The first full year of the new email-based complaint-making process has seen an explosion on moans and groans and worse from viewers about commercial TV, especially news and current affairs, where complaints about bias-inaccuracy and discrimination have soared by 400%.

The impact of email complaints in the 2010-11 financial year was dramatic: FTA stations received  2816 complaints under the so-called code of practice that was approved in late 2009, according to a report from Free TV Australia on Friday. That was more than double the number of complaints received in the 2009-10 financial year, which was the last year of the old method for handling complaints by restricting them to written documents and snail mail.

The 2816 received in 2010-11 compares with 1292 in 2009-10 and 908 in 2008-09. FTA Australia, the commercial network’s industry group said in a statement: “This was the first full year incorporating complaints submitted electronically via the Free TV website complaints portal. On average, 2816 complaints amount to less than four complaints per month per service.

“Complaints ranged over most categories of programs, however, news, current affairs and commercials attracted the highest complaint numbers. The largest number of complaints (33.0%) related to the classification, (22.2%) discrimination and (16.3%) bias/inaccuracy.” Julie Flynn, CEO of Free TV Australia said in a statement: “It’s clear from the low number of viewer complaints that the code is working well. In fact, 2816 complaints amount to less than four complaints per month per service. Considering Free TV has an output of over 6400 hours of programming a month and is watched by 14 million people every day, this is a strong result.”

But looked at, that’s more than 54 complaints a week or more than seven a day received by the commercial TV networks.

And what the statement didn’t highlight was the way complaints about bias-inaccuracy and discrimination in news and current affairs programs soared in the year to June as viewers have obviously taken advantage of the greater freedom to make complaints after viewing something they had seen on TV.

Combined, current affairs and news claimed nearly half the complaints (1291, or almost equal to all complaints in the previous year), with advertisements coming in second at just over 18%. But if the more traditional moans about program promos and ads are added, the total reaches just over 25%.

NSW was the source of most complaints at 37% (780 in Sydney and 253 in regional areas, 1,033 in total). Interesting complaints from the Sydney metropolitan area were the largest from any centre in the country and easily exceeded complaints from other and cities, especially Melbourne.  Complaints from Queensland and Victoria (tied on 22%) totalled 626 and 627 in total respectively, a long way behind Sydney and NSW. Complaints about classification of ads and programs were the highest at 33% or 929.

Complaints about discrimination in news and current affairs programs soared from 152 in 2009-2010 to 624 in the year to June, while complaints about bias and inaccuracy jumped to 458 from 98 in 2009-10. Broken down, complaints about discrimination were highest in current affairs programs — 375 versus 73 in news. But complaints about bias and inaccuracy were greater in news programs, 354, against 98 in current affairs programs.

Complaints about bias and inaccuracy in TV news broadcasts at 354 were 73.3 % of the total of complaints in this category of 458. That was a far higher proportion than complaints about discrimination in current affairs programs: 375 of 624, or 60%.

Interestingly there were 104 complaints about discrimination in light entertainment (which includes comedy programs), which was more than received for claimed discrimination in news broadcasts. And while it is true that the total number of complaints is low compared with the amount of TV broadcast in the 2011 financial year, the complaints about bias-inaccuracy and discrimination would have been a far higher share of TV news and current affairs programs. Commercials attracted 285 complaints about classification.

In fact the two most-complained-about programs on commercial TV would have been Today Tonight on Seven and A Current Affair on Nine. 60 Minutes would have received a fair whack of complaints as well.

The introduction of email complaints has clearly made it easier for viewers to complain (many of the complaints about program and commercial classification would have come from organised groups, such as Christian-based pressure groups moaning about nudity and ex, such as on Nine’s Underbelly series. As well moans about ads and programming in C zone periods (children’s programming) would have also made up a large proportion of these complaints).

The Free TV industry received an enormous bonus in the latest code of practice, which freed up restrictions on advertising on the booming digital channels and allowed the networks to sell station and program promos to advertisers (which is worth tens of millions of dollars in new revenues a year in a very weak market). But the new complaints system, based on email has clearly forced the networks to lift their game in handling complaints.

Next step should be disclosing the programs and ads and network complaint numbers, and combining the FTA complaints data with that from the ABC and SBS. The media inquiry should have examined the FTA complaints handling system to see if it can be introduced into the print media. It would be far better than what there is now. The Australian Press Council has yet  to produce its 2010-11 annual report, according to its website.