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Importance of Public Service Broadcasting in Australia This paper, by providing specific references to the structure of public policymaking in media and communications in Australia, explains the importance of public service broadcaster in this country. To begin with, a distinction can be made between ‘input’ (subsidization of production) and ‘output’ (regulation to encourage and manage the distribution and exhibition of product) government interventions. The levels of output regulation are based on the perceived nature of the specific media. Traditionally, the ‘arts’ have been considered artisan or non-industrial in nature, and have attracted a subsidy or input approach from government. The ‘media’ have been considered industrial in nature, and have attracted a regulatory or output approach. This latter approach varies along an axis ranging from a highly regulated broadcasting industry to the virtual open market in print, video and film distribution and exhibition. Public service broadcasting (PSB) is that sector of broadcasting that in Australia is represented by the radio, television and online services of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS).

 

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The concept has its origins in the philosophy and practice of broadcasting first seen in Britain in the 1920s when the BBC was founded. The first Director General of the BBC, John Reith, articulated a philosophy for PSB which deeply influenced the way in which broadcasting was subsequently established in the ‘dominions’ (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa), in Europe, in India and in post-World War II Japan (Scannell and Cardiff 7-11). For Reith, broadcasting was essentially a ‘public service’ which would act as a ‘cultural, moral and educative force for the improvement of knowledge, taste and manners’ (Scannell and Cardiff 7). It also had the social and political function of unifying the nation and of helping in the creation of an informed and enlightened democracy. This was the thinking that led broadcasting in Britain (and in the rest of Western Europe) to be established as a non-commercial monopoly—in contrast to the United States where a different view of what guaranteed democracy led to broadcasting being established not under the aegis of the state, but as a set of privately owned commercially run organizations (Streeter 24). Australia, nevertheless, opted for a ‘mixed model’ (Johnson 9–10), with first radio and then television established with both ‘public service’ and ‘commercial’ sectors.

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The debate about what exactly is the role and function of public service broadcasting has been a constant feature of debate since those early days. The concept has proved to be a slippery and pliable one. It has evolved and changed as the broadcasting landscape itself has changed. And as the concept was transplanted from Britain into other parts of the world, it adapted to different purposes befitting its new environment. In new settler societies like Australia it had and continues to have an important nation-building function, connecting remote and developing parts of vast nation continents to the wider world (Livingstone 11–13). In Australia, the PSB’s its purpose is essentially democratizing in two senses. The first is the idea that the finest aspects of culture could be made available to the whole population, not just to an elite who could afford them. Thus in early PSB radio we find an emphasis on cultural programming like drama and fine music. John Reith’s BBC could tolerate more popular or ‘low’ genres like quiz shows and popular music like jazz with only the greatest difficulty.

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This fear was fed by a disdain for American popular culture and a desire to preserve British broadcasting and protect it from American influences as much as possible. The second is the notion that PSB should play a role in informing the population, thus enhancing their ability to exercise citizenship in a variety of ways, including at national elections. This led to the programming of instructional talks about a great variety of topics, educational programs for adults and schools and news reports, although these were constrained by the desire to protect newspaper interests and were restricted in various ways to avoid direct competition (Johnson 33-34). Another aspect of this ‘improving’ mission was that sections of the community seen as needing special kinds of remediation, education or cultural development—for example, children, women and the regions—were catered for through programs especially designed to address them. Much of this could be wrapped up in the package of ‘excellence’ or ‘quality’. Essential to the Reithian vision was the notion that, whatever programming was done by the public service broadcaster, it would be of the highest quality.

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It would stretch and extend the audience. It would make them better than they were. As commercial competition began to be added to the broadcasting landscape, this notion of quality remained a touchstone of the justification for the continuation of public service broadcasting. In spite of the profound changes which have occurred in society and broadcasting since the founding moment in the 1920s and 1930s, it is remarkable how many of these original themes still play themselves out in the current debates about the importance of PSB.

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