Sixty years of television: friend or foe of democracy?
Television in Australia turns 60 on 16 September. On that date in 1956, TCN9 began regular transmission in Sydney. But before it began, there were many public concerns about the introduction of TV. Would it be a distraction from education? A corruptor of society’s morals? A threat to social life and community engagement? A vehicle of cultural imperialism?
It had taken many years for Australia to adopt television. Aware of its potential social and political influence, the Menzies coalition government proceeded cautiously and convened a Royal Commission on Television in 1953. The Royal Commission received submissions from a wide range of individuals and organisations across Australia, including religious groups opposed to its introduction and media businessmen supporting it.
The Royal Commission recommended that television should be introduced with both commercial and public stations and government regulation over the number of stations that could be owned by a company.
In 1956, when very few Australians had a television set, many of the negative aspects of TV listed above were true. And today, when there are more than two sets in each household, nearly 19 million in all, the points remain true. But the opposite is also true. Television is so multi-faceted that it is hard to reach hard and fast conclusions about it.
For each example of ‘dumbing down’ there are brilliant television documentaries about everything from history to nature. The televised broadcasting of sporting activity has encouraged scores of thousands of youngsters to train hard in emulation of their heroes.
Community causes, especially charities, have gained unprecedented promotion, and sit-coms featuring single parents and gay couples indicate that television can challenge conformity.
Technological changes resulting in cable and satellite television – ‘Pay TV’ - in the 1990s have meant that niche markets are catered for, thus diminishing any threat of cultural homogenisation. Indeed, Pay TV has encouraged creative and innovative productions.
Australians view, on average, 13 hours of television per week. That’s four weeks over a year. My parents purchased our first family TV set in 1960. I’ve probably spent about nine years in front of a set. I was an avid viewer. It was fun, but TV also brought the world, with all its wonders and horrors, into my loungeroom.
How many Australians, and people throughout the western world, were compelled to question things on seeing graphic footage of police in Alabama setting vicious dogs onto black American protestors? Or the squalid conditions of existence for Aboriginal Australians in remote areas? Or napalmed children during the Vietnam War? Or Czech democrats defying Soviet tanks, and the similarly iconic defiance of tanks during the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989?
Protestors in the streets sometimes chanted “The whole world’s watching!”. We now see the horror of Syria, and the flood of refugees into Europe. Asylum seekers are no longer something we read about and imagine – we see them and recognize their humanity.
Television also brings the federal parliament into our homes, regardless of where we reside on this vast island continent. Question Time has been regularly broadcast since the early 1990s. Prior to that, with the exception of the one-off televised broadcast of the historic Joint Sitting in 1974, we could only listen to our elected representatives on the radio or read newspaper reports about them.
Robert Menzies was ambivalent about television. Yet he became the first Australian politician to master it, outperforming all his rivals through his use of this new medium. And today, television can make or break politicians. We’ve come a long way in 60 years.