Even before its debut in 1956, Australian television was a political football.

Television was a key plank in the postwar expansion plans of Australia’s newspaper and radio companies. However, dozens of licence applications went nowhere as the introduction of television was delayed by a change of government, inflation, low dollar reserves and the Korean War.

In 1953 the Menzies government finally decided to establish a royal commission into television. But before the commission could sit, the government introduced legislation empowering the Postmaster General to issue new commercial licences and authorising a public body to produce programs. Concerned that his government might be defeated at the next election, Menzies was unnerved by the prospect of a government monopoly on television.

All the emasculated royal commission could do was advise the government on issues such as the number of channels and the hours of transmission. The commissioners themselves guaranteed commercial interests a sympathetic hearing. The commission’s report recommended that at least two commercial stations should be established in Sydney and Melbourne, and that the ABC should run the public system. The commercials were to own their own transmitters, meaning that it would be virtually impossible for the Australian Broadcasting Control Board to refuse to renew a licence.

Newspaper and radio companies formed alliances with electronics firms and film studios to bid for the commercial licences. The two commercial licences in Sydney went to Television Corporation (headed by Frank Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press) and Amalgamated Television Services (headed by Fairfax and the Macquarie radio network). The successful applicants in Melbourne were General Television Corporation (consisting of film interests and the publishers of the Age and the Argus) and the Herald & Weekly Times. The ABCB stated that it had been looking for consortia with “a good record in allied communication and entertainment fields”. Thus Australia’s first television licences were to be carved up between Australia’s dominant media interests.

As television was gradually introduced to the smaller capital cities and country areas, the Menzies government adroitly negotiated the precarious terrain. The Country Party persuaded its coalition partner that local interests should have majority control of the new television stations However, the government was able to appease the big commercial proprietors by responding to their lobbying about the number of licences that were awarded in regional Australia so that their de facto networking arrangements would not be upset.

Australia’s television policy, right up to the introduction of pay-TV and last week’s announcement about the auction of new spectrum, has centred on pandering to the interests of the existing behemoths. Perhaps there is another continuing thread — the possibility of the National Party stymieing aspects of the government’s media “reforms”.