A veteran TV executive who for more than 60 years had a box seat view on the power plays between media magnates and politicians has slammed the country’s failure to ever develop a broadcasting policy to promote Australian content and limit the power of the private networks.
Nigel Dick, who was in the industry from when TV transmissions first began in 1956 as sales manager of what was to become Sir Frank Packer’s GTV9 in Victoria, has distilled insights from a 60 year career into a University of Melbourne University PhD thesis, making him at 87 one of the oldest people to complete a doctorate at the university.
In his thesis Media Mavericks he argues the Menzies government made a serious mistake in granting too many commercial TV licences in Australian capital cities. It was ultimately a misguided attempt by the government to please the media owners and play them off against each other, he says.
“Governments have been scared of the media magnates,” says Dick, who was a right hand man to Sir Frank. “They made room for all but not room for television to do the things that we thought at the time it should be doing.”
More on life working for Sir Frank Packer here
Ultimately the government’s plan to divide and conquer only resulted in the networks scrambling over a market for advertising revenue that proved too small to sustain quality Australian programming when split across three commercial licenses in each capital city.
That meant Australian content on commercial TV never stood a chance against US and UK content that was cheaper to buy.
It also meant power lay with the big media magnates who by taking out licenses across different capitals could then network programs across their affiliates. Outside the cities it meant the regional players lacked the revenue to sustain independence and ultimately had to rely on taking networked metropolitan programs.
As stationmanager at GTV9 when the third license for Melbourne was granted to what would become Channel 10, Dick remembers being uneasy about the advertising pie. But then CEO, former war correspondent Colin Bednall, told him to just worry about being top of the ratings. “It was easy to be wise in hindsight,” says Dick.
Crucially, he argues in his thesis that the Menzies government from the start yielded power to the would-be TV owners by issuing commercial licenses for them to establish their own rival transmission facilities. The heavy investment required meant that there was never a risk of the corporations losing a license and constructed high barriers to new entrants.
But it also meant that commercial operators had to put the advertising revenue into maintaining transmission facilities, further reducing the amount of revenue available for programming.
In contrast, he says, the UK government had trod more carefully by retaining ownership of transmission.
“If we didn’t have so many licenses then a broadcasting policy could demand a greater number of Australian drama programs and documentary programs because they would have been more affordable,” says Dick.
In the present model government can demand as much as they like in terms of programming but if there isn’t the money to produce them then the network’s can’t afford them.
He says government was too wary of the potential power of the TV owners, but in trying to please them all and play them off commercially, it missed out on the opportunity to create strong regulations that could have ensured a diversity of content and better meet community demand.
While fewer licenses may have meant more power for fewer owners, he argues that the stronger revenue would have meant that the government could have been stronger in calling the shots on regulation to ensure Australians got the diverse range of programs they wanted rather than an over reliance on US and UK content.
“While you can’t satisfy every market’s precise needs and wishes, you can go a lot further and determine what the public wants from TV and from then set about how it can be afforded.” He notes that in the US and Canada efforts are made by regulators to understand what the public wants from their TV screens.
“Lets face it, the airwaves belong to the people; they don’t belong to the licensees who only have a license to use the airwaves.”
Other people would have chosen to write a memoir of the turbulent times when the Packers and Murdoch and Fairfax wrangled and dealt over the new medium that quickly ensconced itself in everyone’s living room. But Dick wanted to do more than simply rely on his memories. He wanted something rigorous which could stand up to scrutiny and completed his PhD in just over four years.
“I thought about writing a book but there are lots of books that never get published or that get published and don’t sell. At least with a thesis it has the validity of being overseen academically,” he says. “It means you don’t just pursue your own thinking, which can often be wrong. Memories can play funny tricks.”
He also saw it as an opportunity to get the best of both worlds, academic and business.
I see my PhD as being an academic looking out and into the industry with the advantage of an industry person looking into academia. It is a two way thing.
Dick started out in media working as a 20-year-old selling advertising on The Daily Telegraph in Sydney when it was part of Sir Frank’s Consolidated Press Holdings. But after rising up the ranks in advertising he was cherry picked to join the new medium. By 1970 he was effectively heading up all the Packer’s radio and TV businesses as head of what is now the Nine Network.
He eventually left the Packers, going into the production side as Director of Crawford Productions in 1975 and was a founding member of Film Victoria. He went up against his old bosses in the battle over regional independence as federal councillor of the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations in 1984-1987. He also headed up Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand and and through to 2010 was working as a consultant across the industry including doing work for presenter and producer Steve Vizard and billionaire Robert Holmes a Court.
Pull the story
Dick knows from first-hand that the big media owners are prepared to use their power, even if it is simply to keep select politicians happy. He remembers in 1965 as head of GTV9 being directly told by Sir Frank to pull from the news an emotional interview with the mother of convicted murderer Ronald Ryan, who was about to be hanged.
Then Victorian Premier Henry Bolte was determined the sentence be carried out but was facing massive protests including opposition from all the major newspapers and the ABC. The interview, which was carried by all TV news bulletins, increased the pressure on Bolte. After a conversation with Bolte in which the Premier had complained about the coverage Sir Frank called Dick and told him to pull the story from GTV9’s late news, telling Dick the less the media pressure on Bolte the greater the chance of his changing his mind.
“When Sir Frank was in one of those moods you did what you were told. After all, he owned it,” Dick says. Ryan would be the last person executed in Australia.
Dick argues the fragmentation of TV, where traditional free-to-air stations are under siege from pay TV stations, YouTube and Internet streaming, is a new opportunity for the government to finally promote Australian content and put a broadcasting policy in place. He said the power of the network owners, the licensees, is fading as the sector fragments, and he believes power will finally shift to program producers.
“The future of giving people what they want in terms of drama, news and documentaries will come from the production side rather than the licensee side.”
It also means that he believes the power of the media owners is waning and politicians shouldn’t be scared any more of putting the public first when it comes to policy.
“For politicians it was important to keep the media magnates onside, but that has now changed,” he says.
In those days the media owners had enormous power and government was very much aware of it. They don’t have to be aware of it now.
His comments come as the Turnbull government is planning to shake up media laws with plans to dump the “reach rule” that limits the reach of TV broadcast licenses to no more than 75 per cent of the population. More controversially it plans to drop the “two-out-of-three” ownership restriction. The rule restricts media owners from controlling a TV station, radio station and newspaper all in the same market. Its removal is expected to spark a new round of mergers and takeovers. They are also looking at increasing quotas for local news in regional markets.
According to Dick the key policy challenge is to encourage funding for Australian production and promote it not only in Australia but overseas. He says it is worth considering establishing a central production funding body, perhaps with government support, that networks and stations around the world could buy from.
“What better way to show the Australian way of life than having a lot of our drama being shown overseas?”
“The solution lies in creating a new media model. It must be constructed by a ‘think-tank’ whose membership should include not only the present licensees but also other knowledgeable media thinkers, for example program producers and a cross-section of viewers.”
“It must also recognise both large and small community viewing preferences.”
Banner image: Rob Jewitt/Flickr