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Video clip synopsis – The ruthless world of commercial television and its chase for ratings is compared to the programming motivations of the public broadcaster.
Year of production - 2005
Duration - 3min 19sec
Tags - audiences, broadcasting, consumers, identity, media and society, media influence, popular culture, ratings, television programs, see all tags


The Ratings War

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About the Video Clip


The interviews with Liz Jacka and Mac Gudgeon were recorded for the website From Wireless to Web, produced in 2005.

Liz Jacka is an Author and Professor in Communications Studies for the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. Mac Gudgeon is a screenwriter and a community television advocate. You can view their full biographies at From Wireless to Web

The website is a selective history of broadcast media in Australia. Decade by decade, from radio and newsreels to TV and the internet, this history shows how the Australian broadcast media developed and shaped the way Australians see themselves.

From Wireless to Web is a Film Australia production in association with Roar Film.

Curriculum Focus


Students will:

  • discuss the commercial broadcasting ratings system, and relate to their own viewing experiences
  • explain the ratings system to a defined audience
  • write letters about a commercial TV programming decision
  • create and display a newspaper cartoon about the ratings system.

Reading Standard: students view, analyse and discuss a wide range of informative and persuasive texts and identify the multiple purposes for which texts are created. They compare and contrast the typical features of particular texts and synthesise information from different texts to draw conclusions.

Writing Standard: students write sustained and cohesive narratives that experiment with different techniques and show attention to chronology, characterisation, consistent point of view and development of a resolution. They compose a range of other texts, such as feature articles, webpages and workplace texts. They proofread and edit their own writing for accuracy, consistency and clarity.

Speaking and Listening Standard: students compare ideas, build on others’ ideas, provide and justify other points of view, and reach conclusions that take account of aspects of an issue. They draw on a range of strategies to listen to and present spoken texts, complex issues or information imaginatively to interest an audience.

The activities in this digital resource are relevant to the Interdisciplinary Learning strands of Level 6 Communications (Listening, Viewing and Responding standard; Presenting standard), and Thinking Processes (Reasoning, Processing and Inquiry standard; Creativity standard).

The activities are also relevant to the Physical, Personal and Social Learning strand of Level 6 Interpersonal Development (Building Social Relationships standard; Working in Teams standard), and Personal Learning (The Individual Learner standard; Managing Personal Learning standard).

This material is an extract. Teachers and Students should consult the Victoria Curriculum and Assessment Authority website for more information.

Background Information


Advertising is the lifeblood of commercial broadcast media because it is their main source of income. Both on radio and during the early days of television, advertisers or sponsors paid for entire programs – typically plays, variety or quiz shows – and broadcast stations simply put them to air. But this approach changed with the advent of the 'ratings’ system.

Under the current system in Australia, commercial television stations buy programs or produce them in-house, and then sell commercial spots during breaks in the program. The cost to advertisers to buy a commercial spot depends on the size and type of audience for that program. The audience is measured by the 'rating’, which is an estimate of the number of radio or television sets tuned in to a program, and the demographics of the audience – their age, gender and socio-economic status. The statistics or numbers used to calculate television ratings are based on extensive audience surveys and data collected by television set top boxes that automatically record channel changes.

For commercial broadcasters, the bigger their audience for any program, the more they can charge advertisers for a commercial spot. For advertisers, a big audience means more people seeing and hearing their advertisement, although 'it is not just a question of reaching the largest number of people, but of choosing a medium which communicates with the appropriate kind of people for the advertiser. In general, high-budget advertisers of mass comsumption goods and services will choose expensive prime-time television slots.’ (Sinclair 201)

During the 1980s, the battle for ratings between commercial television broadcasters reached new heights. In effect they battled for the biggest share of the total television audience. Increasingly broadcasters chose programs they thought would attract high ratings.

The Nine Network led the charge by, for example, producing the high-rating 60 Minutes current affairs program – importing a model already successful in the United States – in their effort to beat the ABC as the leading news and current affairs broadcaster. (Flew 177) Channels Seven and Ten drew a contest for ratings over soapies with Home and Away on Seven and Neighbours on Ten. Neighbours and Home and Away became Australian television’s greatest export successes.

Classroom Activities

  1. Getting started
    As a class view the interviews with Liz Jacka and Mac Gudgeon then discuss and write notes on the following:
    1. Comment on Liz Jacka’s reference to commercial television broadcasting as a ‘ruthless world’, and explain why the public broadcasting system (ABC and SBS) is able to present certain kinds of programs that commercial TV generally cannot.
    2. Explain Mac Gudgeon’s opinion that “to commercial broadcasters the programs aren’t important”.
    3. What does Gudgeon mean when he says that due to the TV ratings system there is a “contraction in ideas and formats of programs”?
    4. Comment on your personal attitude to advertising on commercial TV, and whether you as a viewer have ever been affected by the ratings ‘war’.
  2. Researching the ratings system
    Research and write 300–400 words aimed at Year 7 students explaining how the present-day commercial radio and TV ratings system operates.
  3. Drafting letters of inquiry and reply
    A popular commercial TV series has suddenly been shifted from 7.30 pm on one night to 11.30 pm on another night. Draft, revise, edit, proofread and word-process two letters of 200 words each. One should be from a viewer to the programmer of a commercial TV channel, about this change. The second letter should be a reply from the programmer. (You may wish to discuss in class the range in content and tone of each letter first.)
  4. Creating a cartoon
    In pairs plan, draft and produce a final version of a newspaper-style cartoon about the commercial TV ratings system. The end result should either be as a wall-display poster, or for your school’s intranet, preferably in ink rather than pencil. (Use stick figures if necessary.)

Further Resources


Go to From Wireless to Web for more about the history of broadcast media in Australia.

Go to Chloe Bugelly, Lia Gurciullo, Jessica Mahar, John-Michael McLindon and Chris Reid, Inside the TV turf war, The Fifth Estate, 26 May 2005

Go to OzTAM Australian Television Audience Measurement:

Go go Aussie Phorums, Television ratings re Prison Break vs Origin, as an example of the failings of a free market system

Television series: Frontline (episode 7, series 1) We Ain’t Got Dames (1994) Santo Cilauro, Jane Kennedy, Rob Sitch, Tom Gleisner (director/producer)