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Small Screens

Introduction

MICHELLE ARROW, JEANNINE BAKER AND CLARE MONAGLE

Some Australians of a certain age love to describe what it was like when television arrived in 1956. They will tell you about watching the Melbourne Olympics at a neighbour’s house, or in the shop window. For baby boomers, the new tube constituted a milestone up there with Kennedy’s assassination and the dismissal. The television landscape has changed immeasurably since Bruce Gyngell declared “Welcome to Television”. We can now watch when we want and where we want, on myriad devices. We are not stuck with Graham Kennedy and grainy black and white football replays. Television is free to air, live streaming, pay per view, subscriber channels, delivered to our pockets and laptops whenever we want it.

There is so much to watch. So much that it can sometimes feel like a form of cultural duty, keeping up with our small screens. There has been a proliferation of digital channels. We can catch up on missed programs easily via the web. The arrival of Netflix, Stan and Presto in 2015 has only added to our televisual obligations. Unless it is live sport or a reality show grand final, there is no longer any need for appointment viewing. Long gone are the days where families battled it out over Young Talent Time or the football at 6:30 on Saturday nights, or where we were forced to choose between The Comedy Company versus 60 Minutes. We are now much more atomised in our viewing, able to pick and choose. In many cases, all members of a household can happily watch what they want, simultaneously. On public transport we used to lean over the shoulders of our fellow passengers to see what they are reading. Now we glimpse a flash of Game of Thrones or Girls on the number whatever bus.

What, then, of the national television culture? Among this diffusion, is Australian-ness still refracted on our screens? And do screens create our Australian-ness? In the heyday of Australian cultural nationalism in the 1970s and 1980s, a growing fascination with Australian history and the ready availability of investor finance saw a proliferation of television depictions of Australian identity and culture. Changing viewing habits, cuts to investment incentives and public funding of screen production, and almost two decades of culture wars on public broadcasting has changed Australia’s television landscape. Streaming and sharing has transformed our viewing habits: will it change what we can watch? Does our television still tell Australian stories? Will it be able to do so into the future? ABC Managing Director Mark Scott warned in the Inaugural Brian Johns lecture that:

There is such a hunger for Australian stories in all their guises, beyond reality and sport. However, finding local productions of drama, documentary and narrative comedy is a persistent challenge and one that has become even harder as a result of cuts over time in funding to the national broadcasters, Screen Australia and state-funded bodies.

Why does all this matter?

It matters because the work of the Australian content industry in telling Australian stories underpins Australian identity, culture and society.

[…] Even in an increasingly fragmented world, Australian stories on television will continue to be shared. We need to look collaboratively and creatively at ways to ensure they are not sidelined, but remain a key feature of our media landscape.1

Despite Scott’s note of caution, Small Screens suggests that Australian television still retains a place at the centre of our national cultural life. Television commands enormous audiences compared to almost any other cultural form. The essays in this book show that television still makes a significant impact on our political, social and cultural life. Television programs make the news and reflect the news. Who could forget Kevin Rudd’s toxic, wounded pride on The Killing Season? The unexpected ratings failure of Channel Nine’s costly miniseries Gallipoli? The raw testimonies of women who escaped violent relationships in Hitting Home? The Abbott government’s war on the ABC’s Q&A? Gina Rinehart’s legal action against House of Hancock? These were all television programs that burst the bounds of the small screen to take over headlines and (briefly) dominate the national conversation.

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We asked our contributors to write about these programs, not as specialists in television studies, or as critics, but to consider them as windows onto national issues and conversations. As historians, we wanted to explore the place that television occupies in contemporary Australian life, and our contributors (many being historians themselves) accepted that challenge with enthusiasm. This is a book for anyone interested in contemporary Australian culture. It is intended to fill a ‘middle space’ between the immediacy of the daily news cycle of criticism and commentary, and the longer-term perspective of scholarly writing and analysis.

Small Screens consists of twelve essays on a range of noteworthy programs broadcast on Australian television in 2015. Our selection of programs is necessarily idiosyncratic: from The Bachelor to The Killing Season, The Secret River to Struggle Street, we have attempted to represent some of the scope and scale of drama, factual and serialised programs broadcast on television.

Nick Herd provides a roadmap to the transformations that have characterised the broadcasting industry in recent years: digital disruption, massive government funding cuts, and the arrival of overseas streaming services have changed the ways our television is made and consumed. In his chapter on Making Australia Great and The Killing Season, Mark Hearn reflects on the ways these programs reflected our political culture, which increasingly plays out as ‘dismal soap opera’. Jeannine Baker examines the toll that successive funding changes have taken on our documentary production sector, astutely observing that changes to the commissioning and funding of one-off documentaries may jeopardise the broadcasting of distinctively Australian stories.

One of the big surprises of 2015 was the resounding failure of Anzac-themed television series. While record crowds turned out to dawn services and Anzac marches across the country, they didn’t watch Channel 9’s big-budget miniseries Gallipoli. Carolyn Holbrook argues that this series (and all Anzac-themed dramas) failed because it has proved impossible to dislodge Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli from its central position in the national memory of Anzac.

Sarah Pinto compares the rapturous reception for the ABC adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River with the critical local response to the BBC series Banished, which featured no Indigenous characters. Defamation law specialist David Rolph surveys the fascinating legal travails of House of Hancock, pointing out the risks that docudrama producers face in dramatising the lives of living people, particularly litigious ones like Gina Rinehart. Liz Giuffre considers the use of music in the latest dramatisation of the life of songwriter and performer Peter Allen, Not the Boy Next Door, and argues that the miniseries’ use of music television nostalgia foregrounds the importance of television in Allen’s rise to fame.

David Nichols celebrates thirty years of Neighbours with an affectionate, but critical, appraisal of the show set in Australia’s most recognisable cul-de-sac. Jodi McAlister, herself a Bachie blogger, situates the dating show phenomenon in the long and changing history of romance narratives. Zora Simic investigates Struggle Street, assessing its claims to offer genuine class analysis, against the accusations of poverty porn. She reads Struggle Street amidst other depictions of Westies. Michelle Arrow suggests that the ABC programs Judith Lucy is All Woman and Hitting Home marked a year of feminist television, amplifying public conversations about gender inequality in Australia. In ‘A bitter pill to swallow’ Clare Monagle analyses the work done by food on our screens, arguing that food is never just fuel, but constitutes an imaginary of both nationhood and purity.

Taken together, our sample of programs reveals Australian television as a place that revels in bourgeois aspiration. Our screens insist that we try to eat clean, fall in love and keep a modern home. At the same time, cautionary tales are rolled out every night, to remind the viewer of what will happen if they fail to join this middle-class ideal. Images of the under-class and the overweight are often deployed to signify rejection from this wholesome national fantasy. And this wholesome national fantasy, when these accounts of major Australian television programs are read as a group, reveals a whiteness at its core. While a number of our contributors addressed race within their essays, and bearing in mind the presence of such programs as Black Comedy and, in the years preceding 2015 (which has been the focus of this book), Redfern Now, Legally Brown, and The Gods of Wheat Street, it is salutary to consider Australian screens collectively and register the general whiteness of both the shows’ creators and their on-screen talent. There have been more laudable attempts over the past twelve months to shed light on important social issues, most particularly on Prison Songs and Hitting Home, which have incorporated race sensitively into their analysis. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule, alas. Television may have changed greatly since 1956, but it seems that a dominant imagined whiteness remains the same.

Television, then, does a lot of work culturally, for better or for worse. Join our contributors as they delineate, appreciate, ponder and take to task the stuff that we watch on the tube in Australia.

 

1Mark Scott, ‘The Future of the Australian Story’, Inaugural Brian Johns Lecture, Macquarie University, 15 September 2015, http://about.abc.net.au/speeches/the-future-of-the-australian-story/.

Small Screens

   by Michelle Arrow, Jeannine Baker and Clare Monagle