The Price Of Creative Independence At The ABC


There has been a tendency by some to see the recent controversial changes to Radio National as a symptom of the broadcaster being pulled in two different directions: traditional quality broadcasting on one hand, and the digital revolution on the other.

The truth is a little more complicated, but perhaps also a bit more hopeful.

The digital revolution has been extraordinarily good for the ABC, but this success has been heavily dependant on the quality of the product that the broadcaster is known for. In the critical couple of years ahead, the organisation needs to consolidate and expand its content and keep innovating to keep its position as a leader in digital media.

The digital revolution and the uncertain future of journalism in commercial television, (and particularly in mass circulation newspapers), demonstrate both the opportunity and the need for the enhancement of the ABC as a mainstream player in Australian media and culture.

The ABC has now delivered its 2009-2012 triennial funding submission to the Rudd Government. So far, no funding invoice has been publicly attached to that submission. The ABC has grand plans for education, public affairs and children’s free-to-air television multi-channels and innovative broadband content.

With the Labor Government professing its support for public broadcasting through its current call for public submissions on its digital future, there is an expectation that extra operational base funding will be delivered, possibly as early as the May budget next year.

This is to be hoped for, because unless additional taxpayer funding is secured the ABC will have to cut services and pressure will rebuild from within for the broadcaster to take advertising. It’s hard to exaggerate how serious a step that would be. The overarching philosophy of public service broadcasting is that it exists to inform, educate and entertain a polity, engaging audiences as citizens in a robust democracy, not as consumers to be delivered up to advertisers.

In the last decade new digital broadcast and broadband internet technology has saved the ABC. The ABC has been leading the media industry through its own digital transformation, demonstrating its value-adding capability by taking a place at the cutting edge of new delivery systems with pod casting and vod casting, internet TV and its content-laden ABC online portal. Audiences have been flocking to the new services, even as radio and TV audiences are at record levels as well.

The new delivery systems have given the broadcaster a cost-effective lease of new life, and a new relevance and worth to ABC-copyright TV and radio news and current affairs, Radio National specialist programs and innovative broadband content. People are commenting on, blogging about and engaging with programs as never before.

Audiences, particularly tech-savvy youngsters, can now click on Triple J, RN, Four Corners broadband editions, The 7.30 Report, the Chaser and Summer Heights High among hundreds of other programs whenever they want to.

The power of the scheduler is over. Programs can go online for fast broadband internet audio and video streaming before they are broadcast on radio or TV. Broadcasting is morphing into cybercasting.

As well, the ABC’s free-to-air (FTA) digital multi-channels will help to drive the take-up of digital set top boxes by Australian households to enable the analogue transmission to be switched off by 2013. FTA multi-channels can deliver almost limitless content for less than $100 for a set-top box. FTA digital radio is coming next year too, and the ABC will be there.

But while it is vitally important to exploit digital broadcast and cybercast technologies so that all the content produced at taxpayers’ expense is readily and freely accessible, the real debate about the ABC’s future should be about enhancing the quality of that content.

The recent dispute over the axing of some specialist programs at Radio National "to convert a small number of positions into roles with a stronger online and digital editorial focus and to enable general enhancements to the network’s website" has helped to bring some focus to this multi-faceted debate.

RN programs that are broadcast on radio attract the over 50s audience while RN online audiences are under 50. To reallocate scarce resources at the expense of one loyal section of the audience to build another does not appear to be an ideal way to make such a transition. The ABC should have the capacity to deliver to both over the transitional period.

After more than 2000 emails and letters of complaint, the ABC has reassured audiences that the loss of RN programs, in particular The Religion Report, does not mean it is deserting these speciality areas. At the moment its presenter, Stephen Crittenden, has been suspended and is under investigation for having unilaterally broadcast in embittered terms his objection to the axing of the program. Programs like The Religion Report enjoy a strong following. Its associated website is now accessed internationally, establishing the show as a valuable "brand" in its own right.

While no doubt noting the ABC’s assurances, those complaining (representing a wide range of political perspectives, and including Christopher Pearson and Senator Bob Brown) have yet to see what will replace The Religion Report. At the moment they just have to take the ABC’s word for it that it will somehow maintain and enhance the quality and depth of its religious coverage on radio, television or online.

ABC broadcasters accept that management has the right to manage as it fairly sees fit, including re-assigning program makers and trying new program ideas and formats. Ideally this should be done with audience sensitivity, collegial care, consultation and human understanding for those committed to a speciality which has taken years to develop.

But what seems to be at issue here is the future of specialist units which have characterised Radio National from its beginning. These specialist units and the funding which has sustained them over decades have helped to build the ABC’s in-house knowledge base, creating household names out of Robyn Williams and Norman Swan in science, for example, and Antony Green, who represents the enormous value of a 20-year investment in a specialty area. It is revealing that leaders of ABC Radio talk about a commitment to specialisation but rarely acknowledge it is the specialist units which build authority, interpretative and analytical depth over time.

This is where the ABC management needs to recognise that platform innovation and content quality are both crucial to its success. Podcasting has demonstrated the worth and value of specialist units as audiences go out of their way to download the programs they produce. Up to September this year, RN’s monthly average podcast downloads reached 1.7 million, half of the ABC’s overall average of 3.37 million. The downloads have gone global, with the ABC gaining an international reputation for the distinctiveness and strength of its specialist units — health, science, media, religion, law, literature and the arts.

Arguably we need more specialisation in environment and population, sustainability and economics, technology, education, law and justice and foreign policy. Podcasting (and eventually vodcasting) demonstrates that specialisation is a major part of the future for ABC content. Audiences here and around the world are hungry for quality programming.

And it’s not as if we’re talking about big money here. ABC specialist broadcasters work on minimal funding. For example, The Religion Report operates on an annual budget of around $200,000 for salaries, technical production, research and (almost non-existent) travel.

Radio National’s entire network annual promotional budget is negligible. RN audiences are loyal and stay for years. Podcasting is building a new, younger audience. Imagine the black bemusement among specialist broadcasters when they see the ABC willing to spend $6 million to re-sign The Chaser on ABC TV for just one year after a bidding war with the commercial stations. Good luck to the clever Chaser boys but the ABC needs to be sensitive to the comparisons of value which inevitably arise.

Quality is clearly crucial to the ABC’s future, but that quality in turn relies very heavily on securing the ABC’s creative independence. And that’s something that can only be done with adequate public funding.

In the crunch over dollars in the last 20 years the ABC has had to compromise its independence by becoming reliant on external fund providers for its first-release Australian drama and documentary content, depending on bodies like government film finance commissions, lotteries trusts, government departments and tax concession investors. The ABC no longer has in-house drama and documentary departments or a natural history unit.

Cuts have been made everywhere, and they are cuts you notice. To maintain the viability of its TV schedule ABC TV has become "UK TV", dependant on shelf programs acquired from Britain. Depressed insiders say, "So much for our Charter obligation to ‘enhance a sense of national identity’."

While in the 2007 budget the Howard government provided $30 million over three years for the ABC to commission drama from the private TV production sector, further compromise was apparent when some of these new dramas quickly appeared on pay TV’s Hallmark Channel. In the interests of transparency the ABC should publish in its annual report to Parliament all commercial contracts and negotiated obligations to subscription television. The ABC does not exist to make soapy dramas for the Hallmark Channel.

The obvious concern here is that if these arrangements prevail into the future, dramas will be commissioned by the ABC and its external investors ultimately because they are commercially bankable and not because they are good or creative risk-taking ideas. Such arrangements would be a distortion of the ABC’s public purpose.

Another link in the chain of quality through creative independence is the ability to train and retain the people who make the service work. This practice of building skills within the organisation has been another casualty of chronic under-funding, and there are now those inside the ABC who say the broadcaster cannot afford to be a training campus for television and broadcast production. On the contrary, having a capacity to make and exploit its own programs and develop the talent necessary to do so is surely fundamental to creative independence.

To avoid misunderstanding, the ABC’s role as a mentor and developer of creative talent and skills (technical, writing, production and journalism) should be stated explicitly in the ABC Act.

So how much additional funding would be needed to secure the ABC’s creative independence?

Channels Nine, Seven and Ten spend around $40 million to $60 million each a year on their legislated Australian drama content quotas. At the very least that should be matched for the ABC as a component part of its annual appropriation.

Plus, it’s going to be a time of necessary investment in this area. With the ABC’s other plans to help drive the digital revolution in Australia, an annual operational base funding increase of $150 million to $200 million recurrent would be a good start.

This is a small investment, and it would be coming at a time when it’s sure to pay us back handsomely.

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.