Whose ABC?

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In the 21st century, so some observers believe, modes of communication enabled by new technology will make public broadcasting unnecessary. In a still more apocalyptic vision, broadcasting itself will become extinct. Just as that 19th century wonder the telegraph disappeared for want of use by the end of the next century, so radio and television will be rendered obsolete by an ever-increasing variety of means for delivering sounds and images.

Skeptics respond that technological determinism is as risky a base for prophecy as any other theory or hunch and point to the cinema flourishing in the new age, as an institution whose doom had been confidently predicted in the early years of television and the even more resilient radio.

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Television sets were becoming more numerous the average Australian household now had more than two but they were competing for family time with VCRs, which were themselves being abandoned for DVD players. The composition of the family itself was changing: one in four households had only a single adult. Fewer and fewer people, young or old, in solitude or company, were watching a whole program.

Teenagers, said Hugh Mackay, leave the television set running continuously, like the fridge, and from both they take out what they want, when they want it. People went online to work and play. When they did use television, a slowly but steadily increasing proportion of households around a quarter by 2006 were paying to watch programs delivered by cable or satellite.

The total audience for ABC television, as for all free-to-air suppliers, was declining. This trend was costlier for the commercials than for the ABC, whose income did not vary with the size of the audience each program could attract.

For radio, both ABC and commercial, the audience remained fairly stable. Whether in cars, through headsets or around the house, listeners were less affected by the distractions that competed with traditional television.

For ABC Online, the audience (if that is the word) had gone on growing, increasing the more rapidly as more and more users opted for broadband connections giving high-speed access to its riches.

‘Broadcasting’ was a portmanteau bursting at the seams as more and more activities were stuffed into it. At the ABC, people spoke of narrowcasting, datacasting, now podcasting. The activity of ABC Online was sometimes known as webcasting. Would the Australian Broadcasting Corporation be given a new name to accommodate its proliferating purposes? Or would the old word be retained by force of habit or for proclaiming a venerable antiquity, as some newspapers were still mast-headed the ‘Telegraph’?

Whatever the fate of ‘Broadcasting,’ the word ‘Australian’ would surely be kept more and more precious in a world where multinational communicators annihilated frontiers. The ABC Act required the national broadcaster to ‘contribute to a sense of national identity,’ a responsibility made all the weightier by the globalisation of media.

Commercial free-to-air stations were compelled by law to leaven their largely American schedules with a quota of Australian-made programs. The overseas-based providers of pay television were allowed more lenient quotas. They were not going to deliver, as promised, a range of choice so vast that public broadcasting would no longer be necessary.

To be sure, a fastidious user of the remote control might find on pay channels items, especially to do with the arts, that would have been at home on the BBC or the ABC (Caroline Baum’s book program, Clive James in conversation with Peter Porter). But overall, in the judgement of the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Paul Sheehan, in 2002, Australian pay television was mired in ‘mediocrity, self-delusion and, above all, a deadening witless Nothingness.’

And that was before one provider, Foxtel, owned jointly by Kerry Packer, Rupert Murdoch and Telstra, became in Jock Given’s words ‘the ringmaster of Australian pay TV’ by forging an agreement with competitors which gave it the monopoly governments had tried in vain to fend off. The Chief Executive of Foxtel, Kim Williams, who might still have been in charge of ABC pay television had that enterprise not foundered in 1995, strenuously denied that his firm had a monopoly; but he meant only that pay television had still to compete with free-to-air networks and with home videos.

When eventually the Australian Government opens up the electronic spectrum to large numbers of digital channels, the free-to-air operators will be no more likely than the pay providers to deliver programs comparable in quality and diversity with those offered by public broadcasters.

Some students of the matter predict that digital technology will fragment audiences while concentrating ownership. They argue that one source of monopoly, spectrum scarcity, will be replaced by another, induced by necessary economies of scale and the limits to the pool of talent.

In one English vision of the future, 200 digital channels may all have to share a box supplied and controlled by Rupert Murdoch. In Australia, Julianne Schultz believes that as the wide, open spaces on the spectrum are occupied, commercial broadcasters will be less inclined than ever to accept the mild social obligations which traditionally have been the condition of access. If that happens, she writes, ‘the role of the public broadcaster to maintain the values, tone and underlying sense of the nation and public good will be much greater.’

All in all, it is likely that viewers and listeners in the digital age will become even more reliant on public broadcasters for electronic representations of their nation’s character and the human condition. In the information age, suggests Jock Given, ‘it might be increasingly difficult to find a disinterested information source on any subject.’

There is plenty of life yet in the adage about the ABC and its equivalents elsewhere, that they address their audiences as citizens, not consumers.

This is an edited extract from Ken Inglis, Whose ABC? The Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1983-2006 (Black Inc, $39.95)

This Friday New Matilda’s Policy Portal will be publishing a special edition on the future of Australian media policy. Check your inbox for:

Emma Dawson on telling Australian stories

Ryan Heath on kissing innovation goodbye

Joshua Gans on network neutrality

Ellie Rennie in search of ‘Our Space’ on digital TV

Georgina Born (UK) on public broadcasting

Jock Given on the new dinosaur age

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