The Australia Network, from one who sees it

With news the tender for the Australia Network has been delayed (and a further report that the ABC was on the verge of loosing the contract to Sky News), I figure now is a good time to offer my musings on the AusNetwork as someone who gets to see vastly more of it than those in Australia do.

Despite its somewhat grandiose claims to promoting Australia's national interest abroad, there's long been speculation that the primary purpose of the AusNetwork is, in fact, to give expatriate Australians (or parliamentarians on 'fact-finding missions') a slice of life back home.

And having spent Saturday night at a Jakarta barbecue at which a delayed telecast of the Sydney vs Adelaide AFL game was on the widescreen, I think there's some truth to the speculation.

For many expats, the AusNetwork is pretty much the AFL network. Check out the schedule here, and you'll see the network routinely broadcasts six AFL games (a few of them live) each weekend. It's more football than you'd get to watch on TV in some Australian cities.

But football aside, the Australia Network contains a few nuggets of good programs amid plenty of dross and filler.

The highlight is the couple of hours of news, made up of the news breakfast program and half-hour bulletins spread through the day. The bulletins tend to have a strong Australian focus (rather than being genuine world news bulletins) but are slick, well produced, and interesting. There is the occasional technical gremlin - much as there is with the rest of the ABC's output, it seems - but it does a decent job of filling viewers in on what is worth knowing.

There is the occasional moment that would no doubt perplex a curious foreigner keen to learn more about Australia. The coverage a fortnight ago of the anniversary of Kevin Rudd's downfall referred to the 'coup' Australia had experienced last year. While Australian understand the tongue-in-cheek way in which the term is used, it is less certain that people who have experienced genuine coups get the distinction.

It's pleasing to see that despite the theoretical restraint the network's role as a tool of Australian diplomacy places on its role as a credible and fearless reporter of news, there are no outward signs that it holds back. Seeing contemptuous reports on the gutter brawls that constitute a large part of Australian political debate is oddly uplifting.

To its credit, the AusNetwork does have some of its own correspondents scattered through Asia. In Jakarta, Helen Brown does a fine job of covering Indonesia, and there are other reports that have an undeniably global flavour to world events, rather than a parochial "what it means for Australia" attitude. All strength to its arm.

Once you move beyond football and news and current affairs, the AusNetwork can be rather dire. High rotation repeats of Australian drama (Packed to the Rafters, Tangle) get an airing, as do documentaries, many in the worthy-but-boring category. It's hard to get too excited about it, and given the interesting stuff aired in Australia, perplexing how it makes it to the front of the queue.

Beyond that, there's an eclectic mix of arts programs (a 1985 Midnight Oil concert to mark the 10th anniversary of Triple J was a Sunday night special a few weeks back) and educational content (a recent English-teaching program demonstrated the concept 'anti-' by pointing out Fred Nile is 'anti-homosexual') to round out the schedule. Nothing especially compelling, but probably worthwhile nonetheless.

It's worth noting that the AusNetwork seems to have few commercial advertisers. There are three of four advertisements on extremely high rotation, with the rest of the breaks between programs filled with ad nauseum promotions for upcoming fare. Watch too large a stretch and it will drive you crazy.

All up, it's not a bad service, but it's also not a great one either. Expats seeking to ward off homesickness would find it worthwhile, and curious foreigners would be left with a marginally better perception of Australia. But watching a few of the other equivalent networks (the French, Spaniards, Italians, Chinese and Japanese all offer something similar) you get the sense the Australian version is rather stodgy and restrained, struggling to reflect the country's dynamism.

A rethink in what it offers, regardless of who gains the contract, would probably be worthwhile.

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