Tonight seems as good a time as any to be producing my first blog from the blog on demand series. I should point out that the person who suggested this topic has since renegged. I believe they were worried that if this answer were to fall into the wrong hands it might make my position as a “media officer” difficult. The person, who for the sake of this story I’ll call Mark. Everyone say hi Mark. Asked the following question:
“One thing I’ve been interested in is the comments I’ve heard from various people (journos, and those interested in current affairs, yourself included) that Fairfax media is superior to News Ltd and PBL companies, and that 9 is superior to 7, (but only marginally as they’re both check-book inclined.) Why? Where does the ABC fit into this analysis?”
He asked a further question about the ABC’s ability to stick to its charter following the appointment of a former Fairfax figure to the recently vacated ABC managerial position.
Now at this point in this entry I’ve reached a juncture – I can either choose to answer this question seriously – or I could simply say that Fairfax and 9 are the better media outlets because I prefer them. I realise I’m not actually a reasonable yardstick for the rest of humanity so I’ll choose to attempt to deal with this question in a serious manner.
Let me start with print. In Australia there are basically two newspaper companies of significant stature. There’s News Limited – owned and operated by the Murdoch family and there’s Fairfax (named after the founder Mr Fairfax – I have a feeling his name was John but again, apathy prevents me confirming this). Fairfax publish the Financial Review, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun Herald, The Age and the Sunday Age (they have a few other smaller publications – including the Illawarra Mercury and the Newcastle Herald). News Ltd publish just about everything else – every regional weekly free paper – every telegraph, mail and bulletin (except the magazine The Bulletin which is a PBL production – but they’re a different kettle of fish – I’ll mention cross media ownership laws in a couple of paragraphs). The difference between Fairfax papers and News Ltd papers can be explained best by looking at the reading age targetted by each publication. News Ltd papers have an average (across all their papers) reading age (the reading competency level required to comprehend the meaning of a story) of about 8 years. Fairfax papers vary – the Sydney Morning Herald is the lowest at 11, from memory the Age is 12 and the Fin Review is about 44 (you have to be a company director or something to understand it). It’s actually 16 (I think). There is a fancy test to calculate the reading age of a page – something about dividing number of syllables by number of words and multiplying by a magical common number – or counting words that are difficult to understand. I really don’t care. Newspapers maintain their reading age by keeping to different style guides which dictate what words can and can’t be used in certain situations. So that is why Fairfax is superior. There’s also a whole murky side to the News Ltd organisation in terms of commercial pressure being placed on journalists to modify editorial. If I was remotely motivated I’d watch Media Watch every week and keep a tally to compare the News Ltd breaches with those from Fairfax. News Ltd papers, and Fox have a degree of noteriety when it comes to not declaring bias in certain situations.
Which segues nicely to television – when it comes to comparing Nine and Seven you’re pretty much comparing apples and apples – they’re exactly the same. Everyone likes to pretend they’re not. But they are in direct competition for the same demographic so can’t vary the theme too much. I prefer Nine because I’ve done some bits and pieces with them and they have the broadcast rights to all my favourite sports. The suffer from having karaoke news readers like Wally Lewis doing the sport. Some people prefer Seven and that’s fine. It’s been interesting watching the balance of power in the news world shift towards Seven – news is vital to a network’s ratings success – it’s a springboard into the evening’s programming and Australians are too lazy to change the channel. Channel 10 are a very different news organisation. I had the opportunity to look at a comprehensive breakdown of ratings across age demographics. The 16-39 is a key advertising demographic – lots of people with high disposable incomes are an attractive target to certain advertisers. Ten had about 15 of the top 20 shows in that demographic in the last week. Their news is skewed to that audience. It’s full of painful cliches, (non)witty banter between hosts. Stuff that makes serious news types cringe. In answer to Mark’s question on the news front – Nine were only superior because their ratings were better. They do have some classy journalists working for them (and 60 Minutes is a big winner on that front) but for every Peter Harvey there’s a Ray Martin. Nine have suffered because they haven’t coped well with Seven’s revival – they’re making too many changes to compete – when they could be using this as an opportunity to create some distinctions (kind of like the Federal Labor Party) and this only breeds failure. Imitation are doomed to come in second best.
PBL and News Ltd are interesting companies because they have outlets in different media types. Under Australia’s cross media ownership laws a media company could not have operational control of more than one outlet in a geographical area. So you couldn’t own the local TV station and a local radio station. In theory this ensures accountability in the media. PBL (Packer Broadcasting Limited… actually it’s Publishing and Broadcasting Limited) owns Channel 9 which is a national metropolitan service (They don’t actually own WIN which shares its programming schedule). They also own a fair chunk of the Australian magazine market. News Ltd owns all their papers and the Fox network (including news). They’re able to get around the regulations due to various loopholes and the interpretation of some key terms.
The ABC again a different matter altogether. Because it relies on tax payer dollars rather than advertising revenue the ABC experiences different pressures. It’s governmentally controlled (rather than regulated) and the pressures it opperates under are political rather than commercial. Fairfax and the ABC are more natural bedfellows than News Ltd and the ABC would be – I have no real concerns about the transition between the two companies. David Marr, the last watchable Media Watch host was a Fairfax employee – he wasn’t editorially constrained when it came to criticising his own paper – but I imagine he took a degree of pleasure from slamming the competition. But don’t we all.
I have a feeling this post won’t have interested anyone but Mark.