Monday, March 20, 2006

Media Riddle

Q: Why is free-to-air television like a kerosene lamp?

A: They're both obsolete. But a kerosene lamp is more interesting to watch (unless, of course, you're in the young female demographic Ten pitches for with Neighbours and The Biggest Loser).

According to our ABC's Alan Carter on Treasure Hunt a couple of weeks ago:

Prior to 1850, lighting was incredibly inefficient. Choices usually consisted of candles, which had been around since 3000 BC, or oil lamps. The invention of kerosene, a refined liquid fuel produced initially from shale oil, changed all that and manufacturers across the world were quick to produce a range of lamps that could take advantage of its combustible qualities. In the process they came up with some really beautiful and elegant designs, quite a lot of which still survive.

Sadly, the golden age of kerosene lamps was a short-lived period in history. In less than forty years gas lamps had replaced them in the larger cities and towns and few survived the rapid conversion to electric lighting in the early 1900’s.

Wikipedia puts the advent of the Kerosene lamp at 1853, the year in which they were first used by one Ignacy Lukasiewicz. In Australia, electrical lighting was first used (for street lighting) in 1888. By 1927, 34% of homes were electrically wired. Or so it says here.

Free to air television has been around in Australia since 1956. Now, just as the kerosene lamp (and the gas mantle) lost out to electric lighting, free to air TV is losing out to cable, the internet and DVD players. But unlike the kerosene lamp industry, the meejah companies have friends in Government. Well, let's face it - what could a lamp manufacturer hold over the heads of an elected government - bad lighting? That's not likely to make a politician nervous - especially at a time when the Prime Minister takes pride in being kept in the dark on important matters of state. But bad news coverage around election time - well that's a different story.

Whatever the opposition might have to say about Helen Coonan's media paper, in practice the basis of "media policy" in Australia is a bipartisan agreement that it's a bad idea to piss off meejah proprietors - especially Rupert Murdoch, the sole survivor of the Murpack duopoly. The ALP learnt this lesson in the 1970s after Rupert turned on the Whitlam Government he had helped to create. You may remember the event; during the 1975 post-dismissal election, the Labor backroom boys decided that the only way that Labor stood a chance in the polls was for Gough to walk on water. So , on a fine sunny day, Gough walked down to the shore of Lake Burley Griffin, stepped out onto the surface of the waters and crossed the lake, finishing his walk by strolling up to Old Parliament House for a doorstop press conference. The next day, the front pages of all the papers announced that Gough had walked on water. All the papers, that is, except for The Australian which ran the story under the headline WHITLAM FAILS TO SWIM ACROSS LAKE BURLEY GRIFFIN.

So it doesn't really matter which of the major parties - Liberal or Laboral - is in power, meejah policy is always going to be characterised by lip service to the public interest and a nod and a wink to the proprietors and their commercial interests. And no one - not Kenneth Davidson, John Quiggin, Mark Bahnisch, Dave Tiley or mug punters like me who just want the bastards to show something interesting to watch - is ever going to be happy with Government meejah policy. Whoops, that was a little sexist and maybe ageist - they're all blokes of a certain age, I forgot the young female demographic. Apparently they're very happy.

Postscript: Coonan's meejah proposals aren't the first arse-about policy she's sponsored. Consider the Government's proposals to deal with the problem of telemarketing. Having considered the desire of Aussie phone owners and renters - the majority of us - to enjoy evenings at home without the phone ringing every twenty minutes offering discount subscriptions to Nude Weightlifting Illustrated and other august publications or the opportunity to transfer our phone bill to a cheaper reseller the good Senator proposes a national register of phone numbers which are not to be called. With fines for (local) companies that call numbers on the register. It's described as an "opt-in" register in most of the reports I've seen but it's really an opt-out of geting annoying phone calls register. Another token gesture to the public interest, with much nodding and winking to that important sector of the economy that produces an economically significant domestic import substitute - annoying telephone calls to people who don't want them. I suppose there's some justification for this approach - it wouldn't do much for the balance of trade if all the unwanted telemarketing phone calls in Australia were coming from India, would it?

Update to Postscript: in today's Age, Nick O'Malley reports that Indian call centre staff are fed up with racist abuse. I'd like to make it clear that I don't endorse racist abuse of Indian call centre staff. The ordinary abuse you'd give to any telemarketer is quite sufficient.

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