History of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has evolved from its origins as a licensing scheme administered by the Postmaster-General's Department into a content provider in radio, television and new media.
The first public radio station in Australia opened in Sydney on 23 November 1923 under the call sign 2SB. Other stations in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart followed. A licensing, scheme administered by the Postmaster-General's Department, was soon established allowing certain stations government funding, albeit with restrictions placed on their advertising content.
In 1924 the licencing system was changed. The Postmaster-General's Department collected all licence fees and broadcasters were funded as either A-Class or B-Class stations. A-Class stations received government funding and were able to take limited advertising, while B-Class stations received no government funding but could carry more advertising. By 1925 many of the A-Class stations were in financial difficulty.
A 1927 Royal Commission into wireless broadcasting recommended that radio licence fees be pooled to fund larger A-Class stations. The government established the National Broadcasting Service to take over the 12 A-Class licences as they came up for renewal from 1928. The original legislation permitted advertising, but this was removed from the Act before it came into effect. At the same time, the government created the Australian Broadcasting Company to supply programs to the new national broadcaster.
Initially the Postmaster-General's Department, which operated postal and telephone services, was responsible for operating the National Broadcasting Service, although this arrangement did not have universal political support. As a result, the Australian Broadcasting Commission was established on 1 July 1932 to take over the Australian Broadcasting Company and run the National Broadcasting Service. The ABC was to be based on the BBC model, funded primarily from listener license fees with some direct government grants.
The Australian Broadcasting Commission's original twelve radio stations were:
At its conception, the Commission was headed by five commissioners appointed by the Governor-General. From these five commissioners, one was appointed to the office of chairperson and another to the office of vice-chairperson. This board of directors then appointed a General Manager that did not have the office of commissioner. International broadcaster Radio Australia was incorporated into the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1932.
The opening-day program included the first Children's Session with 'Bobby Bluegum', the first sports program, 'Racing Notes', with WA Ferry calling the Randwick races, 'British Wireless News', received by cable from London, weather, stock exchange and shipping news, the ABC Women's Association session (on 'commonsense housekeeping' and needlecraft), a talk on goldfish and their care, as well as 'Morning Devotions' and music. Conductor Sir Bernard Heinze was appointed part-time musical adviser to the ABC in 1934, while in 1937, the network was further expanded with the purchase of Brisbane's 4BC. Two years later, the Commission began publishing the ABC Weekly - a radio magazine promoting the ABC's local radio, and later television, programs.
Over the next four years the stations were reformed into a cohesive broadcasting organisation through regular program relays, coordinated by a centralised bureaucracy. The Australian broadcast radio spectrum at the time was made up of the ABC and the commercial sector.
During the broadcaster's first decades, programs generally consisted of music, news and current affairs, sport, drama, children's educational supplements and school broadcasts. Because recording technology was still relatively primitive, all ABC programs (including music) were broadcast live until 1935, when the first disc-based recorder was installed at the Commission's Sydney studios. For this purpose, the ABC established broadcasting orchestras in each state, and in some centres employed choruses and dance bands.
Amongst the other early programs were the stations' famous 'synthetic' cricket broadcasts - when tests were played in England, commentators in the ABC's Sydney studios used cables from London and sound effects to recreate the match in play. In addition, all 38 of Shakespeare's plays were performed live between 1936 and 1938. Local drama was also produced, with a competition for plays and sketches from Australian authors held in 1934. Talks from prominent figures of the time such as King George V, Pope Pius XI, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and H.G. Wells were also broadcast.
By 1933 regular program relays were in place between the ABC's stations in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth - it was not until 1936 that Hobart was connected with the mainland, through a cable under the Bass Strait. News bulletins, however, continued to be read in each state from local newspapers (by agreement with the Newspaper Proprietors Association). It was not until 1934 that the ABC hired its first journalist - the service continued to be expanded, with the appointment of a Federal News Editor in 1936, and in 1939 a Canberra correspondent to cover national politics.
World War II
During the Second World War, the ABC continued to recruit staff, including a greater proportion of women to replace men who had joined the armed forces. The organisation established reporting and recording facilities in a number of overseas locations, including the Middle East, Greece and around the Asia-Pacific region. An early challenge to its independence came in June, 1940 when wartime censorship was imposed, meaning that the Department of Information (headed by Sir Keith Murdoch) took control of the ABC's 7 p.m. nightly national news bulletin. This lasted until September, when control of the news was returned to the ABC after listeners expressed a preference for independent news presented by the Commission.
During the war, the ABC's news bulletins attained a reputation for authority and independence, and from 1942 onwards, were broadcast three times daily through all national and most commercial transmitters. During and after the war, the ABC was given statutory powers that reinforced its independence from the government and enhanced its news-gathering role. From 1946, the ABC was required to broadcast selected parliamentary sessions live, despite the disruption this caused to regular programming.
On 7 January 1941 the ABC revived the Children's Session as a national program, including the "Argonauts Club", which was first broadcast in 1933-34 in Melbourne. The Argonauts Club proved hugely popular with young Australians - by 1950 there were over 50,000 members, with 10,000 new members joining each year through 1950s. The Club encouraged children's contributions of writing, music, poetry and art, and became one of the ABC's most popular programs, running six days a week for 28 years.
In 1942 The Australian Broadcasting Act was passed, giving the ABC the power to decide when, and in what circumstances, political speeches should be broadcast. Directions from the Minister about whether or not to broadcast any matter now had to be made in writing, and any exercise of the power had to be mentioned in the Commission's Annual Report. It was used only once, in 1963. In the same year, "Kindergarten of the Air" began on ABC Radio in Perth. It was later broadcast nationally and became one of the ABC's most popular programs.
Another Act passed in the same year required that one of the commissioners be a woman. In 1948, another was passed increasing the number of commissioners to seven and specifying that two must be public servants - one each from the Treasury departments and the Postmaster-General's department. Although the requirement for public servants was dropped in the Broadcasting and Television Act of 1956, the need for seven commissioners was retained - this allowed for each state and territory to be represented.
Cater argues that reform was urgently needed in 1945:
- By the end of World War II, the ABC was a decadent, hollow institution. Its authority had been compromised by a poorly drafted charter and further undermined by timid management, poor governance and creeping wartime censorship. In April 1945, Richard Boyer refused to accept the post of chairman until Prime Minister Curtin issued a mandate of independence which Boyer drafted itself. The ABC under Boyer and general manager Charles Moses invested as best it could in the cultural capital of the nation, establishing viable symphony orchestras and seizing on the potential of television.... His neutrality was never seriously questioned.
In December, 1945 rural affairs program "The Country Hour" premiered. Legislation passed in 1946 requiring the ABC to broadcast Parliament when in session - the broadcasts were put onto the interstate network, however the Commission frequently commented on the disruption this caused to its programming in its annual reports. The ABC was also required to 'secure its news for broadcasting purposes within the Commonwealth by its own staff, and abroad through such overseas news agencies and other overseas sources as it desired' (along with its own foreign correspondents). The news department continued to expand, and was inaugurated on 1 June 1947.
Around the same time, Prime Minister Ben Chifley pledged that his government would aim to introduce television to the country as soon as possible. Changes to the ABC's funding structure took place in 1948 - amendments were made to the Broadcasting Act with the effect that the ABC would no longer receive its finances from licenses, but from a government appropriation.
Changes made in the post-war moved 'serious' programming such as news, current affairs, and features — early forms of what became known as documentaries to the Commission's national network, with lighter entertainment programming left for the metropolitan stations. A Light Entertainment department was formed, to produce programs such as ABC Hit Parade, The Wilfrid Thomas Show, Bob Dyer's Dude Ranch and The Village Glee.
Long-running regional affairs program The Country Hour began in December, 1945. The ABC's coverage of rural affairs was significantly enhanced by the deployment of journalists and 'extension officers' to major country areas. The increasing availability of landlines and teleprinters allowed the organisation to gather and broadcast news and other program material with much greater efficiency than in the previous two decades. By this time, as many as 13 national news bulletins were broadcast daily.
In 1953, the federal Television Act was passed, providing the initial regulatory framework for both the ABC and commercial television networks. Over the next three years, planning for the introduction of a national television service was put in place - land for studios and transmitters in Sydney and Melbourne was acquired, and overseas tutors were brought to Australia to assist with training.
Commercial station TCN-9 Sydney was the first to broadcast in Australia, soon followed by the ABC's own ABN-2 Sydney and later ABV-2 in Melbourne. Six stations, three in Melbourne and three in Sydney, were in operation in time to cover the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne. The ABC's first television broadcast was inaugurated by Prime Minister Robert Menzies on 5 November, at the Gore Hill studios in Sydney, followed two weeks later by transmission in Melbourne.
Although radio programs could be broadcast nationally by landline, television relay facilities were not put in place until the early 1960s. This meant that news bulletins had to be sent to each capital city by teleprinter, to be prepared and presented separately in each city, with filmed materials copied manually and sent to each state.
A purpose-built television studio was built in Sydney, and opened on 29 January 1958 - replacing temporary sound studios used since the ABC's television services launched in 1956. In the same year, technical equipment was also moved to permanent locations, while main transmitters were introduced to Melbourne and Sydney in 1957 and 1958, respectively.
1960s and 1970s
Weekly current affairs program Four Corners began in 1961, followed in the same year by Profiles of Power, a series of interviews with prominent Australians. Direct relays between Sydney and Melbourne, as well as Canberra, were also established in 1961, replacing temporary microwave relays as a means of simultaneously airing programs across multiple stations. Videotape equipment, allowing the sharing of footage with much greater ease and speed, was installed in each state capital by 1962.
The ABC was one of the first television networks to embrace the rock'n'roll revolution of the late 1950s, most notably with Six O'Clock Rock, hosted by Johnny O'Keefe. During the 60s and early 70s the ABC continued to produce programs on popular music, including the pop show Hitscene, performance specials by groups such as Tully and Max Merritt & The Meteors, as well as the magazine-style program GTK, which premiered in 1969 and screened for 10 minutes, four nights per week at 6.30pm, immediately prior to Bellbird and the 7.00pm news bulletin.
Although it was long thought that most of this priceless material had been erased - much like the BBC, an "economy drive" undertaken in the late 1970s led to the erasure of large amounts of videotaped material, including most of the first two years of Countdown. However, extensive archival research within the ABC following the recent closure of the old Gore Hill studios in Sydney has revealed that, although some early videotape-only content was erased, much of the primary footage had (fortunately) been shot on film and most of this was retained. It is believed that approximately 80% of GTK has survived. In the early years of television, the ABC had been using Lissajous figures as fillers in-between programs. A staff competition was conducted in 1963 to create a new logo for use on television, stationery, publications, microphone badges and ABC vehicles. Graphic designer, Bill Kennard, who had been experimenting with telerecording of the Cathode Ray Oscillograph displays, submitted a design in 1965 which was part of the waveform of an oscilloscope. The letters A-B-C were added to the wavelength design and it was adopted as the ABC's official logo. Mr Kennard was paid twenty five pounds for his design.
In 1967, the weeknightly television current affairs program, This Day Tonight, and its counterpart on radio, PM, were introduced. The ABC also focused on producing radio and television talk programs that explored a wide range of national and international issues. Prominent among these was The Science Show, which began in 1975, hosted by Robyn Williams. In the same year radio program, Coming out ready or not (later known simply as The Coming Out Show), produced by the Australian Women's Broadcasting Cooperative, launched, dealing with women's issues.
The ABC also opened a number of new overseas news bureaux - new offices were opened in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur in 1964, New Delhi and Tokyo in 1966, Washington in 1967, and Bangkok in 1972. Radio Australia also broadcast special news bulletins to Australian and New Zealand armed forces in Vietnam, with 20 correspondents covering the conflict between 1965 and 1972.
The number of commissioners was increased once again in 1967 to nine. In 1975 the Whitlam government introduced, without legislation, a staff elected commissioner position, subsequently discontinued by the Fraser government. Another Act was passed in 1976, further rasing the number of commissioners to eleven. In addition to mandating a commissioner from each state, it required two women to be on the Commission.
In 1975, colour television was introduced in Australia. Within a decade, the ABC had moved into satellite broadcasting, enhancing its ability to distribute content nationally. In the same year, the ABC introduced a 24 hour-a-day AM rock station in Sydney, 2JJ (Double Jay), which was eventually expanded into the national Triple J FM network. A classical music network was established a year later on the FM band, broadcasting from Adelaide. It was initially known as ABC-FM - referring both to its 'fine music' programming and radio frequency.
The 1980s saw a number of major landmarks for the ABC. Sir Talbot Duckmanton resigned as General Manager in 1982, the same year that the Commission was host broadcaster for the Commonwealth Games, held in Brisbane. 1982 was also the Australian Broadcasting Commission's fiftieth anniversary, an event celebrated around the country.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983  changed the name of the organisation from the "Australian Broadcasting Commission" to the "Australian Broadcasting Corporation" effective 1 July 1983. At the same time, the newly formed Corporation underwent significant restructuring - program production in indigenous affairs, comedy, social history and current affairs was significantly expanded, while the Corporation's output of drama was boosted. Local production trebled from 1986 to 1991 with the assistance of co-production, co-financing, and pre-sales arrangements.
The changes also resulted in the split of television and radio operations into two separate divisions, with an overhaul of management, finance, property and engineering undertaken. Geoffrey Whitehead was the initial Managing Director, however following his resignation in 1986, David Hill (at the time chair of the ABC Board) took over his position.
In 1981 ABC Radio began carrying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander broadcasts in Alice Springs and later Northern Queensland, while at the same time comedy and social history units were set up, and news and current affairs output expanded.
Teletext services were introduced to ABC-TV in 1983 to allow hearing-impaired viewers access to closed captions. Nationwide, the successor to This Day Tonight, was replaced in turn by a new, hour-long, national news program called The National. Having proved unsuccessful, it reverted to a state ABC News bulletin at 7.00 pm, with a state-based edition of The 7.30 Report following afterwards. Lateline and Media Watch also launched in the 1980s.
New guidelines passed by the ABC Board in 1984 led to increased Australian content on ABC-TV, particularly in prime time. New programs such as The Investigators, Quantum, and Bush Tucker Man were launched to large audiences. Other popular programs included The D Generation, Australia You're Standing In It, The Big Gig, and long-running music program Rage.
A new Concert Music department was formed in 1985 to coordinate the corporation's six symphony orchestras, which in turn received a greater level of autonomy in order to better respond to local needs. Open-air free concerts and tours, educational activities, and joint ventures with other music groups were undertaken at the time to expand the orchestras' audience reach.
ABC Radio was restructured significantly in 1985 – Radio One became the Metropolitan network, while Radio 2 became known as Radio National (callsigns, however, were not standardised until 1990). New programs such as The World Today, Australia All Over, and The Coodabeen Champions were introduced, while ABC-FM established an Australian Music Unit in 1989. Radio Australia began to focus on the Asia-Pacific region, with coverage targeted at the south west and central Pacific, south-east Asia, and north Asia. Radio Australia also carried more news coverage, with special broadcasts during the 1987 Fijian coups d'état, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and (in the early 1990s) the Gulf War.
A government initiative undertaken in 1987 known as the Second Regional Radio Network established nineteen new studios in regional areas (with an additional sixteen upgraded), as well as approximately 300 additional transmitters. At the same time, Radio National and ABC-FM were expanded into these areas. A year later, the Parliamentary and News Network was established to carry the ABC's mandatory Parliamentary broadcasts on eight transmitters in each state capital as well as Newcastle, Canberra, and Darwin.
The 1990s also saw the expansion of the ABC's network of ABC shops, which sell a wide range of program-related merchandise, including books, CDs and DVDs. During the same decade, ABC Online was established as a complement to the organisation's broadcasting endeavours, providing transcripts, podcasts, and other related material. Triple J, meanwhile, had grown to cover all state capitals in addition to Darwin, Canberra, and Newcastle.
Increasing pressure throughout the 1980s led the ABC to divest its orchestras in 1990. They formed Symphony Australia, an umbrella organisation that coordinates the now independent state-based orchestras (still owned by the ABC). The Sydney Symphony Orchestra was the first to be corporatised in 1996 when Sydney Symphony Orchestra Holdings Pty Ltd was formed.
During this period he ABC set in motion plans to consolidate its properties and buildings in Sydney and Melbourne into single sites in each city. It was not until 1991, however that the Corporation's Sydney radio and orchestral operations moved to a new building built by Leighton Holdings on a single site in the inner-city suburb of Ultimo. In Melbourne, the ABC Southbank Centre was completed in 1994, and now houses the radio division in Victoria as well as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
The ABC Multimedia Unit was established in July, 1995, to manage the new ABC website (launched in August). Funding was allocated later that year specifically for online content, as opposed to reliance on funding for television and radio content. The first online election coverage was put together in 1996, and included news, electorate maps, candidate information and live results.
By the early 1990s, all major ABC broadcasting outlets moved to 24 hour-a-day operation, while regional radio coverage in Australia was extended with 80 new transmitters. Live television broadcasts of selected parliamentary sessions started in 1990. ABC NewsRadio, a continuous news network broadcast on the Parliamentary and News Network when parliament is not sitting, was launched on 5 October 1996.
Trials for digital radio began in the 1990s, using the popular Eureka 147 standard. At the same time, the majority of operations were upgraded to fully digitised systems for program playout and storage, as well as a word processing system adapted specifically for the needs of the division's news services.
International television service Australia Television International was established in 1993, while at the same Radio Australia increased its international reach. Reduced funding in 1997 for Radio Australia resulted in staff and programming cuts.
ABC-FM relaunched in 1994 as ABC Classic FM, accompanied by major changes to the station's music and programming. In 1995, D-Cart digital technology developed by ABC Radio attracted worldwide interest and was sold to European, North American and Asian markets. The ABC used D-Radio, the first fully digital audio system, for Triple J.
The ABC's television operations joined its radio and online divisions at the Corporation's Ultimo headquarters in 2000. The 2001 Centenary of Federation was celebrated across a number of outlets on 6 May. In the same year, digital television commenced after four years of preparation. In readiness, the ABC had fully digitised its production, post-production and transmission facilities - heralded at the time as 'the greatest advance in television technology since the introduction of colour'. The first programs to be produced in widescreen were drama series Something in the Air, Grass Roots and In the Mind of the Architect.
At the same time, the ABC's Multimedia division was renamed 'ABC New Media', becoming an output division of the ABC alongside Television and Radio. Legislation allowed the ABC to provide 'multichannels' - additional, digital-only, television services managed by the New Media division. Soon after the introduction of digital television in 2001, Fly TV and the ABC Kids Channel launched, showing a mix of programming aimed at teenagers and children. The division also experimented with interactive television in 2001, on the Optus Television subscription platform.
In July 2002, to celebrate ABC's 70th anniversary, the corporation launched a new logo across all media. Also, 3 new television idents are created for ABC TV to feature a silver ring transforming to the ABC logo.
In 2002, the ABC launched ABC Asia Pacific - the replacement for the defunct Australia Television channel operated previously by the Seven Network. Much like its predecessor, and companion radio network Radio Australia, the service provided a mix of programming targeted at audiences throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Funding cuts in 2003, meanwhile, led to the closure of Fly and the ABC Kid's Channel.
Meanwhile, ABC Radio continued to upgrade its studio and transmitter facilities. The ABC attracted large audiences for its non-commercial radio coverage of the 2000 Summer Olympics, with a range of programming across its various networks. All networks celebrated 100 years of radio in 2001 with special broadcasts marking the event and a limited edition CD released, with highlights of the ABC's output since 1932.
ABC NewsRadio began to continue its news programming online while its radio network broadcast parliament in 2002 - amongst the first of the Corporation's radio networks to offer live, exclusive, streaming online. The service also expanded into the Gold Coast - the first new coverage area for the network in five years.
In 2003, former Communications Minister Senator Richard Alston lodged sixty-eight complaints with the Independent Complaints Review Panel against ABC's AM radio program for its coverage of the US-led invasion of Iraq. The panel upheld seventeen of the lodged complaints, overall finding no evidence of biased and anti-Coalition coverage. Of the seventeen complaints by the Minister that were upheld, twelve displayed serious bias on the part of the reporters or the program's presenter Linda Mottram.
ABC2, a second attempt at a digital-only television channel, launched on 7 March 2005. Unlike its predecessors the new service was not dependent on government funding, instead running on a budget of $3 million per year. Minister for Communications Helen Coonan inaugurated the channel at Parliament House three days later. Genre restrictions limiting the types of programming the channel could carry were lifted in October, 2006 - ABC2 was henceforth able to carry programming classified as comedy, drama, national news, sport and entertainment.
A 2006 restructure of the ABC board, undertaken by the Howard government, abolished the position of staff elected director. The elected director was previously nominated and elected by employees of the ABC. Nominees for this director office were to have been employed at least 24 hours a week by the ABC and the term of office was two years with eligibility for re-election to a second term. An elected director was not eligible for a third term of office. This move drew criticism from the Labor Party, Australian Greens, and the Democrats, who saw it as a 'revenge measure' taken against the Corporation.
In the same year, Managing Director Mark Scott formally released a new set of editorial guidelines covering news and current affairs, opinion programs, factual programs and performance pieces. The ABC must express "a full range of views in opinion-based programs and ensure that when an opinion is expressed, it is clearly marked as an opinion." The guidelines came into effect in March 2007.
A high incidence of breast cancer in female staff working at the ABC's offices in Brisbane led to the closure of the site, based in Toowong, on 21 December 2006. Fourteen women were diagnosed with the disease in a period spanning 1994 to 2007. A progress report released in March, 2007, by an independent panel formed to investigate the occurrences found that the rate of occurrence for breast cancer at the offices was 11 times higher than elsewhere.
Since the closure of the site, the ABC's Brisbane television and radio operations were moved to alternate locations around the city, including Ten Brisbane's studios at Mt Coot-tha. The ABC's Managing Director, Mark Scott, announced in August, 2007 that new studios would be built on the site, following the final release of the Review and Scientific Investigation Panel's report.
In the lead up to the 2007 federal election, the Australian Government endorsed a proposal submitted to the Australian Communications and Media Authority by the ABC to launch a second digital channel targeted at children. The new channel, titled ABC3 would aim to provide at least 50% Australian-made content.
In January, 2008 The Australian reported that the 43-year-old Lissajous curve logo was to disappear completely with the rebranding of the ABC TV channel as ABC1, complementing the existing ABC2 digital-only channel and the anticipated ABC3 children's channel. ABC management denied it, stating that it would remain in use by the corporation.
ABC iView, an online video-on-demand service, officially launched in July, 2008. Originally known as ABC Playback, it allows viewers to watch shows from ABC1 and ABC2, as well as news updates and previews from the ABC Shop. The service offers full-screen video through a Flash-based interface, building on the 55 shows already podcasted or released online.
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation
- ABC Television
- Television in Australia
- Television broadcasting in Australia
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- ABC celebrates 80 years of broadcasting - Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1 July 2012).