It’s a beat-up, says the ABC’s head of television, Kim Dalton, of this story in The Australian today, suggesting that Auntie is about to outsource virtually all of its television production and axe its internal production units.

The reality, Dalton told Crikey this morning, is that the ABC will retain a “mixed production model”. He guaranteed that none of the specialist internal units will be axed, and some will be strengthened. But, he admits, “the area of growth” will be in outsourcing. Or to use his preferred euphemism “a closer relationship with the independent sector”.

What are we to make of this? The facts are that all of the new government funding for content announced in the last budget will go to the independent production sector – but this isn’t news. It was anticipated in the ABC’s own funding submission.

Talking to Crikey this morning Dalton emphasised that the magazine programs – such as Catalyst and Gardening Australia – would continue to be produced in-house.

But Dalton’s speech last week is nevertheless important. On the same day he delivered it, the new independent television production guidelines were posted. We should be quite clear that this is a planned announcement, a declaration of intent and a change of direction.

But the key to assessing whether it is a good or bad thing for viewers is not so much fears about ABC jobs as the nature of the relationships with the freelancers the ABC is using, and the sustainability of the independent television production industry.

Dalton believes regulations mandating Australian content levels on commercial television will come under increasing pressure. This makes the “Australianness” of the ABC all the more important. New content must be commissioned and the “woeful” levels of Australian drama and documentary on the ABC boosted.

Dalton stops short of saying it, but the truth is there simply isn’t enough money. As Crikey reported on Tuesday, on any sensible measure the Government is radically underfunding the ABC.

Ever since Bob Mansfield reviewed the ABC for the incoming coalition Government in 1996, outsourcing has been one of the many focuses of conflict and insecurity at the ABC. Mansfield recommended that the ABC outsource virtually all of its production, save for news and current affairs.

To a large extent, it happened. Most documentaries on the ABC are now independently produced, and it pays to remember that so too have some of the best drama and comedy – such as SeaChange.

The risk of outsourcing is that a capacity to respond in a sustained way to modern Australia is lost.

One of the differences between today’s ABC and the pre-Mansfield version is the lack of continuing, close grained documentaries. Where, for example, is the documentary series about the realities of the modern Australian workplace, or the hospital system?

This is the sort of work that might be done by a properly resourced internal documentary unit, and is harder for independents, who live from hand to mouth, have to worry about international appeal and often have to scrabble for funding from a number of sources.

Producers need security to do their best work, no matter where they are employed. Once, employment by the ABC provided that security. In the modern world, that won’t come again.

Dalton is saying he wants to pay more attention to the sustainability of the independent sector. He is short on specifics, but talks about longer term partnerships and more “strategic” relationships.

What does this mean and how will this work? This will be the key to whether Dalton’s change of direction is a good thing, or a bad.

Peter Fray

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