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‘More badly written drama from Sydney’: critics slam ABC centralisation

The ABC’s decision to axe TV production in Tasmania has upset some — and leaves Aunty’s empire increasingly focussed on network hubs in Sydney and Melbourne.

Of the ABC television programs currently on air, and wholly funded and produced by the network, just three are made outside of Sydney or Melbourne.

ABC managing director Mark Scott yesterday announced he would axe non-local TV production in Tasmania as part of a cost-saving mission to further centralise the network. Tasmania produced The Collectors and Auction Room, which have both been dumped with the loss of 16 jobs. That leaves Poh’s Kitchen (Adelaide), Australian Story and Landline (Brisbane) as the only TV programs which are fully funded by the ABC and made outside of network hubs in Sydney and Melbourne.

ABC identity Peter Cundall, who featured in the Tasmanian production of Gardening Australia, slams Scott’s decision to cease non-news TV production in Tasmania. ”It’s a massive, massive disappointment for everyone,” Cundall told Crikey.

“We’ll get more Sydney-centric stuff … more empty, badly written drama, more second-rate production mainly from Sydney and Melbourne. The aim of the ABC is to cover the whole of Australia; that’s now been drastically reduced.”

Cundall says it’s no surprise ABC management, mostly based in Sydney, have decided to cut production in the regions. His suggestion: cut from Sydney instead. ”There’s an enormous amount of people wandering around [Sydney HQ],” Cundall said, comparing them to Tasmania’s “world class” production staff.

Cundall’s views have been backed, less passionately, by federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and former ABC managing director David Hill. The latter told Crikey it’s an “atrocious piece of timing to be rationalising TV production right now”.

They’ve just had a renewal of their funding, as Conroy points out. They can hardly be crying poor mouth,” Hill said. “On the basis of pure efficiency, you’d only have one TV production centre but the ABC has a responsibility to reflect the whole of this huge island nation.”

Hill says the ABC should produce TV programs — not just news and current affairs bulletins — in every state. “Tasmania has always been a difficult issue. It’s got a small population but it is a state and is part of the great tapestry and cultural aspiration of this country. Every state should be in the mix,” he said.

Scott defended his decision in an email to staff:

The decision does not reflect on them or on the wider Tasmanian branch. The fact is that Tasmania does not have the scale and market to justify the high fixed costs involved in maintaining an internal television production unit and associated labour and infrastructure.”

Some ABC employees in Tasmania had been expecting the axe might fall on TV at some stage. But they’re angry and worried about losing their jobs after management arrived “like a military detachment” (as one said) to announce the news in Hobart yesterday. Management is still on site discussing redundancies and entitlements.

The ABC is pushing for a co-production funding model in the regions, already in operation in Western Australia and South Australia. The model, under which the ABC joins with state governments or other investors to co-fund TV production, has seen a range of programs made recently, including Race to London, Croc College and Jillaroo (all in South Australia), and Vet School, Boomtown West, Who’s Been Sleeping in My House, Will’s Big Twitch and Dream House (WA).

Scott says the ABC wants to invest $1.5 million over three years for co-production ventures in Tasmania, probably with the assistance of the state government-backed Screen Tasmania. But some local ABC staff are concerned the cash-strapped Tasmanian government may not be able to contribute much.

Critics claim the ABC is breaching its charter, which states the national broadcaster’s functions include “broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community”. Greens leader Christine Milne told Crikey: “Its objective as a national broadcaster is to be a national broadcaster.” She says the regions should be able to tell their own stories; planning to fly film crews out to the regions occasionally is not good enough.

Milne told Crikey that Gardening Australia (formerly made in Tasmania, now in Melbourne) and The Collectors were well produced and loved by audiences around the country, whereas Auction Room had been set up to fail with a graveyard timeslot as ABC management worked towards centralising production in Sydney. Milne plans to move a motion in the Senate this afternoon, which she expects to be supported by all three parties. Milne criticised Scott for “wittling away” the ABC presence in Tasmania, describing the decision as short-sighted.

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  • 1
    Kevin Tyerman
    Posted Wednesday, 21 November 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Should “widdling away” be “whittling away”? Or did she mean they are p-ssing their Tasmanian resources up the wall?

  • 2
    michael crook
    Posted Wednesday, 21 November 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    I am surprised they found something to cut after the shier/alston emasculation. This is really putting the boot in.

  • 3
    Malcolm Hutton
    Posted Wednesday, 21 November 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    It’s worth remembering that Sydney HQ of Penfolds told Max Schubert to stop making Grange, now world famous. I and my local projects have suffered from Sydney and Melbourne based lack of knowledge and drawing on too stretched a pool of talent, and thus clients have suffered. More power to the regions please!

  • 4
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Wednesday, 21 November 2012 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Good question about the “widdling away”, Kevin. I heard Christine on the phone as saying “widdling away”, but I’m going to email her and check that’s what she said.

  • 5
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 21 November 2012 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    So much for the “national” broadcaster.
    Anyone who has had the misfortune of dealing with the replete, complacent Program Prevention Officers in Sydney HQ will not be in the least surprised.

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