The new managing director of the ABC, Mark Scott, has said that he is unsure about whether the ABC website should take advertising. This is as good a reason as any to revisit the whole issue of how the ABC is to maintain its independence and indeed its purpose in the new media world.

Some people don’t seem to realise it, but ABC content is already run alongside advertising. Readers of Good Weekend magazine will have noticed Telstra Bigpond ads with the ABC logo prominently displayed. On the Bigpond site there are plenty of ads surrounding the ABC content. We don’t know, because the ABC board won’t tell us, how much the ABC earns from this. Does it get a share of the advertising or just a licence fee, or a mixture of both?

We do know that the ABC board has in recent time considered more deals, which according to sources are based exclusively on a share of advertising revenue.

Given all this, it’s worth revisiting some recent history. In 2000 there was a big fuss because the ABC was negotiating a non-exclusive content licensing deal with Telstra. Details were leaked to the media and it never went ahead. The Friends of the ABC and the staff elected directors have claimed that the death of the deal was a victory for the independence of the national broadcaster. My understanding is that the real reason the thing fell apart was because Jonathan Shier, proving his incompetence, tried to renegotiate a done deal on a double or nothing basis. So he got nothing.

But in any case, six years down the line where is the victory? It could be argued this was a narrow window of opportunity. Telstra Bigpond was for a short while prepared to pay real money for content, because it was desperately trying to increase its subscriber numbers.

Now ABC content is there on Bigpond in any case, and helping Telstra to build brand credibility. Probably Telstra pays peanuts for this. Had the 2000 Telstra deal gone ahead it would by now have earned the ABC $70 million, which would have made a big difference over the last few years.

This is a cautionary tale. Those who are most zealous in protecting the ABC are not always its true best friends. If the ABC is to remain strong and independent of government, it must seek revenue in new ways.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the ABC should take advertising. I’m saying that it’s doing so already. There may be good marketing and PR reasons for not taking it on the ABC’s own websites, but I can’t see that there is a big moral difference.

All this is part of a much bigger question. In the age of the internet and multichannelling what is the appropriate role for a public broadcaster? And how can high-quality journalism and drama be protected and nurtured when government won’t give enough money, and taking the advertising dollar risks skewing the organisation’s whole purpose?

Is Mark Scott the kind of man who can find some answers to these questions? Nothing in his curriculum vitae suggests so. Let’s hope he surprises us.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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