The Guardian June 14, 2000


Australian film and television:
TV in the marketing wasteland

by Marcus Browning

The Radio National panel discussion about the state of television (see 
Corporate grip on the arts, Guardian June 7) raised thought-
provoking issues, asking why some shows manage to have a long life and that 
others, sometimes of higher quality, are dumped after a short run, and 
examined the role "realism" plays in the overall scheme of things.

Nonetheless, they skimmed the surface of the main question; the powerful 
economic forces at the controls of the television juggernaut and their 
political and ideological agenda.

Central to this is what these forces have in mind for Australia's public 
broadcasters, the ABC and SBS. Both provide a model of television's 
potential for social usefulness, the contribution this all-encompassing 
form of communication could make for the collective good.

Political and ideological

Ironically it was a prominent American scholar who two and a half centuries 
ago provided an apt summary of cultural imperialism, his analysis being 
remarkably applicable to today's television.

Tom Paine, an American man of letters in the first half of the 19th century 
 when that country's revolution for independence from Britain was still 
in living memory  ruthlessly characterised the British-instituted theatre 
of the day.

The stage, he said, had not trained people in moral sentiments but, rather, 
had trained them in ruling-class sympathies. While they were habituated to 
lament the fall of kings, they were kept ignorant of the basic principles 
of human rights so that the reality of countless common men suffering in 
prisons scarcely affected them.

Television has taken up the role of eliciting the sympathies of people for 
the status quo while glossing over the hard realities of exploitation, 
corruption and violations of rights.

There are in general four categories of television drama: lightweight 
escapist entertainment, police and the justice system, hospitals and the 
health system and those aimed at the youth.

Realism and ideology

The most obvious example is the police and justice system category which 
lays its claim to being "realistic" almost through sheer weight of numbers 
(16 shows about lawyers and police are currently running on free-to-air 
television, 14 of them on the three commercial networks).

Presenting capitalism as a basically benign system peopled by responsible 
and righteous servants of the state fighting irresponsible and inherently 
criminal individuals, shows such as Water Rats burst onto the screen 
with all the apparent qualities of real life.

Just like real people, the good guy police characters have complexity, have 
lives outside work, relationships, failed marriages etc. When some are 
tempted into graft and corruption it is made clear that these individuals 
are a small minority.

They are either made to see the error of their ways or are exorcised from 
the system  the problems are caused by a few individuals, the system 
itself is fine.

Even though it's only television, it is reassuring that fundamentally 
incorruptible forces  principled lawyers, fatherly judges, fearless 
police officers  are out there protecting life and property.

But realism is more than giving the appearance of truth and reality.

Compare the plethora of such programs to a rare exception, Blue 
Murder, the ABC docu-drama banned for legal reasons from being screened 
in NSW. Based on actual events and people, it showed the police as corrupt 
and no better than the hardened crims they were supposedly out there to 
bring to justice.

The cops are bribed and bribe others, carry out summary executions, give 
unbridled freedom to psychopaths and possess a huge arsenal of illegal 
weapons which they share with their underworld cohorts. On top of that, 
they get away with it!

No one could watch that and come away thinking this is a system with just a 
few bad apples.

The profit motive

Television's mass-media nature makes it an ideal vehicle for advertising. 
Program-making is driven by marketing. Characters, storyline, location, 
timeslot  all are to varying degrees determined by advertising company 
surveys of the shopping habits of certain sections of the viewing public.

Actress Kate Fitzpatrick on Radio National's program lamented the lack of 
TV roles for middle-aged women. Though this is part of a long-time 
prejudice based on sexual stereotyping, Ms Fitzpatrick is now facing an 
additional barrier.

She will have to wait until surveys find there is a large enough target 
audience of consumers who will tune in to shows which have middle-aged 
female characters as stars.

Programs made in Australia are packaged with overseas sales in mind. 
Characters must fit certain a certain mould and conform to recognisable, 
non-disturbing socio-economic types and ethnicity: no angry, unemployed 
Aborigines, defiant rebellious Asian youth or abused and exploited workers.

Nowadays the Australian accent isn't dubbed out but is considered a selling 
point in the global market, along with the location scenery. It is an 
indication of how shallow these bland products are that if the scenery and 
accents were changed the shows could have been made anywhere (well, 
anywhere in the USA).

Shots of the Rock at Uluru, the Gold Coast or Sydney Harbour are merely a 
showcase for tourism.

The ABC too is taking this path. Staggering from the Howard Government's 
massive funding cuts, and under constant attack from within by an ABC board 
stacked with Government lackeys, the national broadcaster has a growing 
list of co-productions with commercial filmmakers, streamlined for the 
foreign market.

Each commercially successful production sends a signal to the Packers and 
Murdochs out in the marketing wasteland, indicating to them the level of 
development of the ABC's profit-making capability.

At the same time it gives more impetus to the Government's ultimate aim of 
privatisation of both the ABC and the SBS, the latter having already 
resorted to advertising because of a lack of funding.

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