Inside the ABC

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At what point will the ABC’s apparent competitive success in increasing its audience share and reach in free-to-air radio and television become a political negative?

It is understandable that ABC managing director Russell Balding would want to highlight the most significant benchmark of his leadership of the public broadcaster.

Balding has been hurtfully bagged by Sydney Morning Herald columnist Dr Gerard Henderson as a mere accountant, out of his depth as head of the ABC.

Now Balding wants us to see that he knows what he is doing in Australian media.

In recent weeks Balding and his executives have produced some triumphalism in media releases and internal emails: ‘More people than ever enjoyed ABC TV in 2004’ (28 November); and, ‘Outstanding result for ABC Radio’ (9 December).

Let’s take ABC Radio.

ABC Radio’s combined share is up from 20.4 per cent to 22 per cent. A reach of 3.9 million in this survey “ the highest in three years. Local radio’s five city combined share is 11.1 per cent.

* Sydney 702, highest overall share in thirty eight years – 9.9 per cent.
* Radio National share up from 2 per cent to 2.7 per cent the highest of the year;
* triple j share up from 3.8 per cent to 4.7 per cent;
* Melbourne 774 share up from 11.6 per cent to 12.1 per cent;
* Brisbane 612 Number one talk station;
* ABC Classic FM up from 2.7 per cent to 3.1 per cent ;
* NewsRadio up from 1 per cent to 1.8 per cent ;
* Adelaide 891 highest overall share on record “ Number one talk station;
* Perth 720 overall share of 12.9 per cent the highest in over a decade.

Now ABC TV Channel 2.

In 2004 ABC TV’s household share hit 18.3 per cent an increase of 1.6 points, the highest increase of any network this year. There was a 21 per cent growth in prime time share from 2001 to 2004. The growth has been across ALL days, ALL demographics and in ALL capital cities. The largest growth has been for forty plus viewers up 9 per cent to 23.4 pre cent share.

Kath and Kim topped the ratings peaking at 2.02 million viewers with a 37 per cent household share. Australian programming, particularly the 8pm Monday to Friday timeslot proved highly popular Australian Story, Reality Bites, The New Inventors, Catalyst, and Strictly Dancing.

Sandra Levy, Director of Television says: ‘ABC TV is overwhelmed by the generosity of Australians, of all age groups, who have flocked to the network this year to watch and enjoy a huge range of diverse programs.’

His chest filled with obvious pride, managing director Balding noted in an end-of-year message: ‘There are many arguments to support the continued funding of public broadcasting; the fact that our programming has, on its own terms, continued to hold the interest of the public is one of the most potent.’

There is no doubt that strong audience support for the ABC should equate with greater political leverage in Canberra. It directly answers the fundamental question: why have the ABC if nobody watches or listens to it?

And equally there is no doubt that increasing audiences as a strategy has been pursued vigorously by Balding and the ABC Board. The current corporate plan places a priority objective on enhancing prime time audience for ABC Television, for example. Levy and her radio counterpart, Sue Howard, therefore, are under direct board instruction to increase ABC audiences.

They have obeyed their orders.

But there is considerable internal and increasing external disquiet about the enhanced audience-first strategy as specialist radio programs have to give way to what is known as ‘flow’ programming where presenter personality is the driver, not necessarily the content. In television a more populist magazine style is preferred where intellectual content, if any, can be cloaked in entertainment schmooze. In short, quality is a lower priority.

Objectively, it is no mean feat to increase audiences under the funding restraints currently imposed on the ABC and the competitive pressures which do exist from commercial radio and television in Australia. To that extent Balding, Howard and Levy may deserve some credit for demonstrating that they can and have increased ABC audiences to record levels. Levy deserves credit for pursuing Australian content to balance her schedule’s traditional reliance on imported UK programming (The Bill and other dramas) to build its viability. But local higher quality programming is very limited. The ABC’s drama budget is around $14 million compared to $50 million to $60 million for each of Channels 7 and 9 under Australia’s TV content quota.

At what point will the ABC’s commercial competitors start to rail against the ABC’s audience success? This becomes the biggest question as the Howard Government prepares for its majority control of the Senate from July 2005.

At the moment neither audience enhancement nor quality appears to be a part of the joint ABC-Government review of the ‘adequacy and efficient use’ of ABC funding. ‘Adequacy and efficient use’ are the words taken from the Liberal Party’s 2004 election manifesto: ’21st Century Broadcasting Policy’.

Balding has told ABC staff that the ABC is working with the relevant government agencies in developing the terms of reference. ‘This review will demand a confident strategic response from the ABC to ensure the best possible outcome for the corporation. The ABC has nothing to fear from this or any other review. As I have stated, the public supports the ABC in record numbers. In terms of our resources, I will fight to keep what we have and I will continue to fight to ensure the ABC is adequately funded.’

If the MD has nothing to fear, why the declaration of a fighting stance? While triumphant about audience, where is the Charter benchmarking about ‘innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard’, contributing to ‘a sense of national identity, informing, entertaining, reflecting the cultural diversity of the Australian community, promoting the musical, dramatic and performing arts and broadcasting programs of an educational nature?’

The fact is, as stated in previous NewMatilda pieces from your correspondent, most public broadcasters now expect the government parties to double-cross the ABC again, as they did in dishonouring their manifesto commitment to maintain funding to the ABC before the 1996 federal election.

We await the terms of reference for the ‘adequacy and efficiency’ review of the ABC with considerable trepidation.

We do not forget dishonour.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.