The death of local TV news should be mourned

Last week, WIN announced the cessation of its 5.30pm local news bulletin for residents of regional WA, highlighting a long-term trend towards less and less local content on our TV networks.

Last week, WIN announced the cessation of its 5.30pm local news bulletin for residents of regional WA, highlighting a long-term trend towards less and less local content on our TV networks.

For the two thirds of us who live in the five mainland capital cities, this titbit of information ranks slightly above a confrontation at Cheshire council and a protest to re-open Yuba City's police academy. But if you've ever complained that television in Australia is anodyne, uninspired and increasingly populated by the same rotating sets of personalities, then the continual cuts to local news are just another symptom of a greater malaise.

How did we get to our current situation? For an answer to that, we need to delve into how television in Australia developed.

As television stations were set up throughout Australia in the 1950s and '60s, the Federal Government only allowed regional areas a single commercial station in addition to the ABC. Those monopoly stations would cherry pick shows from the three commercial networks available in capital cities, as well as producing their own range of news, sport, current affairs and variety shows.

With regional ABC stations' local output limited largely to a single five-minute news update, the commercial stations had become, by default, cultural hubs. Depending on the size and populations of the regions they served, some stations became wealthy — some regional operators had the means to buy out a capital city station — while others struggled.

Many living in rural areas craved the choice available to their capital city cousins, and residents in areas not too far away, such as Wollongong, invested in high-rise aerials that could pick up TV signals from the city.

As the clamour for parity with the cities grew, the Hawke government decided to combine three neighbouring regional TV areas into one. The three stations that had previously enjoyed a monopoly in their markets now had to expand into each other's zones and compete. To offset the cost of tower construction, and to ensure a steady stream of programming, each station aligned itself with one of the city networks.

With their schedules full of cheaply supplied programming, local output was quickly cut back to, in most cases, just the local news. Despite operating in expanded regions, the population and advertising dollars attached to them couldn't sustain three competing news services, and eventually the three news bulletins were whittled back to one.

Travel around Australia now, and the only differences you'll notice between stations in the same network are the news and sports shows, with the rest of the Australian content (panel shows, comedies, dramas, soaps and current affairs) being produced in Sydney or Melbourne.

It's hard to imagine a time when most stations produced their own local current affairs, morning shows, late-night news and variety shows. Some popular national shows were even made in smaller cities. Examples that easily spring to mind include The Curiosity Show, The Adventures of Humphrey B Bear and Wheel of Fortune from Adelaide, and Romper Room, which was a Newcastle production.

This concentration of talent and production strips away the local voice, supplanting it with a very Sydney- and Melbourne-focussed world view. It also reduces the number of viewpoints that are easily accessible — a dangerous thing, when many cities and regions only have one local TV news service and one newspaper. Another side effect is that the talent pool is reduced, both for on-air and off-air talent.

Some may say that it was all wonderful and quaint, but that in this day and age, with TV being squeezed by BitTorrent, gaming and mobiles, it's just impossible to add localism and make money.

And it's true that TV in Australia is being squeezed harder and harder. On the flipside, though, some of the problems in TV land are of its own making — and there's only so much you can cut away before you're left with only bone and sinew.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below.

About the author

Derek loves nothing more than punching a remote location into a GPS, queuing up some music and heading out on a long drive, so it's a good thing he's in charge of CNET Australia's Car Tech channel.

 

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