Opening up the ABC

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ABC Managing Director Mark Scott’s wishlist of six digital channels by 2020 is to be applauded for demonstrating that the ABC is preparing to appeal to audiences in their diversity, by moving from broadcasting to narrow casting.

The ABC currently operates two TV networks – the old analogue station we grew up with, rebadged as ABC1, and a digital channel, ABC2, which currently survives on the smell of an oily rag by recycling content. Last month Mark Scott announced another two channels to be accessed through the internet that will be able to be viewed on TV sets in the future. So far the channels are still behaving like broadcast channels, and recycling The Bill and Margaret and David from ABC 1. But having multi-channels like the BBC will potentially allow Aunty to cater for the different niche tastes of her numerous nephews and nieces without offending each other’s sense of quality, beginning with a kids/youth channel. However these will require additional resources if they are to be fair dinkum and Rudd the fiscal conservative has been careful not to promise funds for a ‘Triple J’ of TV as Lindsay Tanner did during the 2004 election campaign.

What is missing from this vision, however, is an appreciation that emerging audiences want to participate in content creation and interact with program makers and each other. This is what digital technology and the internet do well, but the danger is the continuation of the old paternalist model of public broadcasting where passive audiences simply consume what is offered by program makers who know best. To deliver the multi-channel nirvana envisaged by Scott, the ABC must deal with structural and cultural problems in the corporation inimical to diversity, that have intensified over the last decade. Luckily, there are innovations under way on the ground at the ABC that are laying the foundations for further cultural democracy.

The ABC suffers from a too homogenous a view of Australian culture, imposed through management structures that have centralised control of television content in the hands of a few senior executives. There is insufficient consultation with audiences about programming – signified by an over reliance on commercial ratings – and inadequate community participation in ABC corporate decision-making.

Over the past decade the layers of management bureaucracy and its remuneration increased at the ABC while creative craftspeople were shed at a time when successful private corporations flattened their management and gave greater autonomy to team-based production. The report of the Australian National Audit Office, Corporate Governance in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, prepared under Jonathon Shier’s regime, identified a problem of managers working up to the apex of the corporate pyramid, rather than down to stakeholders. Translated to TV, that means shows are green-lighted because the Director of TV likes them, rather than in reference to audiences or Charter obligations.

The challenge for us today is rethinking the public sector from the midst of the information revolution. Media is moving beyond a crude dichotomy between the old elite public broadcasting and the old commercial broadcasting that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Twenty-first century media is concerned with audiences in their diversity, satisfying those niche interests that help to make us unique and encourage a vibrant, complex dialogue between cultures. Hence the decline in use of free-to-air TV by younger audiences and their attraction to the internet.

Luckily the Charter supports this approach by committing the ABC to "broadcast programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian Community." Perceptions of what constitutes "quality" and innovation depend on particular cultural literacies which nowadays are not shared by a community criss-crossed by aesthetic and attitudinal divides. This is the real challenge.

In 2002 the Auditor found that "there has been a decline in ABC share of younger adult viewers (under 40), but an increase in ABC share of older viewers". This is less about youth than changing media patterns. The evidence shows young people are watching less and less free-to-air TV that looks to common denominators. The "loyal" ABC viewer is making way for the discriminating conditional viewer, who makes an individual choice from the array of media options at their disposal – the websites, blogs, books, videos, games, pay TV, radio, cinema, mobiles, chat lines, magazines and commercial TV – on the basis of personal interests and passions. Media that seek to treat the under-40s as one group, to attract them on the basis of what they are assumed to have in common, will have no audience.

The ABC’s diversity deficit lies in its monolithic perception of an "ABC audience", the shared assumptions of those who commission, and failure to range widely enough in recruiting program-making talent. For all the huff and puff about the ABC’s left wing bias, having only 2 wings – right and left as represented by Labor and Coalition – is a pretty narrow debate. There are a lot more perspectives out there.

When I worked at the ABC in the 1990s many program makers wanted content that was more risky, dangerous, intellectually challenging and experimental rather than reverential of TV rules. Content that dared to be offensive. This occasionally came along in comedies like Front Line, in youth initiatives such as Beat Box and in gritty drama such as Blue Murder. It still does in the comedy area with The Chaser and Summer Heights High, but more often the story is one of senior managers spending a great deal of money blanding out programs to appeal to what they imagine to be the "core" audience. This is sometimes referred to in ratings jargon as the As and Bs but I was told "mate, we make programs for Pymble", just as Mike Carlton a decade later was told to imagine his listener as a neighbour in Epping.

This is perhaps what John Howard had in mind when he described the ABC as our enemies talking to our friends.

I suspect program makers are projecting their own tastes, prejudices and backgrounds on to the potential audience. A rare iconoclast among content commissioners, Courtney Gibson, who has attracted young audiences with new comedy, recently criticised the ABC as "too white, too straight, too middle class … If you don’t have diversity in the production offices, you’re never going to get it on screen". I don’t think Gibson means we need a politically correct mandarin-slice view of the world. Speaking for myself, the ABC needs to better harvest the risky and original stuff that emerges from outside the official TV culture that the ABC’s managerialism usually filters out.

So how can the ABC deliver more diversity of content and greater participation for the new channels?

First, the commissioning and budget power currently wielded by the Director of Television needs to be dispersed down by returning to the old system where the department heads and commissioning editors control content and executive producers are trusted with editorial authority over their own autonomous units, with decisions to be reviewed annually. This will restore creative friction to the ABC and provide more diversity.

Outsourcing is often offered as the panacea for engaging program makers outside the silo. Much non- news and current affairs content – drama, docos, comedy – is now either outsourced or produced internally by external production companies. I have admiration for the work of both in-house ABC program makers and the independents. It’s an artificial divide as so many independent producers are ex-ABC staff who reckon they get a better deal this way. It is often the case that, free from managerial interference and compromise, contracted production teams are able to break more rules, especially in comedy and documentary.

However, outsourcing is far from transparent and the ABC needs to spread its patronage widely rather then indulging the usual suspects. Outsourcing has the potential to burn the ABC and needs to be governed by legislated rules and benchmarks. It matters less whether programs are made in house or out than that this public commissioning is spread equitably and those taking the money are accountable and deliver value-for tax-payers dollars. The current gene pool is too narrow in terms of class, ethnicity and region and the ABC needs to engage with story tellers from beyond the TV industry working in cinema, theatre, literature, music and even computer games. Progressives ignore reforming outsourcing because they favour in-house production, but this horse has truly bolted, and the debate is about how to ensure emerging innovators get the nod rather than the same old mates.

Reversing the trend to centralisation in Sydney would also assist diversity, by allowing commissioners in the so-called "BAPH states"(Brisbane-Adelaide-Perth-Hobart), and even regions to establish relationships with local creative communities. The BBC’s decentralisation has enabled it to harvest the talents of Manchester, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

ABC online and new digital stations have the potential to enhance audience participation in our ABC. While many an older rusted-on ABC viewer might sneer at Big Brother, this one-time channel 10 hit demonstrated that the younger audience wanted to participate in the narrative direction of a TV show. Building on its own pioneering efforts in audience generated content like Beat Box and Race Around the World, I urge the ABC to allow audiences to shape content still further via the internet, commenting on pilot programs and even offering up their own pilots for comment, YouTube style, as children already do on the just-launched Rollermache site. The Argonaughts could sail again, only this time by fibre optics and a set-top box.

This is a democratic and creative trend collapsing the barriers between consumers and producers, and it should be a priority for resourcing by the Rudd Government that has pledged to ensure that the ABC is "able to exploit the potential of new technology". However, the ALP went to the election only promising "adequate" funding of the ABC, and an increase seems unlikely in the coming belt-tightening budget, despite community expectations to the contrary. Nevertheless, a targeted grant to assist the ABC continue its ground breaking initiatives in digital narrowcasting would be money well spent by a government interested in innovation and "democratic accountability".

New Matilda

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