Australia/ 4.2 Recent policy issues and debates  

4.2.6 Media pluralism and content diversity

Publicly funded broadcasting in Australia

According to an Australian Bureau of Statistics’ survey in 2011, the Commonwealth Government provided $2,457.0m for arts and heritage activities, 53% ($1,295.0m) of which was for radio and television services.  These were dedicated primarily to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)

The origins of the public broadcasting system in Australia date to the early 1920s, when the Commonwealth government commenced issuing licences for radio broadcasters.  There were two types of licence: ‘A class’ licences which were primarily supported by licence fees, and ‘B class’ licences which were primarily supported by advertising.  These gradually evolved into the public broadcasting and commercial broadcasting sectors respectively.  An interim step towards a national broadcaster came when the government, in 1928–9, took over the A class licences and awarded them to a company, the Australian Broadcasting Company, which was ultimately to become the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC).  The ABC was conceived as a single national broadcaster, supported by listener licence fees, alongside a series of commercial broadcasters, supported by advertising.  The commercial broadcasters were intended to serve local interests, while the ABC served national interests.  This system was duplicated when television was introduced in 1956.  Both ABC radio and ABC television were modelled upon the British Broadcasting Corporation and, even today, programs sourced overseas are more frequently obtained from the United Kingdom, frequently the BBC, than any other country or broadcaster.

During World War II the ABC’s radio broadcasts had become a virtual arm of government, supporting the war effort.  One of the major developments at this time was the establishment of what became known as Radio Australia, a shortwave radio service directed at the Asian region.  Initially part of the war effort Radio Australia is now a major disseminator of news, current affairs, music and talks programs that aim to reflect ‘the Australian way of life’, broadcasting in several languages to countries in the Asia Pacific region. 

As a further reflection of the changes brought about by virtue of the war effort and of Australia’s occasional divergence from the requirements of the British war effort to those its own, in the immediate post-war period the Broadcasting Act was altered to require the ABC to develop and produce its own Australian news.  Despite inroads by commercial radio and television, the ABC has remained, in the minds of most Australians, the authoritative voice for news and current affairs, notwithstanding ongoing charges of lack of balance in reporting from whichever political party is in power at the time.

In 1971 ABC Television began the co-production of television dramas with overseas broadcasters, and a generation of Australian actors, composers and theatre technicians honed their skills in the new medium.  In 1976 the ABC’s first FM stereo radio station was established and dedicated to the broadcast of classical music.

Following recommendations from a major government review, The ABC in review: national broadcasting in the 1980s (known as the Dix Report after review chair, A T  Dix) the ABC became a corporation in 1983 with a Charter describing the following functions:

(a) to provide within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard as part of the Australian broadcasting system consisting of national, commercial and community sectors and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, to provide:

(i) broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community; and

(ii) broadcasting programs of an educational nature;

(b) to transmit to countries outside Australia broadcasting programs of news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural enrichment that will:

(i) encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs; and

(ii) enable Australian citizens living or travelling outside Australia to obtain information about Australian affairs and Australian attitudes on world affairs; and

(c) to encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia.

The period following incorporation saw a continual expansion in delivery, both in relation to types of broadcasting and to location of stations and transmitters.  The adoption of an FM spectrum for radio saw the introduction of a fine music station, dedicated primarily to classical music; a popular music station; a station devoted to talks, discussion and current affairs; a news station which also has a requirement to broadcast the proceedings of the Federal Parliament when it is in session; and local radio stations in the capital cities and some regional towns.  In the 1990s the ABC moved increasingly to supplement its grant from the government with income-generating businesses such as book and CD publishing.  One of the ABC’s most celebrated innovations of recent years has been the establishment, with funding support from the Commonwealth Government, of a dedicated television channel for children, with an emphasis upon the broadcast of quality programs and Australian content.

In recent years a new range of digital radio and television stations has been added to the network, together with a strong online presence that has fast become the third pillar with radio and television.  Across its range of radio, television, and online delivery, the ABC’s presence in arts and culture is probably strongest in music from across the spectrum, and in books and writing, with many of the programs on Radio National also focusing on broader issues to do with Australian culture.  The ABC’s budget limitations restrict the range of Australian drama on television, although there has been an attempt to redress this through a special budget allocation in the last three years.   Much of the best television drama is otherwise sourced from Great Britain, but concerns have arisen as to the future of quality British drama on the ABC following a deal between the British Broadcasting Corporation, supplier of ABC programs for some fifty years, and Foxtel in 2013, which would mean free-to-air broadcast of popular British programs may cease once the agreement comes into play in 2014.  For further details see

The ABC has, through its history, needed to chart a careful course in order to reconcile the requirements of its charter with the occasionally differing requirements of its principal funder, the Commonwealth Government.  On the one hand it is expected to be authoritative and balanced in its news delivery, and to deliver programs through all its platforms which would not otherwise be broadcast or which might push new boundaries, while on the other hand it is expected to attract broad popular support.  Its spectrum of radio stations enables this mix of objectives to be achieved, while the opening up of new digital television channels, including Australia’s first 24-hour news channel, has enabled a better balance between popular and more specialist or innovative programming through the medium of television.

The ABC and governments of all persuasions have stood out against the introduction of advertising on the national broadcaster as a way of increasing income, but the downside of this does mean that funding remains tight and dependence on positive attitudes from government continues to put pressure on balance and independence and a temptation, some would say, towards a more populist approach which has irked some, particularly in the arts sector where there has been questioning regarding the ABC’s adherence to its charter.  Typical of this discussion is the article from The Sydney Morning Herald entitled ‘Is the ABC in breach of its charter’ at  Other commentators, including from some right-wing think tanks, have aired the view that the Government should consider privatising the ABC – a proposal recently put forward by a section of the Liberal Party in Victoria, but soon after withdrawn.  See

For a full range of information about the ABC see

Special Broadcasting Service (SBS)

In 1978 the Broadcasting and Television Act 1942 was amended and a new broadcaster, the Special Broadcasting Service was established and, in so doing, took over two existing ethnic radio stations in Sydney and Melbourne.  Then, in 1980, SBS Television was established.  The role of SBS was to provide foreign-language broadcasting for both television and radio.  While originally there had been no firm intention that this would remain a permanent, independent service, the negative reaction to the proposal to merge the SBS into the ABC in 1986 led ultimately to the establishment of SBS as an independent corporation, through the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991.  The most vocal critics of the merger proposal had been Australia’s various ethnic communities who feared the loss of multi-lingual broadcasting if SBS were to be merged into the solely English-language older public broadcaster.

The SBS Charter, contained in Section 6 of the Special Broadcasting Services Act 1991, states:

(1) The principal function of SBS is to provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians and, in doing so, reflect Australia's multicultural society.

(2) SBS, in performing its principal function, must:

 (a) contribute to meeting the communications needs of Australia's multicultural society, including ethnic, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities; and

(b) increase awareness of the contribution of a diversity of cultures to the continuing development of Australian society; and

(c) promote understanding and acceptance of the cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity of the Australian people; and

(d) contribute to the retention and continuing development of language and other cultural skills; and

(e) as far as practicable, inform, educate and entertain Australians in their preferred languages; and

(f) make use of Australia's diverse creative resources; and 

(g) contribute to the overall diversity of Australian television and radio services, particularly taking into account the contribution of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the community broadcasting sector; and

(h) contribute to extending the range of Australian television and radio services, and reflect the changing nature of Australian society, by presenting many points of view and using innovative forms of expression.

 While governments of all political persuasions have remained content to have the ABC as a fully-government funded corporation, the same approach has not been adopted with SBS and, in 2006, commercial advertising was introduced to supplement public funding.

Over the years, staying true to its stated principal function of providing ‘multilingual and multicultural radio and television services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians and, in doing so, reflect Australia's multicultural society’, SBS has reviewed and refreshed multilingual programs.  SBS radio broadcasts in more than 68 languages, while SBS television devotes most of its morning programs to news bulletins sourced from other countries and/or in foreign languages.  SBS has, like the ABC, expanded its offering to the digital spectrum and also has a strong online presence although primarily through the medium of the English language.  One of SBS television’s unique features is its emphasis upon foreign-language films in the evenings, providing a strong countervailing force to the primarily American films on commercial television and relative dearth of films on the ABC.  Nonetheless, as noted in the link above in relation to privatising the public broadcasters, there has been some public criticism that the television arm of SBS is becoming more mainstream than its charter requires.

For further information on SBS see

For Indigenous broadcasting, see section 4.2.4.

Community broadcasters

In addition to the public broadcasters, there is a large network of community broadcasters in Australia.  The Community Broadcasting Association of Australia (CBAA) represents over 270 member stations that are broadcasting across the country.  A number of these stations focus upon music while others focus upon talks, books and writing, drama, lifestyle and other aspects of contemporary life.  Licences are granted by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, subject to availability of a frequency.  Community broadcasters derive their income from a mix of sponsorship, fees for service delivery, grants from governments at all levels, donations and, significantly, in kind from volunteer workers.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)

The Australian Communications and Media Authority is a government agency with responsibility for the regulation of broadcasting, the internet, radio communications and telecommunications.  The responsibilities of the authority are described on its website as:

  • promoting self-regulation and competition in the communications industry, while protecting consumers and other users
  • fostering an environment in which electronic media respect community standards and respond to audience and user needs
  • managing access to the radiofrequency spectrum
  • representing Australia’s communications interests internationally. 

For further information see

Commercial broadcasting

Media ownership regulations have been a source of ongoing debate in Australia since the introduction of the Broadcasting (Ownership and Control) Act 1987 which amended the Broadcasting Act 1942.  The new regulations, known colloquially as the ‘cross-media ownership rules’ meant that one individual or organisation could not own more than 15 per cent of a television licence and a daily (at least four publications per week) newspaper within the same geographic area.  The intention was to support competition, enhance diversity of viewpoints and discourage concentration of media ownership in localised markets.  In 1988 the Act was further modified to extend the limitations to radio licenses.

After intense lobbying from major media interests the Howard Government went to the 2001 election on a platform that included a review of the cross-media and foreign ownership rules for the media.  The electoral policy proposed that exemptions from the cross-media rules would be made for companies that would establish clearly separate editorial policies for media platforms within the same area, and that would undertake to maintain locally produced news and current affairs programs.  The policy also proposed the removal of restrictions on foreign ownership of television stations and newspapers.

After winning the election the government introduced the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002 to implement its election policy commitment, with some amendments that applied to regional markets.  Perhaps predictably, the passing of time has seen some reduction of local content in some regional areas, bringing the issue into contention again. 

In 2006 the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Act 2006 was passed, removing foreign ownership and control restrictions.  However, foreign ownership of Australian media assets continues to be regulated by the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act 1975 and Australia’s Foreign Investment Policy.  For the Act see

There are three major free-to-air commercial national television broadcasters in Australia and another 21 commercial providers, together with 13 pay-tv providers, dominated by one company, News Limited’s Foxtel.  In 2011 only 29% of Australian households were said to have subscribed to pay television, and various reasons for this are proposed in the following article:



Chapter published: 26-12-2013