Outsourcing the arts at Aunty: the problem with commissioning
by Nicholas Pickard, freelance arts journalist and former arts adviser to the NSW government|
Aug 03, 2011 1:10PM |EMAIL|PRINT
Rumours have swirled for just over a week and yesterday ABC management confirmed what had already been suspected: ABC TVâ€™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 Tuesdayâ€™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 ABCâ€™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 wonâ€™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 isnâ€™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 shouldnâ€™t be treated as a grudgingÂ 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.