As the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy digests hundreds of submissions on the future of the ABC, the people who watch or listen or download their ABC might be excused for wondering just what all the fuss is about. In an atmosphere of economic doom and gloom, the question of funding for the ABC is just as relevant as questions about its journalistic and programming standards — and certainly not unrelated.
The ABC is funded by the federal Government every three years; the next funding period is 2009-12. Not unsurprisingly, the ABC is seeking additional funding for extra TV, digital radio and internet services. Plenty has been said about how, given its job, the ABC is underfunded. But like any budget submission, such claims deserve scrutiny.
The ABC’s recent record is not glowing with success. At the launch of its new iView service, Mark Scott was keen to highlight the outstanding contribution the ABC makes to Australian culture with its news, current affairs, drama and children’s programming. There is, however, strong evidence that the amount of content the ABC is generating internally is in decline. Not only is new Australian content on the wane, as shown by reports by the Australian Film Commission, but the flagship news and current affairs content that has remained static in terms of quantity is now also subject to concerns about its quality.
While the simple solution would appear to be giving the ABC more money, the situation is unfortunately far more complex. Arguments about funding shortfalls have been repeatedly used to justify contentious program cuts like the recent axing of the Religion Report and Media Report as well as to defend the increased outsourcing of the production of non-news TV content. Similar claims about "efficiencies" are driving the deployment of new technology that will reduce operational staffing in the labour intensive business of TV news. These developments suggest that the production capacity of the ABC is under internal attack.
Take the Freeview Consortium, free-to-air TV’s response to subscription TV, chaired by Kim Dalton of the ABC. Dalton’s expertise in outsourcing most of the ABC’s in-house drama and documentary production has already helped build quite a few bridges with the commercial sector. Early last year the Freeview campaign was accurately described as "a smokescreen for a little fisticuffs: free-to-air versus Foxtel", a view shared by Rachel Browne at Fairfax Digital and more or less conceded by Dalton who told Browne that "the reality for the commercial channels will be that new local content will be limited because of the cost of producing new programs".
It’s not that the Australian TV production sector is deficient in skill or ability. As in the film industry, the paucity of local content can be directly linked to a lack of financial support and failure to mandate for Australian content. Why spend millions to make a local production when you can buy a substitute cheaper from overseas to fill the timeslot? The ratings game dictates that only those shows which generate a suitable audience will prevail.
By its nature, TV is essentially pop culture regardless of whether it is commercially or publicly funded. This pop culture mentality is degenerating further into something Mark Scott likens to a "town square", possibly where we all post uninformed two-line tweets to all and sundry. Quentin Dempster, who was the staff elected board member before the position was scrapped, is correct in observing that quality content should be the name of the game, regardless of whether it’s TV, radio or online.
The appeal of new digital platforms like Freeview and iView is undeniable but they will not substantially change the contribution public broadcasting makes to Australian life. Really at stake for the Australian public is what they would get if they spent more on the public broadcasters.
More TV channels? With the advent of ABC2, the ABC is already demonstrating that very little content for a new channel needs to be made when you can simply recycle what already sits in the archives. It’s possible that some extra news components from the ABC CNC (Continuous News Centre) might get up. However, the ABC’s A-SPAN initiative is now under a cloud with SKY effectively stealing the idea. ABC Kids will likely get its own "channel" but it’s hard to see the ABC being able to fill 12 hours a day with local children’s TV — and its own contribution would be vanishingly small.
After this, new content options for ABC TV start to look more expensive. While recent history shows that the ABC has focussed its resources on news and current affairs, outside of news, ABC management has shown little interest in producing content in-house. This might appear to be prudent exercise in an environment of financial constraint but it also reflects a managerial approach to content creation.
Although the official accounts for the ABC show a relatively consistent level of expenditure on staff, a large chunk of ABC funding leaves the organisation. A case in point is the public perception that the ABC is a broadcaster when it is merely the holder of the licence to broadcast. Last year, over $160 million dollars was paid out by the ABC for digital, satellite and terrestrial transmission services, the bulk of that going straight into the coffers of the Macquarie Bank-owned Broadcast Australia.
Currently, ABC management are pursuing policies to effect cultural change within the ABC, change that will see an acceleration in outsourcing for content creation at the same time as retrenchments and capacity loss within the ABC. Increasing the funding of the public broadcaster will not make for a stronger ABC until there is an accompanying shift back towards in-house production. There appears to be general support for increasing the level of local content on the ABC but simply throwing more money at the organisation is just subsidising the commercial production sector, albeit with some small cultural concessions. In terms of value for money, this makes about as much sense as giving Holden a couple of billion dollars to keep making bad cars.
If the ABC is serious about celebrating Australian culture in its various forms then any new government funding needs to be tied to specific outcomes that maximise Australian participation and ownership of its cultural creations. All the talk about new media opportunities such as Freeview or iView is meaningless if there is no compelling new content. Mandatory local content provisions should be attached to any new ABC funding and production outsourcing must be closely scrutinised. It might be too late to reverse the deplorable cultural provisions of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States which seek to limit the amount of Australian content on TV, but this Government can still salvage the ABC.
To do this, the Government must also address the currently unbalanced right wing board and senior management of the ABC. There is little evidence that today’s ABC is sensitive to its audience. In a recent campaign by Friends of the ABC against the Radio National cuts, ABC management responded with form letters and little acknowledgement of the issues.
Peter Pockley from Friends of the ABC labelled this a "failure to engage in public debate with their critics" and a bunker mentality in management with regard to public opinion. Sue Howard may have fallen on her sword but this lack of engagement by management with the public is hardly appropriate for a publicly funded media conglomerate.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.