I haven’t blogged for over a month, and the reason for that is that we’ve been on the road. Or in the air, or on a train. Lots of trains.

We’ve returned to Sydney after London and Berlin, and I’ve been out of Australia for 3 years. A lot can change in 1 year, let alone 3. As it happens, not much has happened in the Australian media landscape. Of course, a couple of things have come and gone.  Digital TV has expanded, slowly, leaving us with a few more offerings. The Sydney Morning Herald, the only intelligent paper not owned by Rupert Murdoch here in Australia’s biggest city, has lost a little quality. Online offerings of broadcasters have improved a little, of course.

But the overwhelming feature of Australian free to air TV remains – the enormous gulf in quality between the commercial TV networks, and the public service offerings of the ABC and SBS.

Last week, Channel Nine’s Hey Hey It’s Saturday made headlines in the rest of the English-speaking world for a piss-poor black and white minstrels routine. Never mind the shocking cultural insensitivity – the fact that Hey Hey’s comeback won the ratings battle on the night beggars belief. Marina Hyde in the Guardian used it as a stick to beat Australia with, a land which she suggested brings very little to the world of intelligent popular culture. (note; can’t for the life of me find a link for this. Have they taken it down?) Watching Channel Nine, or for that matter Channel Ten, and certainly Channel Seven, it would be entirely fair to come to this conclusion.

What has not changed in the last 3 years is the programming divide. In the UK, the debate around dumbing down has been going on for years. The once proud BBC current affairs strand Panorama is a shell of its former self. But quality factual TV – in the form of documentary and investigative journalism – is alive and well in Australia, on the ABC and SBS.  The current affairs shows screened on Channels 7 and 9 each weeknight, Today Tonight and A Current Affair, are some of the most vile programming I’ve come across. Dishonest, lazy and frequently bigoted attempts at ‘journalism’ might rate well – but any country’s media professionals would be proud of the work going on at the ABC and SBS.

This evening on ABC 1, the flagship news bulletin was followed by the solid current affairs 7.30 Report, which was followed by a typically thorough Four Corners film on businessman James Packer, which was followed by the ever-reliable spotlight of Media Watch. A break for the ever-present BBC drama (no changes there), and it’s back to serious business with Lateline, then Lateline Business. SBS went in with Indigenous current affairs show Living Black at 6pm, followed by an hour of the editorially-sound World News Australia, before Top Gear and Bear Grylls relapses, then the 9.30 World News. Tomorrow night they’ll be showing the outstanding Dateline international affairs show – which the ABC will match with Foreign Correspondent later in the week.

It’s often said that the US’s ‘culture wars’ might have come to an end with the presidency of Barack Obama. With Fox News around, that’s unlikely. What is interesting, though, is that this can be seen in Australia too; for the unibigotted, curious and intelligent television viewer, there’s plenty going on. There’s also plenty of crap on TV here, worse than Britain can serve up. And it’s mostly confined to the commercial networks, unlike Britain where commercial Channel 4, despite a lot of its own tosh, leads the way in news and current affairs (although receiving public money), while BBC One hardly deals with anything intelligent.

Yet the difference between the types of network in Australia is profound. There is barely a reason to grab the remote and leave ABC or SBS. It can’t be a good thing – but it’s the same as 3 years ago.

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