As Kim Dalton becomes head of television at the ABC, both the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald are running with the “production advocate storms gates” vision of the appointment.

It is true that Dalton has always come to the various institutions he has worked in armed with a clear understanding of the independent sector, with which he has punctured the balloons of self-importance and egomania that fill the institutional corridors.

He has no affection for the past, reputations, customary thinking or the institutions as such. At the same time, he has always been focused on opportunity and improvement. His experience of drama – and documentary – production will be invaluable.

It’s difficult to know how much wiggle room the head of television is actually given, since the position sits in a management team responsible to a board, all designed to create some sort of unity. Arguably, the ABC is series of fiefdoms, jealous of its autonomy, desperately defending and seeking power. Try shifting the inertia of the legal department, for instance. They have all demonstrated that they are very capable of absorbing punishment, as vast grey fogs that just absorb change and gradually simply rust the reformist ships away, until they lie on some sandbank, beached and wrecked by the tide.

For six years, Dalton has presided over an annual budgetary process. In the past he has argued for particular productions. Spreadsheets are a part of his nervous system, he can prioritise, he can hunt waste like a starving truffle hound – all skills of the good independent producer. He is patient, persistent and logical. But the arena of ABC planning is bigger and nastier than he has encountered before, full of experienced and paranoid players raised on a paradigm of violence.

I suspect the old organisational mantras of “where are we going” and “how are we going to get there” are probably compromised here, as the ABC is fatally confused about its objectives, and driven crazy by the demand to do too much with too little, for too many powerful masters. Both outside, and inside the organisation.

Unlike his predecessors, Dalton seems to have no interest in crafting a distinctive body of dramatic work for himself. Sandra Levy was notorious for making decisions herself, for shaping content around her own pleasures. Penny Chapman’s greatest production triumphs have been about personal themes. Dalton does not want to see “his shows” in lights – instead, he has always been determined to build the system which selects and delivers.

We can expect him to push for co-operation as a core value. At the same time, we should not expect him to compromise the ABC’s power and accountability. Dalton is good at dragging embarrassing secrets into the light, to dump on the table what the dysfunctional production family doesn’t want to say. We are probably going to talk about mediocrity.

If he had been given the whole trainset, we could expect the system to be rebuilt and rationalised. The basic why and wherefore of this particular public broadcaster would be taken apart and analysed. But he hasn’t, and it will be fascinating to see his impact.

Peter Fray

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