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Outsourcing the arts at Aunty: the problem with commissioning

Rumours have swirled for just over a week and yesterday ABC management confirmed what had already been suspected: ABC TV’s flagship program Art Nation has been axed and 15 people have also been reportedly offered redundancies.

The program has been screened for just three years with limited publicity and yet Kim Dalton, head of ABC Television, told The Sydney Morning Herald that one of the reasons for its axing is audiences had fallen by “about 30-odd per cent over the past few years”. The axing will not affect Tuesday’s Artscape slot, the First Tuesday Book Club, At The Movies or ABC2 Live arts performances.

Reaction to the move has been aggrieved, primarily because ABC management are keeping their cards close to their chest over how they intend to cover the arts. Many commentators are quick to quote the ABC charter, but the charter is at best vague on how the national broadcaster needs to “encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia”.

In a statement to staff, Dalton stated that “the online portal Arts Gateway, will continue as will the Sunday afternoon block of acquired arts programs from Australia and around the world”.

This shift to outsourcing content is the move that most concerns the arts industry. The sector has watched as serious arts content has shrunk drastically throughout the mainstream media, most particularly in broadsheet newspapers. Large chunks of available space are regularly taken up by easily found syndicated articles from newspapers in the UK and the United States because of poor resources allocated to arts desks.

A television industry source explained to Crikey yesterday that “it’s not unusual in television for productions to be ‘outsourced’. That’s what a co-production is and its how most television is made”.

According to the source, there are endemic problems with in-house productions at the ABC, “which happen when people within an organisation get promoted to positions they aren’t suited to. Not because that’s what they should be doing, but because they’ve earned it through being there so long”.

To add to the ABC’s challenges, the recently appointed ABC Controller Brendan Dahill has been given five years to turn the network’s demographic around from a majority of over-65s to an audience from 18-40. That is no mean feat when the ABC is a legacy broadcaster.

There have been instances in recent years that point to good ABC arts program commissions under the Artscape banner including The Art Life and This Is Not Art.

Others, however, point to a lack of funding resources by the ABC to stick with serious and regular arts programs as it does with politics and sport. They point to programs such as Express, Review and Sunday Arts that have all been left by the wayside. ABC presenter Quentin Dempster has today been quoted in The Australian as saying the removal of in-house productions as an “intentional destruction of the ABC’s creative independence”.

Arts industry figures were more cautious to condemn the ABC until plans for arts coverage are better outlined by management. Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia, told Crikey that “it seems unthinkable the ABC won’t have an arts division [however] there should be a balance between what happens in-house and what happens externally with private producers”.

Cassandra Wilkinson, chair of Sydney radio station FBi FM and Music NSW board member, says the problem isn’t in producing good arts television — it’s commissioning it.

Private people make great TV but they need to be commissioned to do it,” she told Crikey. “The ABC needs to be clear about what it has an obligation to commission, which in my view includes a body of work that explores and celebrates Australian art and culture.”

She pointed to the success of FBi FM (a community radio station focused on local arts, culture and music) that attracts an average of 250,000 listeners: “The audience for Australian music, art and culture is bigger than anyone predicted and just keeps growing. Australian culture shouldn’t be treated as a grudging obligation, it’s an opportunity for great content and bigger audiences.”

Ralph Myers, artistic director at the Sydney-based Belvoir St Theatre, captured the mood of many of the industry people Crikey spoke to yesterday in saying that “a vibrant artistic culture relies on criticism and analysis”.

Australian society would be much poorer if the ABC were to not provide access to, and analysis of, our cultural output on free-to-air television,” he said.

4/8/2011 Correction: This story originally referred to Arts Nation — the correct program title is Art Nation, the copy has been amended.

10
  • 1
    Holden Back
    Posted Wednesday, 3 August 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    The question being whether Arts Nation did any of the desirable things Ralph Myers would like to see on television.

    What little I saw of it was a fairly shallow magazine program with almost no genuine critical position other than ‘the arts might be groovy’.

    But then I know about art, and what I like.

  • 2
    Jim Blundell
    Posted Wednesday, 3 August 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Your item on Outsourcing the Arts quotes Cassandra Wilkinson, chair of Sydney radio station FBi FM and Music NSW board member, saying that FBi FM attracts an average of 250,000 listeners.

    I’d reckon this is some sort of (unspecified) reach or cume number, it’s definitely not a meaningful average.

    Commercial Radio Australia’s website shows top-rating 2GB averaging 172,000 listeners in its weekday Breakfast , and 88,000 overall in radio Survey #4 this year.

    See http://www.commercialradio.com.au/index.cfm?page_id=1449

    Might I suggest your writers challenge and clarify press release puff pieces and claims from any source?

    Jim Blundell

  • 3
    Vincent O'Donnell
    Posted Wednesday, 3 August 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I’m hopelessly biased on this (I produce the radio program, Arts Alive) but you have to ask.

    Why is Arts Alive, a weekly one hour, arts and culture current affairs radio program one of the top rating programs on the Community Radio Network.

    Part of the answer is that Arts Alive does not treat the arts as though they occupied a sacred silo, to be spoken of in hushed tones, high sentiment, and special language.

    The arts are a real part of life for 50% + of Australians. They are to be enjoyed, not sealed in amber. And they can be discussed in the same terms as sport, business and politics. If fact, the arts can be sports, business and politics, as well as history and religion etc, so media can cover the arts as they cover everything else.

    Vincent O’Donnell

  • 4
    paddy
    Posted Wednesday, 3 August 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I’ll miss Fenella’s take on the arts scene.
    But I also suspect this whole business is much more about funding the 24ABCnews debacle and slashing costs elsewhere.

  • 5
    Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)
    Posted Wednesday, 3 August 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Before Sunday Arts the Sunday afternoon collection of arts programs was often, for me, must see.

    When Sunday Arts came along it seemed that all the budget was spent on this program, and so little money remained to purchase programs that the quality declined to such an extent that I just gave up watching. I’ve never bothered with Arts Nation.

    Of course the demise of Arts Nation does not necessarily mean that more money will be spent on Sunday afternoon arts programs. Perhaps the quality will remain poor.

    Of course there is SBS, except SBS now want people to watch their pay-tv only arts channel (surely a conflict of interest) SBS’s Saturday afternoon arts programs on FTA also fail to impress.

    As someone who appreciates quality picture and sound, I’m also very disappointed by the ABC2 Live Arts. The low bit rate provides less than DVD quality picture and sound, and the intrusive and unnecessary watermark detracts from the experience. As I result I usually don’t bother watching ABC2 Live Arts.

    In my opinion, the ABC (and SBS) are doing a poor job in fulfilling their charters when it comes to the arts.

  • 6
    Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)
    Posted Wednesday, 3 August 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    @Paddy,

    As well as sucking up funding, ABC24 also wastes precious bandwidth.

    Even though most Australian’s are now able to watch high-definition TV, and most of what the ABC shows is not shot in HD, all the ABC broadcast is standard definition. Even ABC commissioned programs (such as Rake) ares shot in HD.

    And ABC24 also diverts attention from actually providing news. Surely one of the best ways for the ABC to keep Australians up-to-date with news is to have a good “just in” news service on the internet (with stories also sent to twitter). But as so much attention is given to ABC24, updating Just In is not treated seriously. Stories from the 7:45 am radio new bulletin might not appear until many hours later. Stories in the morning newspapers often only appear in the afternoon.

    The main problem with the ABC (and SBS) is how management allocate resources. When they cannot do this properly, giving them more money is not the answer.

  • 7
    Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)
    Posted Wednesday, 3 August 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I really wish that Crikey gave us the ability to edit our posts…

    When I said “most of what the ABC shows is not shot in HD” I meant to type “most of what the ABC shows is NOW shot in HD”.

  • 8
    Rena Zurawel
    Posted Wednesday, 3 August 2011 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Sunday Afternoon’ was the best program ever.We were waiting for Sundays to have real relax and a great review of the arts and artistic events all over the world. And from 1pm to 5 pm every Sunday we had a chance to see and listen to the best performances both in Australia and overseas.
    Whoever got the idea to get rid of the program must have been culturally illiterate. Ever since, there is absolutely nothing to watch as far as the world of arts is concerned. Non events; hard to believe !
    It is only when I recently returned from Europe which struck me how poor our tv programs are.
    For years, BBC had been my favourite channel. Now, it is only for a quick news review. And switch to the computer for arts news.
    Nowadays our youth is not only deprived of decent curriculim at school which would include basic knowledge about arts and performing arts. BBC has nothing to offer. Our TV is addressing noone in particular.

  • 9
    Frank Campbell
    Posted Thursday, 4 August 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    ” serious arts content has shrunk drastically throughout the mainstream media, most particularly in broadsheet newspapers.”

    But sport and low-IQ news (ABC24) is spreading like fungus…

    Someone should measure the volume of sports “interviews” (actually soundgobs) forced on the public. A ghastly mixture of Latin (anterior cruciate ligament) and corporate cliches : “the playing group knows what it has to do to stay focused…”

    More people go to museums than industrial football, remember.

  • 10
    Joceyln Tan
    Posted Thursday, 4 August 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    No surprises to those who have seen him in action that Mark Scott takes this familiar track. As he has done before, Scott first surrounded himself with a tight little team (have a look at the org chart and ask yourself what some of those people do/). Then he layered in lots of polished spruiker types to fill out his troupe of managerial lackeys. He plays hard for the folk who pull strings for him (union officials like Chris Warren, pollies, powerbrokers) or for public status (how many speeches can a man give?). This stage is one where his preferred out-sourcing mates (locally you can pick them) get a big feed and he takes the money from those who don’t have any clout (staff).
    The man has no spine. He’s all spin.

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