Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1514      17 August 2011

Culture & Life

Racism and a persistent wasteland

When I was a young fellow, it was my habit to spend my Saturday nights listening to the radio, mainly but not exclusively tuned to the ABC. Early favourites included the BBC comedy shows Take It From Here (with Australia’s Dick Bentley) and Much Binding In The Marsh and the Australian-made music programs World Famous Tenors (compiled and compered by the Communist actor John Deese of Quiz Kids fame) and John West’s long running and estimable Sentimental Journey (on which I was guest compere one week).

With the coming of television, we discovered that just as the music halls had been a marvellous training ground for the comics of the silent screen, so vaudeville and working men’s clubs were a perfect training ground for cabaret and television “variety” shows. The intimate relationship and repartee between performers and members of the live studio audience was a crucial element in the success of these shows, whether by Budd Abbott and Lou Costello in the US or Morcombe and Wise in Britain.

So perfectly attuned to the requirements and possibilities of television were Morcombe and Wise that they failed miserably in plot-driven cinema films, but were headliners on TV.

Their TV shows comprised long and short comedy routines broken up by musical numbers performed by regular guest artists. One of these was the popular black jazz singer Wilma Reading (she was also heard on the ABC’s late-night jazz programs).

A household name in Britain, I never heard her introduced as an Australian, least of all an Australian Aborigine. I am sure most of us thought she was African-American, probably from the West Indies. But she was a Queensland girl, from Cairns.

Like many Australian artists, she had to go abroad to have a career, but unlike most she had to almost hide her origins to avoid “confusing” her audience, a decision by her managers no doubt.

Over her forty-year career, she performed with Duke Ellington and other great musicians, but did not have the fame and recognition in her own country that she deserved.

Now in her seventies, I see from the newspapers that she has returned to Cairns and to teaching the next generation of young singers, who hopefully will not be obliged to obscure their ethnic origins to achieve a career.

The fifty-year old wasteland

Half a century ago, on May 9, 1961, Newton Minow, President John F Kennedy’s freshly appointed Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, attempted to persuade the owners of US television networks to expand choice for viewers, “by advancing new technologies in the belief that more choice would result in more and better content”.

Addressing the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters, Minow referred to television as “too often a wasteland”. He was, of course, preaching to the wrong audience. These people had a vested interest in precisely the type of television he was decrying.

The producer Sherwood Schwartz actually gave Minow’s name to the boat that was wrecked on his new sitcom Gilligan’s Island. The show itself would become a benchmark for “dumbed down” programming pandering to the lowest common denominator.

It was Hollywood thumbing its nose at the lofty ideals of the FCC Chairman. For the broadcasters Minow was addressing, television meant commercial television, and that was a highly lucrative adjunct of the advertising industry.

It was not seen as a means of communication and enlightenment, as a powerful aid to education and cultural empowerment, but simply as a splendid device for placing advertisements before very large, selected audiences in return for a hefty fee.

The broadcasters were capitalists and their main interest was in maximising their profit, and for that they needed programs that appealed to the largest number of people, regardless of quality, long-term effect or (god forbid) cultural or artistic merit. All that mattered was finding the gimmick that would get the suckers at home to tune in and watch at least the early part of the show.

That is still their main interest.

And don’t think this wasteland is somehow a thing of the past. Gilligan’s Island is one of the offerings from the “new” digital Free View channels. And it has many clones, some also old, like I Dream of Genie, others relatively new but equally stupid and undemanding.

Kerry Packer called the possession of a licensed commercial TV channel a “licence to print money”, and for the commercial broadcast industry that is all it ever is.

That is why today, for all our extra digital channels, our television is a mélange of copycat programs, repeats and occasional flashes of brilliance (just to remind you of what could be done).

If one channel comes up with a show that succeeds, soon all of them are running copy-cat versions of it. Remakes abound, because they can be presented to the financiers in concrete terms (“It’s the same as this famous show only with hot new star Jimmy Crutchgrabber in the lead – it will make a mint!”)

Original, innovative programming is a harder sell because it is innovative and original, hence to some extent unknown, and hence a bigger risk to profit margins.

Television will remain a wasteland until it is removed from the stultifying control of commercial broadcasters whose source of income is revenue from peddling advertising time during and between programs (and when they can get away with it, within the programs themselves).

Capitalism, however, does not want television freed from the grip of commerce. To let such a potent, valuable adjunct of the combined advertising, news and propaganda industry pass into the control of the elected government rather than the corporations is seen as a very bad thing for business. And of course it would be, wouldn’t it?  

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