ABC TV head Kim Dalton’s statement that the ABC will remain a “mixed production model” is good to hear, though it’s difficult to see how it will be achieved.

The problem with the current situation is that the ABC is half in, half out of an in-house production model – when you produce all your material in-house, there are significant economies of scale. There are no inflated “management” fees to be paid to private TV producers – who will pad out every budget line item with extra costs (the proverbial “fat” from which I’ve always presumed Tony Squires’s much-missed show took its name). Equipment can be purchased rather than rented, studio space ditto.

When in-house production dips below a certain level, that economy of scale is reversed. Equipment is underused and full-time staff idle. Then they’re got rid of, and commercial hire rates paid. And then it becomes positively economical to outsource production to private producers, who cut budgets relentlessly. Where do they cut from? Not from the management fat…

The government knew it was moving things to this point with its relentless slashing of ABC budgets, so that outsourcing would appear not as a political move, but as a necessarily rational one.

However it must be said that there’s been a cultural change that makes it harder for the ABC to produce in-house – and that’s the demand by comedians, drama producers and others that they be allowed to produce their programs privately and retain some ownership of the product (though the ABC deals with that by enforcing substantial control of rights for anyone who wants to produce for them).

Nevertheless, it was always possible to get people to work much cheaper for the ABC than they otherwise would, both because they want the opportunity to do innovative things, and also because most creative types are leftish and believe in public broadcasting.

If the ABC changes its form much of that “moral capital” will be lost – why work for a quarter of commercial rates, as many will, if it’s just an office with a tape-machine and a button marked “broadcast”?

And what of its world-standard units, like the Melbourne-based natural history department, which is one of the greatest production units in the history of world television, a key innovator in nature broadcasting and an earner of gazillions of dollars in on-sales? Will production capacity be run so low that this unit can no longer be supported? Will the ABC then buy their product from a newly privatised facility at a fraction of the cost – that fraction being about eleven thirds?

Whatever government they voted for, the majority of Australian people never wanted substantial privatisation (as a collation of polls on the matter by Dissent magazine demonstrated). Whatever government they got, it privatised. Having just passed through Scandinavia, where well-run public enterprises have racked up, well, gazillions of surplus for public use – Norway now has $AUD300 billion in oil revenues banked up and invested as publicly managed funds – the idea that we’re better off with the ABC, Qantas, or whatever run by spivs strikes me as laughable. Capital for well-run public companies can always be raised by public bond issues – but that was the road not taken.

After all, joining the board of a public company, post-politics, wouldn’t be much fun would it?

Peter Fray

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