Terry Television explains what is going wrong at the ABC at the moment.

To say the ABC is in something of a ferment at the moment might be a bit of ‘dog bites man’ story such is the state of morale and corporate tooing and frooing inside ‘Your ABC’ at any time of the year.

But as I have observed recently, the last quarter of the year is a time of greater ferment and torment in TV, both commercial and public and this year is no different.

There’s been the axing of Rewind, George Negus Tonight, shifting Gardening Australia and now proposals to hack the ABC’s only mainstream rural business TV program, LandLine, by 50%.

But as more details emerge of why the ABC axed the successful George Negus Tonight programs, you can only shake your head and wonder at the state of the ABC and its accounting processes and the degree of accountability.

The shifting of Gardening Australia from Hobart to Melbourne has generated the greatest turmoil, with a demonstration in Hobart yesterday at the ABC building by staff involved in the program. They were there to meet the ABC executive in charge of the programming area for the ABC, Denise Eriksen.

She was there to explain why the decision had been made and what lies ahead of ABC Hobart in 2005. The explanation about axing GNT and shifting Gardening Australia was very ABC, to say the least.

It is an accounting problem. But why it has become a problem now and not six months ago, remains inadequately explained? Why how the money was being spent (in part on the Negus programs) suddenly became a problem now?

Back in 2001, the ABC received more than $71.2 million to be spent over four years called the “National Interest Initiative.” It was designed to be spent by the ABC on improving its regional services, to be spent in the so-called BAPH cities (Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart) .

In other words, anywhere but Sydney or Melbourne, which were considered by the federal government and many backbenchers from ‘the regions’ as great black holes sucking in all the cash from other parts of the empire.

That was around $17.8 million a year and this was extended in the May 2004 Federal budget (see here) with an additional $54.4 million to start for three years from July next year.

That means a total of $125.5 million will have been given to the ABC over seven years ending June 30, 2008, to improve regional services in all areas of the ABC’s operations, especially radio and television.

It seems that from explanations given by Denise Eriksen in the wake of the controversial decision to axe three of the four weekday episodes of George Negus Tonight, and to move Gardening Australia’s production from Hobart to Melbourne, that the misuse, or rather the non-specified use of this regional money, is behind the various decisions.

Hence the big play on regionalism and regions in last week’s announcement by Eriksen, with some quotes from her boss, Sandra Levy, the head of ABC TV.

This is what the ABC statement said:

ABC Director of Television Sandra Levy said “the objective of this decision is to provide quality regional content, produced by the regions, and presented by regional hosts, to show the diversity of Australia to all Australians.”

Well, how many times can you say regions in a paragraph?

It sounds like a late discovery of the regions, but it’s a bit of arse-covering by Levy and the ABC because they found out that for whatever reason the Negus show and Gardening Australia were being funded out of that regional money, contrary to how the money was supposed to be spent. Why didn’t the ABC move the program to Brisbane or Adelaide and justify use of the money that way?

What hasn’t been explained so far is why this situation has been allowed to continue for so long, and who put a stop to it – or blew the whistle? (Although another ABC source says there were no strings on the way the money was spent).

So George Negus Tonight has to be cut to one program a week. (Two of the four programs were coming from Melbourne each week). That could be done from Sydney.

There was no money to do the two GNT programs a week from Melbourne because of the so-called National Interest initiative.

Gardening Australia could be moved from Hobart to Melbourne to give work to employees from the GNT show and from ABC productions. Apart from GNT and a little bit of other programming, there were no programs produced in Melbourne of note.

It appears to have been administratively easier to shift Gardening Australia to Melbourne after axing GNT.

Under the regional spending initiative, the money had to be directed to Brisbane, Hobart, Adelaide and Perth. That enabled these new programs, the food and wine show from Adelaide and the two from Hobart, the collectables show and the alternate lifestyle/medicine program. Forty episodes of each would be produced for next year.

Eriksen told staff in Hobart yesterday at the start of a two-day visit that there was nothing that could be done. The decision was a ‘funding issue’ and the money had to be spent in the BAPH regions (but are these big cities regions? Or are the hinterlands they service, regions?)

She is travelling to the BAPH ‘regions’ explaining what has happened and what is envisaged next year.

The ABC however has a little ‘history’ with specific grants of money from the Federal Government. It was given $2 million a year to do a morning breakfast business program, which it did in 2002 and 2003. Last year it was killed off and the host and reporters were deployed(a couple were retrenched) elsewhere in the ABC.

Host Emma Alberici was moved to the midday TV news and business report before transferring to The 7.30 Report. But where has the $2 million a year gone and what has it or is being spent on?

If the ABC management could pull a bit of a fiddle with this grant, why did it move to ‘regularise’ the situation regarding the funding of the George Negus Tonight program?

Denise Eriksen has a lot of experience with the ABC, including being sacked as Executive Producer of the ill-fated Attitude series in the early 90s.

CRIKEY: And this happened on the same day that her husband Steve Price, the highly litigious 2UE shock jock, walked out of the marriage.