You know what they say: The more things change, the more the ABC commits to dodgy, recycled restructures doomed to failure.
It’s hardly surprising that with a hostile federal government and more budget cuts in the pipeline, the ABC would respond by declaring its willingness to move with the times. Here’s the managing director:
“It is necessary to look again at the way we are structured. This is not only in response to budgetary restraints, but also to changes in the broadcasting environment and technology applications. The ABC will adopt a structure to suit its particular needs for the future.”
Except that the MD who wrote those words was not Mark Scott but Brian Johns, way back in 1996. It’s a classic example of the “the more things change, the more they stay the same” principle of institutional management. The echoes across an 18-year gap at the national broadcaster are uncanny. Here’s Mark Scott, just last week:
“At the ABC we must develop cost-effective and audience-focused solutions to both these challenges: the renewal of a media organisation in light of pressures created by technology, audiences, markets — and the reduction in funding. The ABC is accustomed to challenges, accustomed to change.”
Sound familiar? Here’s the Johns-era ABC Annual Report for 1996-97:
“The national public broadcaster operates in a fast-changing media environment characterised by rapid expansion in the number of available channels, an increasing volume of foreign programming and a trend to the concentration of media ownership. This year the ABC Board and management embarked on a far reaching review of activities, culminating in major initiatives to restructure the Corporation and further improve its efficiency and effectiveness.”
And here’s Scott, in his August 15 speech at QUT:
“We must acknowledge how much the world has been altered by digital media, and how rapidly and urgently we need to change to deal with this. We must accept that in the fierce contest for audiences, where old alliances no longer work and where friends can become rivals, the ABC has to robustly review its programming and services.”
It’s deja vu — we have, quite literally, heard it all before. The same faux-corporate blatherspeak; the same bleedingly obvious platitudes about “rapidly changing media environments”. But the most fascinating aspect of these parallel responses almost two decades apart is that they offer the same solution to the ABC’s perceived woes: abandon the logical structure that organises Aunty into separate divisions of radio, television and online, and regroup the corporation as a loose confederation of cross-platform genre empires.
Brian Johns dubbed his break-down-the-walls nonsense “One ABC” (perversely, at the same time that Pauline Hanson was draping herself in the flag of “One Nation”). This was his rationale:
“The ABC’s new organisation structure, referred to as One ABC, allows the Corporation to focus its energies more clearly on what it does best — the making and delivery of quality program content for use across the electronic media — radio, television and online. The divisional walls which separated radio and television for 13 years have been dismantled. While financial savings had to be identified, there were sound creative reasons for embarking on the restructure. The ABC had to reposition itself to take account of a media environment characterised by new media forms and converging technologies.”
And here’s the current MD, Mark Scott, singing off the same sheet of music last week:
“In many respects, we have an analogue structure, an organisational inheritance that sits uneasily in a digital world. We need to think more in terms of genres and audiences, rather than platforms — make sure we focus on the ABC’s content strengths, genres in which it already leads the way. A digital solution means a shift from disparate platform strategies to an integrated content strategy — a greater push for engagement across divisions, a bias towards agility, creativity and innovation.”
The rhetoric is a bit more 21st century, but the arguments are identical.
What seems to have escaped Scott (who arrived at Ultimo six years after Johns left) is that this has all been tried before — and it failed. “One ABC” was a wasteful, unproductive disaster that stumbled along for 20 months or so before it had to be dismantled, euthanised and the old departmental structures re-established. It is extraordinary that there appears to be not a single executive left at the ABC who can remember that fiasco and has the courage to tell Scott not to repeat history.