There was a certain irony yesterday at the ABC.

Head of ABC TV, Kim Dalton, revealed that Courtney Gibson “has been appointed as the Executive Head Content Creation”.

Gibson has been doing well at the ABC since she started in 2003. She has overseen the Arts, Entertainment & Comedy department to produce and commission programs like Spicks and Specks, The Glasshouse, and that stunner, The Sideshow.

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“This newly created position will see Courtney lead and manage all ABC TV’s content development and production across all genres, except Childrens,” Dalton chuffed.

But when she starts, on 5 November, it will be with one hand firmly tied behind her back, since Dalton quietly snuffed the life out of the highly respected Natural History unit in Melbourne, a story broken by The Australian‘s Media section yesterday.

The ABC says today there was no need for a statement as “we are still doing natural history under the direction of Stuart Menzies, Head of Documentaries”.

But not a separate unit. There is a big difference. The documentaries will come from outside, a shame considering some of the awards the unit’s great work has received.

The smothering was done to save money. Dalton wants to out-source as much production at the ABC as possible and natural history TV is expensive, especially to meet the standards of overseas buyers or co-producers.

The last big series (before the current and last one, Australia: Land of Parrots) was with NHK of Japan: The Blue Whale.

To do any wildlife or natural history programs internationally requires a lot of money to be spent on the filming because of the insistence on as much “reality” as possible. That requires endless days of shooting, high “shooting ratios”, lots of editing, slow motion work, computerised edit suites, and high definition cameras, which are very expensive.

Japanese TV networks will not buy anything that is not shot and sold in High Definition formats these days. Just ask the Ten Network.

Dalton was complaining about the $700,000 an hour cost for natural history programs. Well he screened the Bogle Chandler doco last year that ran for more than an hour and it is rumoured to have cost more than a million dollars and been the result of years of hard work by the producer.

Good docos cost a lot of money, as do good dramas.

Natural history rates and rates highly: more than a million viewers on Sunday nights for average productions from the BBC and David Attenborough.

Dalton’s moan about the cost of natural history has echoes of the moans from commercial TV about the cost of local versus overseas programs (o/s programs are always cheaper). That’s why we have local content rules in place.

The ABC took a similar attitude to local drama and allowed its Australian drama content to drop alarmingly because of cost concerns.

ABC TV looks like it is approaching the same position under Dalton and the MD of the place, Mark Scott. If this is their attitude do we need the local content rules extended to the national broadcaster?

They would say ‘no’, the local content will be made outside. But with the same outstanding quality that allows the ABC to join with the BBC, for example, and produce major natural history projects?

The barbarians are inside the gate at Ultimo and swinging wildly.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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