New media is set to hit the big time at Aunty.

The ABC has made a major announcement today that marks out its future direction, highlights new sources of revenue from commercial activity, anticipates the creation of several new digital television channels and positions local radio newsrooms to produce video and television content.

The announcement is groundbreaking, and the first clear sign of the stamp new Managing Director Mark Scott is making on the national broadcaster. Typically for the ABC it has all been cast as a reshuffling of the bureaucracy.

The Digital and New Media Division, presently under Director Lynley Marshall, is to be dissolved with the aim of moving new media into the mainstream. The News and Current Affairs Division will be responsible for ABC News Online and the Television Division will be responsible for both the main ABC channel and ABC2, with a brief to prepare for the launch of new channels.

This follows the Federal Government lifting the onerous “genre restrictions” on public broadcaster multi-channels, which was one of the few good bits of Senator Helen Coonan’s media package late last year.

ABC Radio will become the Radio and Regional Content Division, meaning that the radio newsrooms across the nation will become hubs for digital content, including video online and television programming.

This is a smart move, recognising the great strength of the ABC in a media world where there are two parallel trends: globalisation and localism. Already the ABC’s “backyard” material is among the most popular on its websites, at a time when commercial radio and television is increasingly cynical and mean in its approach to local news, as Media Watch has chronicled.

The most controversial part of the announcement is likely to be the creation of a new division, ABC Commercial, under Lynley Marshall, which will absorb the old ABC Enterprises and have a particular brief to digitalise and exploit the great wealth of material in the archives.

The head of ABC Enterprises, Robyn Watts, has resigned. No doubt thereby hangs a tale but deadlines today don’t permit the chasing of this angle. Watch this space.

What will exploiting the archives mean? First, much more is likely to be available for downloading and streaming on the internet – but there will be a price. Podcasts and vodcasts from the ABC are free at present, but the organisation is considering charging. The ABC has looked at the BBC, which allows streaming and downloading of content for free for a seven-day period after initial broadcast and charges after that.

This could be a major new revenue source, increasing the broadcaster’s independence from government and funding new quality content. But the move will anger those who believe the ABC should be a commercial virgin.

They argue the taxpayer has already paid for the content and should not have to pay again. ABC management counters by pointing out that people already pay for archival content on DVDs and CDs at ABC shops.

What might the new ABC digital television channels carry? Various options are being considered, but a channel devoted to children’s content is almost certain, and one idea being kicked around is a new “citizenship” channel. Local and regional content will also be important.

Meanwhile an Innovation Division under broadcaster Ian Carroll has been created answering directly to Scott. This will be the “incubator” for experiments and new approaches.

To match the emphasis on localism, an International Division has been created under the current Director for Corporate Strategy and Communications, Murray Green, who will keep his present responsibilities but pick up Radio Australia and the Australia Network as well.

All in all, it’s big. Not quite as bold or brave as what the BBC did early last year, when it announced it was moving “Beyond Broadcasting” and into the new digital age of on demand content – but certainly a move in broad sympathy with the British sibling.

The ABC plans to recapture the initiative in the Australian new media scene. The national broadcaster was a pioneer but in recent years has lost some of its gloss as the commercial media has raced to catch up.

One of the key questions facing the ABC has been to find a role for a taxpayer funded public broadcaster in the new age of media plenty. This announcement moves the organisation towards finding some answers.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey