"That History Should Not Have Ever Been How It Was": The Colony, Outback House, and Australian History
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“That History Should Not Have Ever Been How It Was”:
The Colony, Outback House, And Australian History

In 2005, Australia's public broadcasters each produced 'reality history' programs: The Colony, which screened on the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in January,1 and Outback House, produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in mid-year. Australian audiences had previously enjoyed British and American 'reality history' programs like Frontier House and 1940s House, and the local versions proved popular: The Colony drew SBS's largest audiences for an Australian-made program since 2001, and Outback House attracted audiences of around 1 million per episode (Australia's population is around 21 million).2 Both The Colony and Outback House promised that participants and viewers would "step back in time" to different periods of Australia's colonial history, a history that has been bitterly debated in the public domain in Australia's "history wars".3 These debates have centred on conflicting interpretations of Indigenous-European history and the violence of colonisation, and have been fought not just between academics, but also politicians and neo-conservative newspaper commentators. The history wars form part of the cultural backdrop to these programs, alongside the success of the reality TV genre, which has cultivated knowing and critical audiences familiar with its constructions and artificialities. Both these factors influenced the public reception of the programs, coupled with debates over the ways Australian history is taught in schools (Clark 2006), and the preponderance of British and American history documentaries on our television screens (Arrow 2005).

In short, history matters in contemporary Australia – and television is a major source of information about history for most Australians. In the recent Australians and the Past survey, which attempted to gauge the ways that Australians engaged with and used the past, respondents were asked about historical activities they had participated in over the past twelve months: 84% said they had watched movies or television (Ashton and Hamilton 2003, 11). Only the viewing of photographs rated higher, and the survey overall suggested that Australians comprised an eager market for historical memorials and memorialising, especially of war, genealogy, local history, autobiography, oral history, historical fiction, and popular histories (Ashton and Hamilton 2003, 6). All of this suggests that historians should pay closer attention to the ways that history circulates in non-academic contexts, and especially how it is presented on our film and television screens. So what sort of history did Outback House and The Colony depict? In this article, I will explore the sorts of histories The Colony and Outback House perpetuated, and the cultural and political climate that shaped them. Did these programs evade the complex moral issues around Australia's history of dispossession and colonial violence, or did they represent an attempt to negotiate the contemporary meaning of these issues in an ethical way? I will also look at the sorts of historical interpretations audiences place on these programs, to consider the ways that audiences read and interpret these depictions of the past on television.

The Australian Context

Reality television has been spectacularly successful in Australia for the commercial networks. In 2004, 11 out of the 30 top-rated programs were reality television programs, and in that same year, the final episode of Big Brother (aired on the commercial 10 network) attracted 2.86 million viewers (Meade 2004). As the overseas versions of reality history programs like 1940s House and 1900 House had been popular on Australian television, it was almost inevitable that Australia's public broadcasters, eager to secure respectably-rating programs to ensure their survival in a climate increasingly hostile to public broadcasting, would choose to produce local versions of these programs. The ABC and SBS were both founded by the Australian government (in 1932 and 1978 respectively) in the British tradition of public service broadcasting, and both were expected to foster a sense of national identity and citizenship, with SBS specifically designed to cater to Australia's migrant communities. Indeed, the ABC's charter obliges it to "broadcast programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community; and broadcast programs of an educational nature...