From Independence to a Reconstituted Hegemony: Rugby League and Television in Australia

Article excerpt

Back in the 60s when Channel 9 showed the second half of one game a weekend, who would have believed where the game would be today ... where we have the astonishing ratings success of the game in all its forms, from Friday night football ... to Sunday nights, and the incredible ratings for the State of Origin, with three million viewers in five cities across the nation, making the game the most watched program on television.(1)

Rugby league plays a significant role within Australian sporting, leisure, consumer and popular cultures and the television medium has arguably provided the greatest ever technological impact upon sporting, social and media agendas within these cultures.(2) The fact that Australians have more television sets per head of population than most comparable countries, and television occupies more concentrated leisure time in Australia than any other single activity, warrants investigation of its historical interaction with one of the country's two dominant football codes: rugby league.(3) This paper has three specific aims: to trace the relationship between the political economies of rugby league and television, to assess the impact of the broadcasting medium on several aspects of the game and, finally, to evaluate the interaction between football and the technological innovations of the television industry.

Broadcasting of the New South Wales Rugby League (NSWRL) competition on television began in 1961, five years after television's introduction to Australia. The televisual form of rugby league (hereafter referred to as league) displayed many features, limitations and problems inherent in the relatively new medium: technical difficulties, predominantly live production and a restricted local and regional scope.(4) `Radio with Pictures' was a fairly accurate description of early coverage of sport that utilised few cameras, sometimes from one end of the arena only and showed long range vision on a monochrome image. By contemporary standards, match presentation was simplistic and action was difficult to differentiate. As was the norm in production standards, the games were telecast live with few matches recorded (consequently precious little footage remains today). Live broadcasting presented problems in league and other spectator driven sports, as there were concerns about the effect on the single most important source of income, gate receipts.(5) The accepted compromise was showing the second half of matches. It was in the administrators' interests to ensure spectator attendance remained the main revenue source. At this time, restricted televising of league did not overly concern media proprietors because the game was of limited value to the networks.

For the reasons previously indicated, and as hard as it may be to imagine now, these early years were typified by an ambivalent attitude of both television and league towards one another. The public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), was the only service to provide regular coverage of the game until 1966 when commercial stations showed interest. League administrators remained cautious about the new medium but were cognisant of league's potential value to the fledgling television industry. Negotiations for coverage of the 1971 season typify this relationship. Football administrators actually rejected offers and counter offers made from commercial television executives on the grounds that they were insufficient and unrealistic.(6) The result in 1971 was that, excepting of the ABC coverage of the grand final, not a single match was televised.(7)

The 1971 league stalemate is instructive. The NSWRL realised they had a product of some current worth that would continue to appreciate in value; a value which they were prepared to secure even if this meant no television coverage of their sport. Administrators were not willing to provide `TV -- sponsored programs at low standard rates -- rates that would set a pattern for years to come'. …