the

legal sector and the movements which sought to bring legal advice to the

community, and on the other with the university sector, which could provide a

relatively strong and stable institutional affiliation for activist organisations.

Working across a range of communications media, from telecommunications to

broadcasting to film, and on issues ranging from ownership to content to privacy

and copyright laws, the CLC developed into an organisation which could develop

a ‘bureaucratic’ response to the issues raised in media policy activism. Christina

Spurgeon, a researcher at the CLC from 1988 to 1995, observed that the CLC was

seen as ‘professionalising [the] public interest’ when it was launched, since it had

to address the nuts-and-bolts of ‘how we might go about getting concerns like

access and equity … to register in a meaningful sort of way with … bureaucratic

systems and structures.’6 In order to do this effectively, Spurgeon argues, ‘you

need to have the resources ... the time and skills base to go out and talk to people,

and to convince various bureaucracies that it was worth their while to spend time

with you.’ 7 For Spurgeon, the Australian Content Inquiry was an occasion where

the commitment of the ABT to undertaking research, and providing information

which could be used by all parties, meant that ‘we actually had an intelligent

debate, rather than opposition camps just throwing rhetoric at each other, and then

some kind of political decision being handed down, which is how it could have

gone.’ It marked a significant moment in the ‘professionalisation of the public

inquiry process’ and, for an organisation such as the CLC, a ‘scaling up’ of their


The other trend which emerged in the late 1980s was the involvement of

academics as participants in policy processes, acting on behalf of organised

constituencies rather than in an ‘unattached’ and freelance intellectual capacity.

Stuart Cunningham was a central figure in this debate, linking engagement with

the ‘cultural policy debate’ in Australian cultural studies with involvement in

policy debates such as the Australian Content Inquiry (Cunningham 1992, 1993,

1994). Graeme Turner observed that signs of a sea-change in cultural, media and

communications studies were beginning to occur in Australia during this period,

as research and advisory centres linked universities to stakeholders in government

and the media industries. Such Centres included the Institute for Cultural Policy

Studies (ICPS), established at Griffith University in 1989, and the Australian Key

Centre for Cultural and Media Policy, funded by the Australian Research Council

as a National Key Centre for Teaching and Research in 1995. For Turner, such

developments ‘move cultural studies away from pure theory to a field of


cooperative … relationships’, enabling cultural studies academics ‘to intervene in

cultural production at the level of policy and planning’ (Turner 1989: 5).

(Mis)Representing Australianness: The ‘Australian Look’

Controversy and the Australian Content Standard

One area in which cultural analysis had influence, albeit indirectly, was in debates

about the use of ‘on-screen indicators’ for Australian content, or the ‘Australian

Look’ controversy. When the ABT released its Draft Proposal for an Australian

Content standard for commercial television on 9 December 1988, it argued that

the need to regulate for Australian content emanated from the need to preserve an

Australian Look, ensure Australian drama, encourage quality productions, and

encourage diversity of program types (ABT 1991b). The Draft Proposal put

forward a minimum overall quota of 50 per cent of Australian programs to be

broadcast between 6.00 am and midnight over the period of a year, commencing 1

July 1989, with the intention to increase this quota to 60 per cent by 1 July 1994,

with a comparable quota to apply during ‘prime time’, between 6.00 pm and

midnight. In order to encourage quality and diversity of Australian programming,

as well as promoting local drama, the Tribunal proposed a minimum score for

adult drama, children’s drama and diversity programs (which included variety

series, variety specials, social documentary, arts programs and new concepts). The

aims of the quota and minimum score systems were to encourage programs that


(a) recognisably Australian in theme, perspective, language and character;

(b) designed specifically for Australians;

(c) relevant to Australians;

(d) under Australian creative and financial control, and which ‘showcase

Australian talent on-screen and behind the camera’ (‘on-screen


(e) acknowledge the diverse backgrounds which make up the Australian


The most contentious elements of the Tribunal’s Draft Proposal were those

that depended upon an ‘Australian Look’ criteria, and its use of ‘on-screen

indicators’ to determine the ‘Australianness’ of a program. The ‘Australian Look’

was a concept that had its origins in the 1977 ABT Self-Regulation Inquiry,

defined in terms of a series of ‘on-screen indicators’ based around:

•theme (content and topic);

•perspective (an Australian viewpoint);

•language (Australian speech, including idiom and accents);

•character (incorporating scenes and costumes, character portrayal,

interpretation of material and accurate casting).


Critical responses to the ABT’s Draft Proposal were submitted by industry

organisations such as the Australian Writers Guild, the Australian Film

Commission, the Australian Film Finance Corporation, the Communications Law

Centre, Film Australia, the Grundy Organisation, Crawfords Productions and the

Screen Producers Association of Australia. Moran (1989) and Given (1989) also

published critiques of the ‘Australian Look’ in academic journals. The criticisms

were that the ‘Australian Look’ concept and its indicators were based upon flawed

and backward-looking assumptions about Australian culture; were subjective in

their application; were likely to discourage investment; failed to recognise the

growing importance of foreign investment in Australian productions, and the need

to be able to export higher-cost local productions; and were a constraint upon

creativity. It was also argued that the test was incompatible with tests of

‘Australianness’ applied by other funding bodies such as the Australian Film

Finance Corporation and the Australian Film Commission, or the Income

Taxation Act’s 10BA Certification Requirement for Film (CLC 1989).

In light of the extent of consultation by the Tribunal with the range of

interested parties on Australian content, who had also traditionally been its allies

and supporters, the question remains as to why the ABT produced a Draft

Proposal based upon a test that was so at odds with so many of these interests.

Jock Given has noted that a recurring contextual issue was the fear of the

‘runaway production’, or material made in Australian by US interests without


regard for local context. The New Mission: Impossible, produced in Brisbane and

on the Gold Coast was, for Given, the touchstone of these anxieties about global


To me, Mission Impossible was the touchstone of the whole inquiry.

People looked at it and said that this is what we don’t want to happen. It’s

very difficult to describe, but we’ve got something very concrete in front

of us, this is not an Australian program.8

Bailey argued that the problem lay to some degree with the unwillingness

of ‘academics working in Australian cultural studies and film studies to have

come forward and alerted the Tribunal to the debates about defining “Australian”

and participated in the drafting of the final standards’ (Bailey 1994: 70). Bailey’s

argument is, however, disingenuous for three reasons. First, the major critics of

the proposal were not academics at the ‘margins’, but the production industry and

public interest groups that the Tribunal had been in consistent liaison with

throughout the inquiry. Given recalls how, when he commenced with the AFC

after previously working with DOTAC, he ‘walked in … to a strange environment

where the Broadcasting Tribunal, which I thought would be much lauded by the

film and television production industry, was being reviled for the craziness of this

proposal’.9 Second, the proposal had its critics within the Tribunal itself. Debra

Richards noted that the ‘Australian Look’ proposal came from an attempt by the

Tribunal to prioritise cultural issues, but that:


When we went out with the ‘Australian look’ - and I must say it was

probably a lot of us who didn’t want to go out with the ‘Australian look’,

particularly among the staff ... our main priority was the ‘cultural

argument’ and trying to put that as our main priority ... So, in an effort, I

think, to push the cultural side of it, there was this proposal for ‘Australian

look’. We had been trying to walk away from that from the time it went

out there, frankly ... there are all the problems that go with that … how do

you determine the ‘Australian look’ of a program that is science fiction, or

fantasy, or …does the ‘Australian look’ have to have two kangaroos, three

koalas and gum trees? 10

Finally, insofar as academic work had been relevant to the Australian

Content inquiry, it had questioned the assumptions and underlying premises of

cultural nationalism that had informed media reform and other related campaigns

in the 1960s and 1970s. Bailey’s claim that academic research in this area was not

accessible or relevant is tendentious, given the accessible nature of writing of

many of the key texts putting these arguments (eg. White 1981; Rowse 1985;

Castles et. al. 1988). The very public debates about multiculturalism and

Australian identity in the late 1980s should also have given the Tribunal more

pause than they did about attempting to legislate for an ‘Australian Look’ in

commercial television. Since the ‘Australian Look’ proposal was generated

without reference to any of the key stakeholders in the inquiry, in spite of


extensive consultations with them over a long period of time, it is unlikely that,

contrary to Bailey’s assumptions, more submissions from academics would have

swayed the Tribunal from cultural nationalism. Rather, cultural nationalism had

become an ingrained policy discourse among those addressing the issue of

Australian content regulations from a cultural perspective.

Negotiations in 1989 saw a retreat by the Tribunal from the Draft

Proposal’s emphasis upon on-screen indicators of Australian content, or the

‘Australian Look’, towards a less prescriptive ‘Australian factor’ test, which

emphasised off-screen indicators and the significance of Australian creative

control. While some Tribunal members, such as Julie James-Bailey, expressed

concern that the loss of rigorous on-screen indicators would mean the

disappearance of ‘Australian ideas’ in expensive drama formats such as miniseries

and telemovies, most industry representatives welcomed the move towards less

prescriptive criteria. Kim Williams, Chairman of the Australian Film Finance

Corporation, captured the spirit of these discussions in his view that they had led

to ‘some degree of confidence that what Australians produce is, ipso facto,

Australian’. 12

The late 1980s marked the period of what Tom O’Regan (1993) has

termed the ‘rise and fall of entrepreneurial TV’, as debt-financed expansion

undertaken by the Qintex, Bond and Westfield groups, who took over the Seven,

Nine and Ten networks in 1987 in response to the changes in media ownership

laws in 1986-87, proved to be unsustainable in the wake of the stock market crash

of November 1987. The situation was to worsen for the sector in 1990-91, as it

was faced with continuing high debt levels, rising interest rates, and a sharp fall in

the rate of growth in advertising revenues from 15 per cent to 6 per cent, leading

to a sharp deterioration in the profitability of commercial television networks, as

shown in Table 5.2:

Table 5.2

Rates of Return to Capital City Commercial Television Stations

1987/88-1990/91 (per cent)

1987-88 3.9
1988-89 0.3
1989-90 -0.2
1990-91 -2.6

Source: BTCE 1995: 81.

As a result of this deteriorating financial situation, the commercial

networks demanded a phased introduction of the Australian content transmission

quota to 50 per cent. The Final Draft Proposal retained the combined quota/point

system, setting an Australian transmission quota of 35 per cent of broadcast time

between 6.00 am and midnight in the first year of operation, to be incrementally

increased to 50 per cent by the fourth year of operation, and to later increase to 60

per cent by the sixth year of operation. In spite of a dissenting view within the

Tribunal presented by Julie James Bailey (Bailey in ABT 1991c: 38), the

Tribunal’s majority view was that industry profitability and viability were the

primary concerns, and that the meeting of local content quotas was a positive

spin-off from a profitable commercial broadcasting industry. At the end of

perhaps the most penetrating inquiry into their conduct, the commercial free-to-air

broadcasters were able to reach a familiar quid pro quo with the regulators, the

production sector and interest groups: the delivery of prescribed levels of local

content, in exchange for guaranteed long-term profitability, minimal scrutiny of

internal decision-making, and restrictions upon competition.


The Australian Content Inquiry commenced by the ABT in 1983 took

place in the context of some very significant shifts in how media reform

movements organised around the policy process, as well as in the ways in which

regulatory agencies facilitated their participation. In contrast to the diffuse nature

of concerns raised in the licence renewal hearings, the Australian Content inquiry

was focused around the particular issue of the amount of locally produced

programming that commercial broadcasters could legitimately be expected to

screen, with an emphasis upon particular program genres.

The participatory processes that came to develop in the course of the

inquiry also supported the ongoing involvement of organised advocacy and public

interest groups, and in this way contributed to what Christina Spurgeon (1997)

has described as the ‘professionalisation of the public interest’ in the 1980s, that

was in turn facilitated by the ABT as a regulatory agency. The inquiry marks an

important case study in what Anna Yeatman (1999) has referred to as ‘activism in

the policy process’, particularly in the ways in which alliances developed between

policy ‘insiders’ in the regulatory agencies and ‘outsiders’ in the advocacy and

public interest groups.

A further development arising from this period concerned shifts in the

debate cultures of media and cultural studies, as some Australian academics

working in these fields sought to align their activism to the activities of policy-

oriented organisations, through a tailoring of their analysis and participation to

mainstream policy discourses and the temporalities of current policy processes.

Such influences became particularly relevant as the ABT presented its

controversial recommendation in the 1988 Draft proposal that Australian

television programs should possess an ‘Australian look’, as measured by a series

of ‘on-screen indicators’.
Interview with Julie James Bailey, 10 July 1995.
Record of meeting between the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and representatives from industry organisations,
Melbourne, 29 July 1987. See also SPAA, Submission DOC009, op. cit.
Britton observes that at this time ‘TV - Make it Australian’ was ‘largely spearheaded by Actors Equity’.
Interview with Anne Britton, 28 September 1998.
Interview with Dr. Christina Spurgeon, Lecturer in Media Studies, Queensland University of Technology, 28
October 1997.
Interview with Jock Given, Director, Communications Law Centre, 18 November 1997. On The New Mission:
Impossible, see Miller (1998).
Given ibid.
Interview with Debra Richards, Director, Program Services, Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, 19 November
Ms J. James-Bailey, Member, ABT. in Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Content Proposals for
Commercial Television, Transcript of Proceedings, Perth, 8 February 1989.
Mr Kim Williams, Chairman, Australian Film Finance Corporation, in Commonwealth of Australia, Australian
Content Proposals for Commercial Television, Transcript of Proceedings, Sydney, 9 February 1989.