Australian aggregation 

14 June 2001

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is more than 20 years old. The formatting may be strange, links broken and/or images missing. The text may have been superseded by subsequent events or later research.

Bendigo is a rural city of 60,000 people in southeastern Australia, built in the 1850s on what was, at the time, the richest gold field in the world. Bendigo was the heart of the great Australian gold rush that gave it so much fame and beautiful Victorian-era buildings. The gold was mined out, but the people stayed on. The trams continued rattling down the main street and the city’s Chinese population still paraded with their amazing imperial dragon at Easter.

If you were in Bendigo, or anywhere else in the rural areas in the state of Victoria, in 1991 and turned on a television set, you would find a grand total of two television channels.

You had a choice between “the national broadcaster”, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), or the local television station for Bendigo and North-Central Victoria, Southern Cross Television.

Southern Cross was originally known as BCV-8 when it made its debut on the region’s television screens in the early 60s. Bendigo might be in the country, but it was quite aware of the outside world with the bright lights of Melbourne only a short train ride away. Everyone in the town, including my mother as a young girl, was quite excited. Television had finally come to Bendigo and my aunt had the honour of having the first television license in Bendigo. Sure enough, BCV-8 and the ABC were soon part of everyone’s lives.

As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, some changes were in store for Bendigo. The state came to realise that a small city could, apparently, not support a tram network, and all but a tourist tram route was left. Loong, the mainstay of the Chinese Easter Parade, had simply become too old and had to be replaced with a new imperial dragon called Sun Loong.

While the capital cities now had four channels – 7, 9, 0/10 and ABC – the rural areas, including Bendigo, continued with the old two channel system. Amazingly enough, there were few complaints about it, as most people seemed to realise that these small country areas couldn’t support three commercial channels.

The two-channel system continued into colour and into the eighties. By the end of that decade, SBS – Australia’s “multicultural” channel – had become a firm part of the now five-channel network in the capital cities.

It was five to two, and the Federal Labor Government realised that things weren’t quite even. People in the country seemed to be second-class citizens with only two channels to choose from and something needed to be done about it. And in came “Aggregation”.

The plan was this: the existing local stations like Southern Cross would team up with a capital city network and broadcast their programmes to the whole state (or half-state in New South Wales). And we would have a five-channel system in the country areas of the Eastern states.

The Government deemed the country areas in the Central/Western states of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory too sparse for a five-channel system to operate. However, a three-channel system was later introduced in those areas.

“Aggregation” would come into effect in Southern New South Wales first, followed later by Queensland, Northern New South Wales and finally Victoria.

Sure enough, Aggregation didn’t quite thrill some regional states. Especially Southern Cross, who by now had grown from BCV-8 to “TV8” to “Southern Cross TV8” to “The Southern Cross Network”, now owning and operating the Gippsland, Mildura and Goulburn Valley regions.

You could see their point. They had 100% of the commercial television audience in their regions and they could pick and choose programming from the three capital city networks just for their one channel.

They complained loudly – and this would cost them. The other two major players in the Victorian rural TV market, Ballarat’s VIC and Albury’s Prime, stopped whinging and aligned themselves with the strongest two networks. VIC would broadcast for the Nine Network and Prime would be Seven’s affiliate.

This left Southern Cross with the weakest network, Ten. And this left them in a much weaker position to VIC and Prime with their stronger partners.

And so on January 1, 1992 Bendigo had five channels at long last. Well, not quite – three to be precise. Technical difficulties delayed Prime and SBS for several months. But they eventually came on-line and the rural television market had been aggregated. And everyone’s happy.

Or so you think. There was a major side effect of competition and a predictable one too – the loss of regionalism.

It was just not cost-effective to be a regional station in all of the country Victoria markets and take on your two competitors at the same time. In a short space of time, Southern Cross turned into “SCN” with a mock Ten logo. But that was nothing when they followed that up by ditching the regional news and re-naming itself “Ten Victoria”. It was just Network Ten from a local transmitter. It was all Ten and the “local news” suddenly came from Melbourne (interestingly, in the last month they’ve turned into Ten Southern Cross and got themselves a new logo, suggesting all is, as speculated, not well).

Prime gave themselves a mock Seven logo and continued local news, but in just their home Albury-Wodonga region. VIC had a mock Nine logo and was then purchased by WIN, Nine’s rural affiliate in NSW and Queensland. WIN also had a mock Nine logo, so there wasn’t that much of a difference.

To their credit, WIN produced local news for all of the rural Victoria regions. It wasn’t the greatest of services as all the news programmes came from the Ballarat studios, and were taped earlier in the afternoon before WIN’s local Ballarat news. But it was a local news service and they got pretty good ratings for it.

As all this was happening in the country, the capital cities were experiencing a television revolution of their own. After years of bitching, Pay-Television finally came to Australia. The pioneer service, Galaxy (later to go bust and be taken over by Foxtel) kicked off with a microwave/satellite service.

The country was not expected to receive Pay-TV for some time, but surpassingly a company called “CETV” popped up offering the Galaxy service in Bendigo. It turned out to be quite a hit. CETV and other regional Pay-TV operators were later replaced by one Pay-TV service for the rural areas, Austar.

So in less than five years, television viewers in Bendigo went from two channels to over thirty – but at the cost of forgoing regionalism.

Was it worth it? You can’t expect three dedicated regional networks with such a small population. But getting rid of local news services and just putting on the capital city news instead is pretty much a case of penny-pinching.

A brief postscript applies, however. In 2001, The Australian Broadcasting Authority launched an investigation into the adequacy of local news and programming in regional areas, sparked by the axing of regional news services by Prime and Southern Cross’s Seven and Ten affiliates. The question, though, is whether this is simply closing the barn door.

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