The ABC’s revamped international satellite service to the Asia Pacific, the loftily rebadged Australia Network, kicks off on Monday. There’s a posh launch down at the broadcaster’s Ultimo HQ today.

The ABC won the tender for the publicly-funded $100 million five-year contract in a ferocious battle with the Packer-Murdoch-Stokes backed Sky News late last year, despite fierce lobbying at the highest levels in Canberra by Sky chairman, Sam Chisholm.

The service is the personal baby of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who convinced the PM five years ago to back the service – despite strident opposition from some fellow cabinet ministers – when it launched as ABC Asia Pacific.

Downer stunned the ABC early last year when he declined to take up the option of renewing the ABC Asia Pacific contract, and instead, after heavy lobbying from Chisholm, announced that the service would go to public tender.

The Sky chairman rightly pointed out that Australian taxpayers – if they could actually see the service – might actually object that ABC Asia Pacific’s nightly fare of British drama such as the Six Wives of Henry the VIII, Dalziel and Pascoe, The Real Jane Austen and Hornblower was sending an ambiguous message to its supposed target audience of aspirational Asian nationals.

Sky News – jointly owned by the Seven and Nine Networks and Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB – was the only serious rival in the tender bid, reportedly offering a service heavily based around news and sport but with little ageing British drama.

Chisholm – who had personally lobbied everybody from the PM and Downer to Communications Minister Helen Coonan and Finance Minister Nick Minchin – was absolutely certain he had the deal in the bag. That was until a panel of senior DFAT types – prime ABC audience material – rejected the overtures of a multitude of ministerial advisers and recommended in favour of the national broadcaster.

It’s unclear if the Australia Network’s service will find any resonance amongst the target audience of upwardly mobile Asian viewers – or if it will end up as the world’s most expensive expat TV service. Despite having spent some $90 million of taxpayers funds to date, Crikey understands no qualitative survey of just who is watching – and when – has ever been conducted.

However for those Asian viewers who are watching, this week was their last opportunity to glean what they could of Australian values from the final episodes of Daniel Deronda: “a passionate and intense love story set in nineteenth century England which takes both hero and heroine on a journey of eventual self-fulfilment”.

Instead, the new Australia Network will feature a diet of news and current affairs focused on the Asia Pacific, English-language learning, children’s television including Here’s Humphrey and Play School, Aussie rules and the rugby and a nightly dose of Australian dramas like Blue Heelers, Stingers, All Saints and MDA.

But the spurned Sam Chisholm may not be done yet. Rumours abound that he has convinced fellow board members to proceed with its own rival Australian channel using the already established and widely distributed Star TV platform.

Like the new Australia Network, the Sky News-backed channel would never be expected to make a profit – but for Chisholm, revenge is not without its worth.

Declaration: Christian Kerr has undertaken paid commentary for Sky News Australia

Peter Fray

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