The ABC of the Net


Since the rise of the Internet in the early 1990s, developments in online communications have radically altered the dynamics of broadcast media in Western democracies, subverting the power of large media corporations and enabling individuals to communicate directly and independently with one another.

Academics and commentators have for some time predicted the end of traditional media’s dominance of news broadcasting, declaring not only that the future of communications rests in the hands of the public, but also proclaiming this as a great victory for truth and democracy. Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the influential MIT Media Lab (see link here), asserted almost ten years ago that the rise of the Internet would see the emergence of a ‘cottage industry of information and entertainment providers’ and the subsequent demise of traditional media power.

It hasn’t happened yet.

While blogs bloom like fungi over the World Wide Web, the vast majority of Internet users still get their online news and current affairs from sites published by mainstream media organisations such as News Limited and PBL.

In Western countries like Australia, then, the responsibility of providing reliable social and political news, and encouraging analysis, debate, and direct participation by citizens in their democracies still lies with public broadcasters such as the ABC and SBS.

But if citizens are able to obtain information from a variety of sources and exchange news and opinion independently and directly by utilising the Internet, might the need for an independent arbiter of truth in the form of the public broadcasters be diminished?

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

It does seem that the very concept of public broadcasting is under threat. Quite apart from the impact of new communications technologies, repeated government allegations of bias have created something of a siege mentality at the ABC. And SBS seems to be constantly reinventing itself in order to win the affections of a Government that is openly hostile to its original cultural purpose.

Rather than surrender to the pressures of this new environment, however, it is essential that public broadcasters embrace the Internet and transfer the principles and cultural obligations of traditional public broadcasting to their online activities.

The crucial communications issue for any democracy is not how people get their information, but rather the truth and quality of that information and the public’s confidence that it is free from any commercial or political influence. In the crowded realm of cyberspace, where millions of opinions jostle for position, the voice of a public service journalist, accountable to a public charter and code of ethics, could be the only credible and trustworthy voice to be found. The established public broadcasters of Western democracies have an obligation to meet the Internet head-on, to lead the way in producing informed and accountable online news content, and developing innovative modes of delivery and dissemination.

There is ample evidence that an approach that maintains the central tenets of public service broadcasting is the surest route to a successful, self-sustaining online presence. In the UK, the BBC moved confidently into the online realm by developing an effective ‘multiplex’ website that offers competitive news and current affairs, streams video and audio files on demand, and encourages interactive use and collaboration by producers and users. It has maintained a focus on content and public value, filling the space between the promise of online technology and the relative paucity of content available in the commercial sector.

BBC Online is the most visited online news site in Europe. This indicates that the future of public service Internet sites is to provide reliable and trustworthy news and information, in keeping with the traditional values of public broadcasting.

There is some evidence that this truth is yet to be accepted in Australia. We have, of course, two separate and independent public broadcasters, both of which offer national television and radio services and, since the late 1990s, individual online sites. The charters of the ABC and SBS are similar, and based on the BBC’s, although the funding models are significantly different.

While SBS is allowed to generate up to 15% of its revenue from limited advertising, the bulk of funding for both broadcasters comes from the public purse and, unlike the BBC, is not supported by a dedicated licence fee. (In Britain, households pay an annual ‘licence fee’ of £126.50 per colour TV and £42.00 per black and white TV the fees generated .providing most of the BBC’s income.)

The stacking of boards to influence policy and decision-making is a given across both jurisdictions, but almost certainly because of their dependence on public funding, both the ABC and SBS are more vulnerable to political interference in the form of (actual and threatened) funding reductions than the BBC.

As a result, when new media development was first introduced to the ABC and SBS in the mid-1990s, its initial focus reflected the concerns of government rather than those of the public. Early resources were prematurely allocated to the production of digital television content before the market penetration of the new technology had reached sufficient levels to ensure adequate audience share.

Similarly, a lack of understanding of the ways in which the Internet could operate as an independent media space and its potential as an outlet for new forms of interactive media led to a focus on developing online content that was primarily concerned with promoting and adding value to existing television and radio programs.

No additional resources were allocated to the production of news content; rather, large amounts of money were sunk into the development of dedicated digital children’s television channels, such as Fly Kids on the ABC. A hugely expensive exercise, with a very limited audience due to technological restrictions, this experiment failed in 2003, when a lack of funding forced the ABC to abandon this and other digital initiatives and return to a focus on traditional broadcast program-making.

The undue haste of politicians and policy makers more intent on being at the technological cutting edge than   providing useable media content in the public broadcasting tradition ultimately caused the demise of many innovative projects that were ahead of their time “ projects that are now notable by their absence from ABC 2.

Similarly at SBS, management elected to focus on the creation of stand-alone Internet sites, such as the youth-focused, an online ‘zine’ with fortnightly issues including text stories, audio bits, interactive chat rooms and video streaming. Online for two years, ultimately failed to attract its own audience most traffic to the site came via search engines locating specific topics or discussion threads. Intended to empower young people and create a public online space for their concerns, was a clear example of technology driving content the site’s potential was undermined by a lack of focus on useable and relevant content, and a loss of public service values.

While SBS has had considerable success with its online sports site is amongst Australia’s most-visited sites its online news and current affairs content, like that of the ABC, is largely limited to repeating items from its television and radio services, and inviting
comments via message boards and online polls from the public.

Government policy and funding cuts are largely to blame, and are evidence of a woeful ignorance of the benefits and abilities of online and digital technology by those making funding and policy decisions. The current Government’s reliance on the commercial market to lead the development of digital media content is an abrogation of a democratic commitment to the role of the media as the fourth estate, As in the UK, it is essential that public broadcasters are at the forefront of developing digital media content that is free from political or commercial interference.

To this end, increased public  funding for multi-platform digital content production is desperately needed. While such an increase would require a shift in government attitude to public broadcasting which at present seems unlikely, our public broadcasters can and should revise their approach to online and digital activity along a more proven, and economically self-sustaining, model, thereby leading the charge themselves.

Overseas examples of success in both cultural and commercial terms provide a blueprint for future media policy that will meet the needs of government and the public alike. The new media divisions of both the ABC and SBS could learn from the success of the BBC in its online and digital ventures, which will be explored in more detail next week.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.